As Barack Obama took on the role of salesman-in-chief for his Jackson Park presidential library last week, he engaged the audience with some blunt assessments of his adopted hometown.
Minority construction job numbers get rigged. Parks on the South Side aren’t always as nice as those on the North Side. Neither are the playgrounds. And the first thing people mention about Chicago is its violence.
Not exactly traditional talking points from the fifth floor of City Hall. That’s where Mayor Rahm Emanuel, already eyeing a 2019 run for a third term, is fine-tuning his political messaging: amenities and spending are being spread across the city, schools are improving, the police department is being reformed and the post-recession economy is booming with construction cranes and the jobs they bring.
Obama’s comments undercut some of that, drawing surprised reactions and applause inside the South Shore Cultural Center at a time when Emanuel could stand to regain support among African-Americans who have soured on him since the 2015 city election amid revelations about the Laquan McDonald police shooting and a federal probe into the department.
“(Obama’s) positions were frank. They are the types of things that we more often have said privately among ourselves, because they are difficult to put out there,” said South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, who chairs the City Council’s Black Caucus. “Now that he’s out of office, he can make those type of statements with ease, and it was refreshing for someone to address them in terms that everyone understands.”
Going forward, it’s a political dynamic to watch. With the presidential library still in the planning stages, how often will Obama be back in Chicago? When he surfaces, will the former president continue to draw attention to the city’s problems or embrace the mayor’s work to fix them? Emanuel, after all, was Obama’s first White House chief of staff, and in turn, the president greatly helped him become Chicago mayor in 2011 with an East Room send-off that ended up in a campaign TV ad.
North Side vs. South Side
The former president volunteering that Chicago’s predominant national image is tied to its surging gun violence doesn’t do Emanuel any favors.
“As somebody who has not been right here in Chicago over the last several years, whenever I visit, I tell people, ‘Chicago has never looked more beautiful. It has never sparkled more,'” Obama said Wednesday. “And yet, if you ask a lot of people outside of Chicago about Chicago, what’s the first thing they talk about? They talk about the violence.”
The mayor already finds his city a frequent target of Republican President Donald Trump for its inability to tamp down the killing, most of it on the South and West sides. Last year, Chicago had 762 homicides, the most in two decades. So far this year, the city has seen a similar rate of killings.
Obama suggested he and Michelle Obama weren’t willing to wait until the library’s completion in 2021 to get started on their work. The couple announced they would start apprentice training programs for young adults and would donate $2 million to summer jobs programs “so that right away young people can get to work, and we can start providing opportunities to all of them.”
The focus on summer jobs programs does endorse one of Emanuel’s approaches to curtailing violence. The mayor, who declined an interview for this story, has increased funding for the city’s program over the past several years.
The Rev. Torrey Barrett, a South Side pastor who attended the library event, said Obama’s willingness to openly discuss the city’s violence and other challenges also tackles a criticism the former president has faced head-on.
“When he was in office, a lot of people criticized him for not doing enough for Chicago, particularly the black community of Chicago,” said Barrett, who is the CEO of KLEO, a community nonprofit in Washington Park. “Now that he’s out of office, it looks like he’s going to use all the weight that he has as an ex-president to address some of these issues that people have criticized him for.”
In his remarks, Obama also made it a point to emphasize how the home for his presidential center, Jackson Park, doesn’t measure up with parks in other areas of the city.
“Jackson Park is beautiful, but let’s face it. … When you drive through the park, it feels different than Lincoln Park does. It feels different than Millennium Park does. It is not used in the same way. It is not accessible in the same way. It does not have features of the same sort. It’s not as good as it could be,” Obama said. “So part of what we said is … how do we transform the park, so it starts looking like Millennium Park and Lincoln Park and thereby stitches the entire city together, so that it’s not things are that way on the North Side and a different way on the South Side?”
Obama made a similar point on inequity when discussing his vision for a children’s playground area at his presidential center. He said he’d like to see features like climbing walls and other activities and programs.
“One of the things I wanted the community to do is look at what they’re doing in places like Brooklyn in their parks, or Seattle in some of their parks, or what they’re doing, frankly, in some of the parks up on the North Side in terms of how to engage young people,” Obama said. “What we want to make sure of is the park is not just a dead zone.”
Sawyer, the 6th Ward alderman, said such statements could pressure the city and Emanuel into doing a better job on the issue.
“The president can acknowledge a disparity does exist between the South and North sides and the West and North sides, and the mayor is starting to have to make accommodations and also acknowledge the disparity exists,” Sawyer said. “I think the mayor is being pushed to make these changes. … The president’s comments help that.”
A narrative that the South and West sides lack top-quality parks and amenities cuts against some of Emanuel’s efforts on those issues.
The mayor frequently points to his Chicago Plays! program that he says built or renovated hundreds of playgrounds in neighborhoods across the city. Emanuel has been quick to point out he was the first mayor to place public art along the lakefront on the South Side. He’s also highlighted the soaring suspension bridge along 35th Street, connecting Bronzeville to Burnham Park along the lakefront, which he has suggested is so beautiful it makes Lincoln Park envious.
Barrett, who has supported Emanuel, applauded second-term efforts such as hiring businesswoman and former U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp as deputy mayor and an effort to siphon off money from downtown developments for neighborhood projects. But Barrett also thinks the spotlight on Obama’s library will push Emanuel to do more.
“If you’re going to be attracting people from all over the world to the South Side, you’re forced to invest in it so people who come here are safe, have options and are able to take full advantage of the area,” he said. “The president is making a charge, and I think the mayor will step up to make sure he meets that demand.”
‘Cook the numbers’
Obama also waded into the longtime Chicago controversy of minority contracting, with city ordinances requiring a certain percentage of public contracts to be dedicated to women- and minority-owned firms.
“We will exceed whatever historic or legal goals have been mandated in terms of minority- and women-owned business participation,” Obama said. “I also want to point out, though, that — and again, this is from somebody who lives here — you know you can cook the numbers to make it look like people are participating. I mean, that’s just true. I’m sorry.”
The former president’s comment about minority jobs cuts to an ongoing problem for Emanuel.
Black aldermen routinely complain the city is failing to bring enough African-American-owned businesses and black employees in on lucrative city contracts. The mayor mustered the bare minimum of 26 City Council votes last fall to let him borrow up to $3.5 billion to bankroll aviation projects, with several black aldermen saying they voted against the measure to send a message that the Aviation Department must do more to make sure the firms that get the bond work have minorities well-represented on their staffs.
At the same time, Obama said his foundation would not hire firms just because they are run by African-Americans, Latinos or women.
“If we have to choose between somebody who is not a woman- or minority-owned vendor and who does really great work and is going to make this whole thing terrific, and somebody who’s raggedy, we will choose the folks who do the work,” Obama said to a loud roar of laughs.
Sawyer said that remark drew a joke from Emanuel.
“I was sitting next to the mayor, and when the president made his statement about raggedy businesses, the mayor said, ‘Alderman, do you really think I could say that at the City Council?’ I said, ‘No, you shouldn’t, and you better not either,'” Sawyer said with a laugh.
While Obama’s airing of Chicago problems may make things uncomfortable at times for Emanuel, tying himself to Obama’s legacy helps the mayor politically. Emanuel introduced Obama at the library event and spoke wistfully about his former boss’ time in the White House and of his influence in Chicago — something the mayor said he sees frequently when visiting schools to teach civics classes.
“Invariably, there is always a photo of the president or a quote of his, just like if you go to Boston, there is always a picture or a quote from John F. Kennedy, their favorite son,” Emanuel said. “It’s a sign of a strong connection we all have to our friend, our president. President Obama’s contributions to the city of Chicago are already immeasurable, and his legacy is just beginning.”
In his first bid for mayor in 2011, Emanuel aired ads with highlights of Obama praising him at his White House departure ceremony as outgoing chief of staff. In the mayor’s 2015 re-election bid, Obama cut a radio ad for the mayor and visited Chicago days before the election to embrace Emanuel’s re-election bid and announce the Pullman district would become a national monument.
Barrett said he believes Emanuel will continue to benefit from his association with the president, even if Obama draws attention to the city’s challenges under the mayor.
“It shows that while there are some things that have happened, the president still supports him as the mayor of the city he’s called home and the city of his library,” Barrett said. “Will that sway everyone? Probably not, but as he continues to do what’s needed and makes investments, I think he’ll be successful again, and I think his relationship with the president will continue to help in the black community.”
Chicago Tribune’s John Byrne contributed.
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