COMMENTARY: Chicago will remember Emanuel as he was, not as he wants


Ashlee Rezin via AP

Rahm Emanuel bids farewell as he leaves the mayor’s office for the final time.

Rahm Emanuel walked out of his City Hall for the final time as mayor of Chicago on Friday. The paintings depicting an industrial Chicago that hung on the walls of his fifth-floor office were gone. The room he had occupied for eight years looked barren, cold and empty.

A political heavyweight who ruled the White House as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, who loomed large in the halls of the House of Representatives as a congressman, Emanuel left office clutching his damaged, but mostly intact legacy.

Throngs of people cheered in the lobby of City Hall as he shook what might be the final hands of his political career (he equivocates when reporters have asked him if he will ever seek elected office again). Even George Blakemore, the City Hall gadfly who launches into anti-machine tirades at board meetings, gave Emanuel a hug and a high-five as a send-off.

Emanuel spent the final weeks of his time as mayor trying to cement his legacy — or at least, his version of it. Reporters questioned him on the most controversial moments of his tenure, like the withholding of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, the decision to close 50 schools in mostly low-income neighborhoods and the spotty use of TIF money.

Emanuel, ever the politician, had a rehearsed, three-part answer for everything. He knew that if he didn’t speak up, his name would always be mentioned in the same breath as his missteps.

I led the charge on police reform, not resisted it, he’d say. The decision to close schools helped communities, not hurt them.

To be fair to Emanuel, he was dealt a pretty bad hand. His predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley, left the city with a financial mess that forced Emanuel to raise taxes, the bulk of which fell on Chicagoans who needed a higher tax burden like they needed a new addition to the Riverwalk — not at all.

And while the decision to close schools was unpopular, Chicago Public Schools are now graduating more students than when he was elected and test scores have improved. But by shuttering 50 schools in one fell swoop in 2013, mostly in already-neglected neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, Chicagoans felt ignored. Again.

But the one thing that will mar his legacy more than any other is his handling of the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke. For almost a year, Emanuel refused to release the dashcam video showing the now-infamous 16 shots. He said that the matter was under investigation, but was eventually compelled to release it by a Cook County judge.

When the footage was released, it shocked the entire country. People wondered why Emanuel hadn’t just fired Van Dyke immediately. A $5 million settlement the city paid to McDonald’s family before a lawsuit was even filed sparked accusations of a cover-up. In the years between McDonald’s death and Van Dyke’s second-degree murder conviction, it became a rallying cry for activists: “16 shots and a cover-up.”

Emanuel has remained adamant that there was no cover-up. He insists he was just following protocol.

But it’s easy to blame the system, especially when it’s as broken as Chicago’s. It wasn’t Emanuel’s fault that Van Dyke decided to fire 16 shots at McDonald as his back was turned to him. But it is his fault for not taking a stand right then and there. In his refusal to take action, he became another worn-down cog in a broken machine.

The mayor was so cozy with the corporate players in Chicago that he was not-so-affectionately nicknamed the “CEO of Chicago.” His critics said he was too focused on bringing big business to the Loop, often at the expense of the neighborhoods.

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has positioned herself as Emanuel’s opposite. She says she will focus on people, rather than business, and promises to help neighborhoods that felt left behind in the Emanuel years.

Talk is cheap, especially in Chicago. Lightfoot got elected with 73 percent of the vote and won all 50 wards in the city, so people like her right now. People are generally optimistic she will deliver the change she promised.

But Chicagoans are a skeptical and unforgiving bunch, mostly because we’ve heard that shtick before. We heard it from Emanuel, from both Daleys, from Jane Byrne, and everything stayed the same or got worse. Lightfoot set the bar high for herself, and if she doesn’t clear it, she could find herself doing an Emanuel-esque PR blitz during her own exit from the fifth floor.