By AARON GETTINGER
Every politician in Chicago began a recalibration of their political options in light of the newly wide-open race to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced on Sept. 4 that he would not seek reelection. One of the most noteworthy doing this is Toni Preckwinkle, a political presence in Hyde Park for decades now serving as the Cook County Board President and Democratic Party Chairwoman, who is widely expected to pursue the office.
An official announcement of her intentions, however, did not come by Herald press time on Monday. Preckwinkle’s Political Director Scott Kastrup said she is “giving serious consideration” to a run for mayor and will announce a decision “shortly.”
“Chicagoans know that no one has worked more effectively than Toni Preckwinkle to strengthen access to affordable healthcare, confront gun violence as a public health crisis and reform our criminal justice system,” Kastrup said. “She’s been a public servant in this city for over 25 years — she has a unique understanding of the importance, responsibilities and hard work of the Mayor’s office.”
For her part, Preckwinkle issued a brief statement last week expressing surprise at Emanuel’s decision and thanking Emanuel for his past and present political service.
Indeed, almost everyone, from Hyde Parkers on the street to the most seasoned observers of what Mike Royko deemed this city’s “long and wild-eyed history,” were shocked by Emanuel’s announcement, but first-take perspectives of the looming conclusion of his mayoralty varied wildly depending on who was speaking.
“I think everything about his political history expresses a willingness to press onward and fight hard,” said William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago. “He’s a young man, and, by virtue of being the incumbent, he stood a good chance at being reelected.”
Elected as “a stalwart Obama supporter in an Obama town,” Howell said Emanuel will leave office burdened by the Laquan McDonald killing, the ongoing controversy over his closing of 50 public schools and repeated attacks by President Donald Trump ostensibly over the city’s epidemic of violence.
“It has a very different feel to it,” Howell said — but while Emanuel has not been perfect, “it would be wrong to attribute his failure to meet the expectations we had of him exclusively to his personal failings.”
In an emotional press conference on the fifth floor of City Hall, Emanuel said he had been elected to get things done and “pass the torch when we’ve done our best to do what you hired us to do.”
Within 30 minutes, former President Barack Obama issued a statement calling his one-time chief of staff “a tireless and brilliant public servant.”
“With record job growth and record employment over his terms in office, Chicago is better and stronger for his leadership, and I was a better president for his wise counsel at a particularly perilous time for our country,” Obama said. “Whatever he chooses to do next, I know he’ll continue to make a positive difference, just as he has throughout his career in public service.”
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who also serves as Fifth Ward Democratic Committeewoman, told the Herald she was shocked about Emanuel’s decision. Though she stressed how early the mayoral election season is, Hairston said the next mayor will need to have fiscal responsibility, creativity and an ability to work with aldermen and the neighborhoods they represent.
“I’m looking for somebody who is committed to the City of Chicago — to all Chicagoans — who will focus on all the neighborhoods that need the most attention so we can become one Chicago,” she said.
Ald. Sophia King (4th) wished the Emanuel family well in a statement.
“At this time we must continue to engage community leaders as we transition from one administration to the next,” she said. “I look forward to participating in that dialogue and representing the interests of the Fourth Ward throughout this process.”
In a city dominated for decades by white mayors from Bridgeport — the two Richard Daleys’ 43-year rule interrupted by the variously truncated terms of Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne, Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer — Howell said Emanuel’s exit may indicate a transition away from dynasties, towards a political system wherein mayors normally serve but two or three terms.
“My own opinion is that, that might be very healthy for the city,” Howell said. “Political dynasties can have the effect of eroding political accountability, and political accountability is crucial for the performance of government and representation of interests.”
Citizens on the streets of Hyde Park responded to the news through the myriad apprehensions that bear upon Chicago from all sides. Last Tuesday afternoon, Paul Burns admonished Emanuel for his record with the black community from a bench in Harold Washington Park: “He was awful to them; sold all their schools; crime is up.”
Outside of the Sip and Savor coffee shop, 5301 S. Hyde Park Blvd., Terrence Cleveland said he could support Chance the Rapper, the Chatham-born son of a former Washington and Obama aide, for mayor. With President Trump, he said, “I’m pretty sure anybody can get in any office.” He attacked Emanuel for the mass incarceration of black men and the recent police “bait trucks” scandal in Englewood and called for more opportunities in education and jobs to stem the exodus of the black Chicagoans into the South Suburbs and Southern states.
Under the 53rd Street Viaduct, Savannah Mooney said she was happy to see Emanuel go but unsure the next mayor would be an improvement.
“I just think that a lot of the issues that need to be addressed in this city — like infrastructure and public housing, people not having space or means to live here — the way all that’s being addressed and not addressed seems messy,” she said. “I just think that on a larger scale, none of the parties are addressing the actual, physical problems that people are struggling with as we’re moving forward.”
Howell urged taking time before surveying the new lay of the land ahead of the February mayoral elections. Of the candidates, “I think the early rhetoric is likely to be that they will pay attention to people who’ve been forgotten and offer a new kind of leadership,” he said, calling it the typical political strategy aspiring politicians take after a powerful official steps down.
Ultimately, Howell predicted that Emanuel’s legacy will be mixed: he entered office with “great promise” and “a very tough set of circumstances” — the budget, pension reform, Chicago’s declining population and tax base — and “had to clean up more than his fair share of messes.”
On the matter of the school closures, “While he is justifiably called to talk about how he made that policy change, that he was willing to tackle that change is to his credit.”
“Much depends on what the next mayor does,” said Howell, “how long he or she stays in office and how much he or she chooses to build on Emanuel’s work or go in a new direction.”