CHICAGO — Clutching the hand of his wife amid a gathering political storm, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shocked his city Tuesday by announcing that he would drop his bid for a third term in office.
“This has been the job of a lifetime, but it is not a job for a lifetime,” Emanuel said in a brief statement at City Hall. “I’ve given my all every day and left everything on the field. This commitment has required significant sacrifice all around.”
The statement was a stark admission of how much politics has changed since the days when Democratic leaders more easily controlled Chicago through a centralized system of patronage and personal relationships. His departure also comes amid broader challenges from the left to the Democratic political establishment nationally. Richard J. Daley, the father of Emanuel’s predecessor, served as mayor for 21 years until his death in 1976.
With six months to go before the primary election, Emanuel, 58, had been fighting for his political life, with a crowded field of potential challengers that is now likely to grow with his name off the ballot. Criticism has been mounting over Emanuel’s handling of unrelenting gun violence, police misconduct and an economic strategy that some say favors the rich.
Weekend surges in shooting victims this summer had sparked yet another wave of public protests among the people in this city who are affected the most: residents of the South and West sides, areas that represent at least two-thirds of the city and are populated by a majority of blacks and Hispanics.
Three thousand people protesting the violence brought traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway to a halt in July; a smaller march shut down Lake Shore Drive in August; and a third march blocked a ramp to the Kennedy Expressway on Labor Day morning. Protest organizers wanted Emanuel out because they said he is tone-deaf to the normalizing of gun violence in their neighborhoods.
Until this week, Emanuel had answered his critics by building a campaign war chest of more than $10 million, five times the total of his challengers. He had hired campaign staff, and his aides sought to quash reports that he might not pursue more time in the job.
But in private conversation, he told one friend he felt he was losing his edge. In recent days, he and his wife, Amy Rule, dropped the youngest of their three children off at her first year in college.
“You are on 24-7. It is not a machine town anymore,” said David Axelrod, a longtime Emanuel friend who helped recruit him to become President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff. “He said to me, ‘If I could run for a year-and-a-half term, I would do it, but not a four-year term.’ ”
Obama and former president Bill Clinton both released statements Tuesday praising Emanuel’s accomplishments, which long ago became the stuff of political legend.
His aggressive, foul-mouthed style during the Clinton years inspired the character Josh Lyman on “The West Wing,” a television drama about the White House. Emanuel lost part of his middle finger in a meat slicing accident as a child, and Obama once joked that the injury had “rendered him practically mute.”
As a congressman, Emanuel led the successful 2006 Democratic effort to regain control of the House, and he later shepherded the passage of Obama’s first-term agenda, including the Affordable Care Act, as White House chief of staff.
“I’ve been blessed to call Rahm my friend,” Obama said Tuesday in his statement. “Whatever he chooses to do next, I know he’ll continue to make a positive difference, just as he has throughout his career in public service.”
In Chicago, Emanuel had found clear victories harder to achieve. One event that has become a major drag on his legacy is set to go to trial on Wednesday: the murder case of Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who in October 2014 shot teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times while other officers stood and watched.
Critics charged that Van Dyke was part of a systemic policing problem that Emanuel was slow to reform. As a result of the shooting, Emanuel fired the police superintendent, the Cook County state’s attorney lost a bid for reelection, and the Justice Department began an investigation.
Dashboard-camera video of the shooting was released after Chicago’s City Council approved a $5 million settlement with the McDonald family and after Emanuel won his second term for mayor — 13 months after the shooting. Emanuel said the video’s release was delayed to avoid compromising a federal investigation, but the decision led to community suspicion that it wasn’t released earlier because of politics.
“Whether the police are doing the killing or the people on the street are doing the killing, how can we feel safe around here?” said Shekia Robinson, 34, of the city’s South Shore neighborhood. “It’s messed up on both ends.”
Chicago critics of the mayor, including Chancelor Bennett, who goes by the stage name Chance the Rapper, praised grass-roots resistance to Emanuel for forcing him to not seek reelection. “His announcement to not run, however, is not Justice for Laquan McDonald, only convicting murderer Jason Van Dyke can bring that,” Bennett tweeted.
The McDonald killing was not the only scandal that Emanuel had endured. A Chicago Tribune investigation this summer found that Chicago police officers investigated 523 reports of children being raped or sexually abused inside public schools between 2008 and 2017. In most cases, school officials chose to investigate them internally. It also found that the city law department is incentivized to bury damaging information because it also handles lawsuits against the city. Emanuel apologized and promised reforms.
Others criticized Emanuel for ordering the shutdown of 50 public schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods during his first term. Many also said he was too focused on pouring millions of tax dollars into wealthier areas instead of investing in basic services and infrastructure in the places that need them most.
“He just doesn’t understand about our side of the tracks. Through his policy decisions, we see and feel that,” said the Rev. Gregory Livingston of New Hope Baptist Church. “When you segregate people, one side has insulation but the other side has desperation.”
Emanuel’s administration said the characterization was unfair.
“We have laid out ideas and plans and have taken real action to invest in our neighborhoods to make a meaningful difference all across the city,” said Adam Collins, Emanuel’s spokesman, before the mayor’s announcement Tuesday. “We haven’t just talked the talk, we’ve walked the walk to make those investments, from public safety to community development to parks to schools to libraries.”
Emanuel’s allies have boasted of his accomplishments: raising the minimum wage by nearly 50 percent to $13 by July 2019, pressuring state lawmakers for tougher gun laws, adding more than 200 hours to the school year, lowering the city’s budget deficit, investing in programs that helped elementary students meet or exceed standards for math, $55 million in grants for small-business growth and jobs, and a citywide Bikeshare program.
“For individuals to say the mayor isn’t doing enough to invest in the community or invest in the people is an easy political shot, but it’s not based in reality,” said Alderman Ray Lopez, who said his ward received $2.5 million in lighting improvements and $800,000 in grants to help small businesses. “It’s quite the opposite.”
At the moment, there are at least eight contenders for the February primary, including Garry McCarthy, the police superintendent Emanuel fired after the Van Dyke shooting; former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot; and former Chicago Public Schools superintendent Paul Vallas. Because candidates for mayor must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win, Emanuel would likely have faced a runoff election in April.
The field is likely to attract more challengers with Emanuel out of the picture. Obama administration veterans such as former education secretary Arne Duncan, former White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, the brother of Emanuel’s predecessor, have been mentioned as possible candidates. A spokesman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is not running for another term in that job, did not immediately respond to a question about her interest in the mayor’s office.
Emanuel said Tuesday that he expects to serve outside the political arena. At times, he became emotional when describing the sacrifices made by his family, particularly his wife, so that he could pursue his career.
“Amy and I are still young, and Amy still looks it. And we look forward to writing that next chapter in our journey together,” he said, before picking up a theme that Obama embraced as he left office in 2017. “I will always be here for the future of this city, not as mayor but in the most important role anyone can play — as a citizen.”
Guarino is a freelance reporter. Scherer reported from Washington.