A kinder and gentler Rahm Emanuel was on display at The Chicago Tribune’s “Tribnation” interview series, on Tuesday, with the Chicago mayor’s live interview with Bruce Dold, chief editor of the paper’s editorial page, and the fifty-four year old Emanuel, who was at pains to present himself both as a family man, along with regular observance of the Sabbath, as the city’s first Jewish mayor.
Held in the Rubloff Auditorium of The Art Institute of Chicago, his appearance was a marked departure from the usual hard-bitten profile, and swagger, that the public normally sees; and the predominately white, and affluent crowd, that filled the auditorium ate it up – replete with his jesting with Dold over trips to local pubs and his love of wine and micro-brews.
But, there was a reason for this portrayal – Emanuel, even without having to face Karen Lewis, Chicago Teachers Union president, who has dropped out of next year’s mayoral race due to illness, has some dismal ratings in the polls. As far back as August, the Christian Science Monitor noted that “just 35 percent of likely voters approve of his performance as mayor, a sharp drop from his 50 percent approval rating in May 2013 and 52 percent in May 2012.”
During the interview he was forced to admit that his ratings were low and tried a valiant joking reference to both Harry Truman and George Bush whose second term averages were 36.5 percent, which brought a few embarrassed laughs. And, while both had families in the White House, the prospect of never having to face the polls again, may have solaced them. But Emanuel faces an uphill battle with high rates of violence, (although they are lower than in the mid 1960s), a persistently high murder rate and the closing of 50 schools in predominately black neighborhoods; a fact that has cost him significant support in the black community – whose votes had helped bring him into office, and who now are angry at what they see as disregard and disingenuous attitudes toward their basic concerns.
The Huffington Post noted, at the end of last month, that black “support has fallen sharply, according to recent polls. About one in four black voters now approves of Emanuel’s performance, according to a Chicago Tribune poll released in mid-August.”
Emanuel’s charm may have eluded the black community – about a third of the city’s population – since few were present at the event, and his well-intentioned references to taking a daughter to the Joffrey Ballet and teaching the other to drive, and still have time to hit local watering holes might seem a bit elitist to a community that faces low unemployment.
Perhaps sensing this disconnect, he said after touting the city’s magnificence and the museum’s rating as the most popular for international tourists, that “not everyone is benefiting from the post-recession gains in employment, “ and that there is “real angst and frustration,” for many families.
Emanuel soldiered on, for nearly 90 minutes, as he told about “this woman who came up to me and thanked me for the bike patrol, and how her older son could take his little brother to the park.” But, “without Garry (McCarthy, the police superintendent) here,” he couldn’t really address the national crime stats that blot the city’s reputation.
Perhaps his biggest coup for the evening was when he announced that any Chicago high school student with a 3.0 average could attend any of the city’s community colleges tuition free, which drew swift and thunderous applause.
Emanuel in a turn about from his previous strong support for charter schools praised neighborhood schools, and especially those with the international baccalaureate program and whose curricula included science and technology education emphasis. The departure was marked as even as Candidate Emanuel he praised repeatedly the high scores of charter schools and that they were the way
In September of 2012, he pushed for more charter schools to be built, or established – as much as 60, and they were definite, if unacknowledged factor in the seven-day teachers strike, and had the financial backing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
With test scores as the benchmark, Chicago neighborhood schools have outperformed charter schools, a fact that perhaps may have attributed to the mayor’s change – at least publicly. In 2011, “95 charter schools performed only slightly better than the city’s 675 public schools, according to state records. Of charter students tested, 76.9 percent met state standards, while 73.9 percent of their public school counterparts met standards,” noted the Tribune at the time.
Cited as driving resources, away from the neighborhood schools, had also been well-publicized and the city’s alternative press, The Chicago Reader, has had a field day noting the expense and the irony of the high number of closings on Emanuel’s watch, “the largest single school closure in US history,’ according to the website, Truthout.
But, Emanuel faltered when asked, via Twitter, by local blogger Kyle Hillman, why the Gale School in Rogers Park is woefully underfunded, faced such severe budget cuts and has no librarian, and no after school programs. This school is located in Ald. Joe Moore’s district – 49th – who as a staunch supporter of Emanuel recently blocked on procedure a referendum for the city ballot on whether or not Chicago schools should have an elected school board, versus the hand-picked one that the mayor presides over. Critics charge Moore and Emanuel with a desire to hide certain facts about the mayor’s education policies. Moore also blocked the vote back in 2012, and faced a firestorm of criticism.
The mayor also touted that the increase in schools has been evident with such scores as a record high school graduation of 82 percent, and that there is a corresponding increase in reading and math scores for Chicago public school students. In late August he also reported that “For the 2013-14 school year, CPS said the five-year graduation rate for students was 69 percent, 4 points higher than in the previous year.”
His statistics are based on a “a University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research[which] reported that 82 percent of last year’s CPS high school freshmen were on track to graduate, an increase of 25 percent from 2007, largely due to the district’s efforts to decrease the number of ninth-graders failing courses.”
Jointly authoring an article with Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, for the Chicago Sun-Times, in late summer, they wrote: “We know that the early years are the most important for learning. For the first time in history, approximately 30,000 CPS kindergarten students are attending school for a full day. And to make sure that all children start school ready to learn, 75 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in Chicago whose families live below the poverty level now have access to quality preschool programs. We have committed the City of Chicago to achieving universal preschool access for all of its children in poverty.”
This along with increasing high school graduation rates has been a national trend as has been the now widespread touting of pre-K education, which New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has also touted, and in a well-publicized move wants to tax the city’s wealthy elite to pay for the plan, an effort which cash-strapped Chicago has not seen, and perhaps Emanuel may not want to consider in a tax year and also from a class that has some large financial donors.
Dold prodded Emanuel, gently, as to the change, and in a humble tone, he answered that he wanted all parents to have a choice in choosing their children’s schools. This was definitely a smart move by the mayor to not only defray criticism of his hitherto support for charter schools, but also to re-frame the argument in favor of choice, parental choice, and that as a parent he understood.
But, if all of this seems more like stagecraft than statecraft, it should also be remembered that this is an election year, and one that the Democrats may lose their majority in the US Senate, and thus the plethora of political celebrities from the high-wattage glamour of the First Lady Michelle, to the pan-international status of Hillary Rodham Clinton, (who, in a cozy moment, Emanuel revealed that she had sent him a plethora of pictures of daughter Chelsea’s baby, Charlotte), have come to town to show unlimited support for fellow Democrat, Gov. Pat Quinn.
While the portrayal of the powerful and formidable Clinton as a warm and fuzzy grandmother might make some wince, polls show that Quinn and rival Bruce Rauner at a dead heat, and a recent poll reported in Thursday’s Sun-Times showed a virtual dead heat with Rauner leading by 48 percent and Quinn by 47, and it further supports that the stakes are very high for Emanuel to succeed to another term, to work with a Democratic governor, and for Illinois to remain a blue state.