When former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s name quickly surfaced as a possible transportation secretary in a Joe Biden administration, it came as little surprise to those in the political-media ecosystem.
GOPUSA Editor’s Note: Joe Biden remains uncertified to be the next president as a number of lawsuits challenging the vote count make their way through the courts.
If the longtime Beltway insider didn’t float his own name for a Cabinet spot, he has plenty of friends up to the task. Soon to turn 61 and out of power since abruptly pulling the plug on a bid for a third mayoral term 26 months ago, the TV pundit, investment banker and informal Biden adviser could be looking for a fourth act on the national stage in his third White House.
But it was a trial balloon those on the other side of the centrist-leftist Democratic divide quickly sought to pierce.
Leading the charge was progressive U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. After telling The New York Times that Emanuel would be “a pretty divisive pick” and signal “a hostile approach to the grassroots and the progressive wing of the party,” Ocasio-Cortez responded to a tweet on the subject by WTTW’s Heather Cherone with this: “We must govern with integrity and accountability. Laquan McDonald’s life mattered.”
At once, the very controversies that arguably took Emanuel out of public life were back front and center.
His policy chops and experience in the White House, in Congress and working on transit projects as mayor make him a strong choice to join presumptive President-elect Joe Biden’s team. But Emanuel is lambasted by some Democrats for his reputation as a pro-Wall Street, anti-teachers union centrist, and especially for his handling of the 17-year-old Black teen’s shooting death by a white police officer who went to prison for it.
His second term was dogged by allegations he sought to keep the now-infamous police dashcam video of the incident from coming out until after he won reelection in 2015.
The city Law Department quickly reached a $5 million settlement in April 2015 with the McDonald family in their lawsuit about the shooting, shortly after Emanuel defeated Jesús “Chuy” García in a mayoral runoff election. The Emanuel administration fought against releasing the video until a Cook County judge ordered it in November 2015.
When it came time to clean up the Police Department, Emanuel also drew harsh criticism from reform advocates for his initial stance against a federal consent decree that stemmed from a federal civil rights investigation into the McDonald shooting.
Lori Lightfoot, then president of the Chicago Police Board and co-chair of Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force, said in 2017 that Emanuel’s attempts to strike an out-of-court agreement on police reform with President Donald Trump’s Justice Department were “fundamentally flawed” and set up the Chicago Police Department for failure.
Lightfoot’s public position opposing the mayor helped raise her profile before she announced she was running against him.
Emanuel only agreed to enter negotiations to seek federal court oversight after Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued City Hall for a consent decree.
Northwest Side Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who was elected in 2019 at the same time Lightfoot succeeded Emanuel as mayor, has started an online petition urging Biden not to hire Emanuel. It had received 3,133 signatures by 5 p.m. Friday.
“We think it’s important as Chicagoans, because of the terrible experience we had with him as mayor, to warn the rest of the country they don’t want anything to do with Rahm Emanuel in a Cabinet position,” Rodriguez Sanchez said.
On the national level, Emanuel has consistently counseled the Democratic Party to court moderate swing voters rather than tacking to the left. That has helped earn him a special enmity from progressives.
During a presidential campaign stop in Chicago in 2016, Bernie Sanders ripped the mayor and said he didn’t want Emanuel’s endorsement.
“That is not the kind of support I want,” Sanders said then. “We want the endorsement of the people who are fighting for social and racial justice. We do not want the support of people who are indebted to Wall Street and the big money interests.”
At a time Biden has work to do to convince Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and their backers that he’s progressive enough to earn their backing, tapping Emanuel for a high-profile post won’t help his case.
Emanuel declined to comment about his interest in the job. He sports a track record of spearheading transportation projects, a deep understanding of how to get things done in the Capitol and long working relationships with Democrats and Republicans in Congress. He helped the Democrats regain control of the House in 2006 as the head of the DCCC.
The former top aide in the Clinton and Obama administrations also has a long, close relationship with Biden. Emanuel revealed this spring that he was speaking regularly with the former vice president about economic policy, picking a running mate and taking on President Donald Trump.
Emanuel also enjoys some labor support.
Karen Kent, president of the Unite Here Local 1 union that represents hospitality workers, cleaning and maintenance workers at hotels and in Chicago’s airports, said that as mayor, Emanuel “worked with us to change the lives of thousands of Chicagoans who work in our airports.”
Unite Here Local 1 endorsed Emanuel for reelection in 2015, and Kent said he would make a good transportation secretary. “With his focus on people who work with their hands, Rahm will rebuild lives as America rebuilds its infrastructure,” she said in a statement.
Plus, while many progressives dislike Emanuel, lots of moderate Democrats and Republicans in Congress hold him in much higher regard.
Ray LaHood, the former Republican Congressman from Peoria who was transportation secretary under Obama, has been a longtime friend of Emanuel’s since they served together in the House of Representatives and hosted bipartisan dinners in Washington. When Emanuel was mayor, he tapped LaHood to chair a city transportation task force.
If Biden wants a massive infrastructure bill as part of a COVID-19 relief package, LaHood said “there’s nobody better than Rahm” to pull together the votes to get it passed, particularly if Republicans retain control of the U.S. Senate and Biden’s transportation secretary needed bipartisan support.
“He’s very well-respected throughout Congress,” LaHood said. “He has a lot of friends on the Republican side, and obviously a whole lot of friends on the Democratic side.”
Emanuel also can point to a list of achievements on transportation projects.
As Obama’s chief of staff in 2009, he played an important role in setting Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that pushed the auto industry to make more fuel-efficient cars.
“That was Rahm’s priority, to get that done,” LaHood said. “If he gets named transportation secretary, this is a guy who will get us back on a track to a clean green plan. It’s personally important to him to achieve that, and that’s something people may not know.”
And then as mayor starting in 2011, Emanuel oversaw a series of ambitious CTA renovations and other high-profile transportation-related projects in Chicago, tapping the federal government to help pay for them.
He talked South Side aldermen into backing a risky plan to completely shut down the south leg of the Red Line for months to rebuild it in 2013.
Emanuel then got state legislators and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2016 to let him create special taxing districts to pay for rail projects.
That allowed the CTA to provide a local match for $1 billion in federal money to pay for the renovation of tracks and stations along the Purple Line and the north branch of the Red Line, plus the controversial flyover north of the Belmont Avenue station.
Emanuel also leveraged federal dollars to extend the downtown Riverwalk.
And he jump-started the construction of The 606 elevated park that opened on the North and Northwest sides in 2015.
Less successful was Emanuel’s high-profile 2018 support for Elon Musk’s plan to dig a tunnel for an express transit line from downtown to O’Hare International Airport. That futuristic idea, which Emanuel said would give business travelers the quick, comfy alternative they crave to the CTA Blue Line that already travels to the airport, has gone nowhere.
“His backing of that Elon Musk deal, the fast speed to O’Hare plan, that was the worst idea ever,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “That alone should disqualify him from being transportation secretary.”
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