Of all the names bouncing around as prospects yet to be tapped for the incoming Biden-Harris administration, there’s one triggering intense emotion, especially in his home town.
News that Rahm Emanuel is being considered for transportation secretary or another position in Joe Biden’s cabinet or senior team has sparked outrage among Chicagoans who believe his controversial tenure as mayor of that city should disqualify him from a return to the highest echelons of Washington.
But he’s a divisive figure who long ago upset liberals, most prominently in Washington, by discouraging Obama from pursuing what became his signature legislative achievement – healthcare reform via the Affordable Care Act – and then in myriad ways as mayor of Chicago from 2011 to 2019.
He’s been endorsed by key moderate figures such as Illinois senator and Democratic whip Dick Durbin, ex-transportation secretary and former Illinois Republican congressman Ray LaHood, current congressman Mike Quigley and Chicago South Side alderman Michelle Harris, who described him as “the perfect candidate” for the transportation job.
But prominent progressives in Chicago and elsewhere are livid that Biden would even give his name an airing, accusing Emanuel of exacerbating the city’s entrenched, acute inequalities and, most dramatically, botching the handling of Black teenager Laquan McDonald’s killing by a white police officer in 2014.
Rahm Emanuel “covered up the murder of a young Black man in Chicago in order to advance his political career,” city alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said of his potential appointment.
Dashcam footage of 17-year-old McDonald being gunned down by officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted in 2018 of the murder, was suppressed for more than a year before a judge ordered it released. Emanuel’s role in that delay ignited weeks of local and national protests and calls for his resignation. It left an indelible stain and he didn’t run for a third term.
Eva Maria Lewis, a Chicago artist and organizer as well as the founder of the Free Root Operation, a non-profit fighting poverty-induced gun violence, said that a post for Emanuel in the Biden-Harris administration would mean “people don’t care” what Black Americans have to say.
“You can’t argue against the information, the evidence is all there – 16 shots and a cover-up, everyone knows what that means. He was essentially ousted. People were not going to go for him being in office after the Laquan McDonald cover-up,” she said.
Liberal critics in Chicago are opposed on additional grounds.
Ramirez-Rosa pointed to the infamous closing of 50 Chicago public schools under Emanuel. He added: “He passed policies that balanced the city of Chicago on the backs of working people. I think he’s shown that he is not fit to serve in Biden’s cabinet and really do what needs to be done to undo the harm that was caused by President Trump.”
And he accused Emanuel of focusing on wielding power “on behalf of the interests to billionaires”, including ultra-wealthy Republicans.
Emanuel divested from Chicago’s public education after mandating millions in budget cuts as well as 1,400 layoffs, leading to a dire reduction of school nurses, librarians, social workers, and others. In 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike for the first time in almost 25 years.
The school closures, the most at any one time, were concentrated in majority-black, poorer neighborhoods and disrupted many families’ lives.
“Children had to cross gang territory to get an education. Schools were overcrowded. People were forced to attend dilapidated schools. The budget was not equitably distributed – closing the schools was avoidable,” said Lewis.
Notoriously, Emanuel closed half of Chicago’s public mental health clinicswith most of them concentrated on the South Side. The closings resulted in wide disparities in access to mental health treatment, with 0.17 licensed mental health clinicians for every 1,000 South Side residents versus 4.45 for every 1,000 residents on the city’s wealthier north side. The closing led to a convoluted transition process, with hundreds of unaccounted for patients and overburdened neighboring community mental health providers.
“If you didn’t agree on an issue, he was extremely confrontational. I often had one-way confrontations with him where I would ask him questions that should’ve been asked on different issues – such as the ‘Elon Musk tunnel’,” said Scott Waguespack, alderman of Chicago’s 32nd ward.
He added: “Even asking questions about that was met with pushback from him. He didn’t like anyone questioning his projects like that. That’s what people have to expect.”
Emanuel touted a project with Tesla’s Musk to built a high speed underground transportation system to link downtown to Chicago O’Hare airport, which ultimately failed.
“It was all imagery he put up, that in the long run really had no substance to it,” said Waguespack.
The mayor also created the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, claiming to have secured $1 billion worth of private investment and pledging to create 30,000 jobs over three years. The promises didn’t come to fruition and current mayor Lori Lightfoot has since dissolved the trust.
Overall, Emanuel has a mixed legacy on an ambitious transportation vision for Chicago, credited with expanding walking paths and biking lanes in some neighborhoods, making essential upgrades to Chicago’s public transportation and improvements at O’Hare – but a drive towards sustainability and greater equality in services was missing.
The Guardian contacted Emanuel for comment but did not receive a response.
And there is another constituency whose opposition to a great “Return of Rahm” should give Biden pause – trade unions, including in transportation, whose support was a crucial source of votes in Biden’s win last month.
The Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) called the prospect a betrayal and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, called Emanuel a union buster.
“We didn’t work our asses off to have Rahm Emanuel as the secretary of transportation … he’s anti-trade union, he’s anti-worker,” John Samuelsen, international president of TWU, told the Intercept.
Chicago alderman Ramirez-Rosa concluded that any elevation of Emanuel would be a sign that a Biden administration meant “more of the same” political culture in Washington that has eroded public faith.
He said it would signal that “if you have lobbyists, big donors, or billionaires backing you up, they will be able to put you in that cabinet so you can carry water for them”.
This article originally appeared on The Guardian