RAHMGO: Assessing Emanuel’s decision not to run, and his record as Chicago’s first Jewish mayor

As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel prepares to exit City Hall after eight years in office, his Jewish supporters tout his commitment to helping people and his record of economic development in the city.

His Jewish detractors, meanwhile, call out his closing of dozens of Chicago public schools and scandal in the city’s police department following the killing of an African-American teen by a white cop.

But they agree on one thing: The fact that he was the city’s first Jewish mayor was a non-issue either way. He hasn’t faced significant anti-Semitism, nor do his Jewish backers say they support him because of his religion.

“We’re living in an era where a city that has many different ethnic groups and minorities, and people feel very passionately about their group, can elect a white Jewish mayor,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who led Emanuel’s Orthodox synagogue, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, for his first two years as mayor. “Deep down, we can put our differences behind us.”

Not that Emanuel has ever tried to downplay his Judaism. He was raised in an involved Jewish family, with an Israeli father, and has remained active in Jewish circles as an adult.

When he announced that he wouldn’t seek a third term, Emanuel paid homage to his Jewish background.

“I want to thank my grandfather, who at the age of 13, took an enormous chance a century ago by immigrating here from Eastern Europe, fleeing the pogroms, to meet a third cousin he did not know in a city whose name he could not pronounce,” Emanuel’s announcement said. “In four congressional runs on the North and Northwest Sides — and in two races for Mayor — you cast aside old history and voted for a Jewish kid with the middle name Israel.”

In deciding to leave after two terms, Emanuel surprised a city with a history of strongman mayors. Emanuel, who stepped down as White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama to run in 2011, won re-election in 2015, though he was forced into a runoff. And he’s had a contentious tenure.

Emanuel expanded the city’s pre-kindergarten and lengthened its school day, but also led the largest bout of school closings in Chicago history and confronted a teachers’ strike. He renovated the city’s riverwalk, began an expansion of the airport and oversaw a spike in construction downtown, but gun violence has continued to plague the South Side.

And his announcement came in the shadow of a murder trial of a policeman who shot Laquan McDonald, an African-American teen, in 2014. The fallout from the shooting prompted a federal investigation of the Chicago PD, which found a pattern of discrimination.

Indeed, Jane Byrne consigliere Don Rose said he believes the upcoming trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke is one of the big reasons he thinks Emanuel made the right decision.

“I would give him a lot of reasons not to run,” said Rose, one of Chicago’s top political advisors. “I’d tell him what a difficult road was ahead. There’d be a miserable four years ahead. He’s got troubles no matter how (the Van Dyke trial) turns out. But the trial itself would be an impediment to him. Sure.”

Close confidant David Axelrod, one of the few to know of Emanuel’s decision in the days prior to his announcement, told the Associated Press that Emanuel knew full well the timing in relation to the Van Dyke trial.

Emanuel pulling the plug on his administration coincidentally preceded the start of jury selection for Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who pumped 16 bullets into Laquan McDonald in 2014. All the while, Van Dyke and McDonald were being recorded on a video, potentially the incendiary equal of Rodney King’s in Los Angeles 23 years previously.

Even if the community and police keep a damper on potential disturbances after the eventual Van Dyke verdict, a follow-up trial of his companion officers is scheduled later in the fall. How they may have covered up the incident would tie into City Hall decisions – coming out under scrutiny during the trial — not to release the damning video until after Emanuel won his second term in 2015.

Rahm Emanuel announces he will not be running for a third term.

With Chicago’s murder rate making national headlines already on his record, Emanuel might be hard-pressed to win re-election in a crowded field.

“Rahm faced a tough race in 2019, and used good judgment in his decision,” said Newton Minow, former FCC commissioner under President John F. Kennedy who, like Rose, has dovetailed with Chicago mayors since the first term of Richard J. Daley.

Putting Emanuel’s dilemma in perspective was Paul Rosenfeld, the 47th Ward Democratic committeeman:  “I believe Rahm Emanuel realized that the second worst thing that could happen if he ran for re-election was that he could win. Being mayor of Chicago takes a huge toll on a person and Rahm gives 1,000 percent to whatever he is doing.”

Interestingly, one Jewish political observer thought Emanuel made a subtle comeback from the 2015-16 depths of his political despair when the McDonald video was finally released and the epidemic of gang-related shootings turned the inner city into the Wild West.

“If you talked to me two, three years ago and asked me if he’d run again, I thought he was done,” said West Rogers Park native Aaron Goldstein, 33rd Ward Democratic committeeman and former Illinois attorney general candidate.

“After Laquan, it seemed like no way he could recover. Since that time, things have been quiet. He’s been relatively low-key. He improved his image by being out of the spotlight. He was a high-profile mayor when he started. Then nothing but bad publicity.

“(Lower profile) was a strategy and it was the right strategy. Things on a political front stabilized. All these people were running against him — but no one was a strong candidate, none have a lot of money. Most polls had him winning.”

But a Van Dyke acquittal  — a possibility with the traditional jury reluctance to convict police officers of murder — would have thrown everything up for grabs with Emanuel seeking a third term.

“If Jason Van Dyke is acquitted, that would have been the absolute worst result for Rahm,” Goldstein said.  “There would be havoc. Clearly people would be upset, and mad at Rahm. If he dropped out then, it looks like he’s being pushed.”

Beyond the politics of his decision, Jewish observers have mixed reactions to Rahm’s accomplishments as mayor. “With respect to the beautification of the city, the day-to-day workings of the city, the mayor has done an outstanding job,” said Rabbi Capers Funnye of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation on the South Side. Nevertheless, Funnye said he would grade Emanuel’s performance as a B- or C+.

“The issue that overrides everything in the African-American community is the lack of trust between the African-American community, by and large, in Chicago and the police department,” said Funnye, who is African-American, adding that “I don’t know that anyone else could necessarily do a better job.”

Emanuel, 58, was born in Chicago to Jewish parents, including a father who served in the Irgun, a paramilitary Zionist militia in prestate Israel. His first, middle and last names are all Hebrew. He attended Jewish day school as a child and, in 1991, volunteered for a few weeks as a civilian on an Israeli army base. His brother Ezekiel is a prominent physician and bioethicist. Another brother, Ari, is a top Hollywood agent.

After serving in the Clinton White House in the 1990s, Emanuel was elected to Congress from Chicago’s North Side in 2002. He earned a reputation for pugnacity, and eventually rose to become chair of the House Democratic Caucus. In 2009, he departed Congress to serve as Obama’s first chief of staff.

While living in Chicago, Emanuel would attend services at Anshe Sholom and was an outspoken supporter of Israel. Steve Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund, Chicago’s Jewish federation, praised Emanuel as having done a good job in a difficult position.

“There’s no question that there was a sense of community pride in having a Jewish mayor elected in Chicago, coming from a family that was connected to the Jewish community,” Nasatir said.

But Nasatir said the federation’s relationship with this mayor wasn’t much different from its relationships with Emanuel’s predecessors — whether the powerful Richard Daley, who served for more than two decades, or Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor.

“Our relationship with the mayors over the last 40, 50 years, from my perspective has been always outstanding,” he said. “Our relationship with this mayor was very, very good and if there’s a difference, it’s just because you happen to talk to someone who’s a Jew.”

His Jewish allies said Emanuel’s religion would express itself in the priorities he advanced, like trying to make the city more prosperous and improve its education system.

“He’s a very good man, he’s a committed, passionate man,” Lopatin said. “I know how deeply committed he is to doing good in society and making a difference.”

But that feeling is far from universal among Chicago Jews. Liberal activists say he didn’t help the schools, he gutted them. And they say his focus on economic development didn’t extend to the African-American communities of the South Side.

“Rahm was the furthest thing we’ve ever had from a Jewish leader, from a Jewish mayor, in the city,” said Tamar Manasseh, a Jewish activist who runs Mothers Against Senseless Killing, an organization combating gun violence on the South Side. “Rahm espoused no Jewish values whatsoever. He had a connection to a Jewish mother, but not to a Jewish G-d.”

Judy Levey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a Chicago social justice group, said she was excited initially to have a Jew in City Hall. But she said the mayor has not met the group’s expectations when it comes to helping the city’s immigrants, reforming its police department and boosting its poor neighborhoods.

“We looked forward to working with Mayor Emanuel on issues that reflect our Jewish values, such as immigration and police accountability,” Levey said. “While Mayor Emanuel worked successfully to bring white collar jobs and investment to the city, he was much less successful at addressing the deep economic disparities and disinvestment that continue to plague Chicago’s neighborhoods.”

Emanuel at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Whatever his legacy in Chicago, a few people said that they were surprised by Emanuel’s decision to forgo a third term. But Rabbi Jack Moline, who has been described as Emanuel’s rabbi, says Emanuel saw himself serving only two terms when he started, and that he wouldn’t be surprised if Emanuel returns to politics after a short break.

“He has a lot of talent and he has the kind of energy that is necessary to make a difference in the values that he and I share,” said Moline, now the president of the Interfaith Alliance, a liberal religious advocacy group. “I expect that there is another place for him to express that, although I have given up predicting what Rahm Emanuel is going to do.”

“Rahm will never leave politics and will always be involved,” said Minow.

Goldstein sees Emanuel as possibly being the manager of a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign. “No one’s a better fundraiser than him. Say what you want, he’s got the connections and the skill.  I could definitely see that, playing with chess pieces. But I wouldn’t trust him that much on policy advice.”

Another possibility is for Emanuel to run for Dick Durbin’s Senate seat, if the longtime downstater decides to retire. “But Durbin definitely likes to set up his friends,” said Goldstein, and that might not include Emanuel.

Rose believes Emanuel eventually will end up in the world of high finance in which he has many close associates.

“People say he might run for president,” Rose said. “I don’t think he’d try, being so unpopular with unions. You’d have to get past primaries with opposition from teacher unions. Same problem if he ran for the Senate. My sense is he’ll do something in the world of finance.”

Emanuel’s departure leaves no obvious Jewish mayoral candidate in the short term. The only Chicago Jew written up with any connection to the race was GCM Grosvenor CEO Michael Sacks, Emanuel’s close friend, confidant and top campaign donor. But the Chicago Tribune listed Sacks and wife Cari in 2017 as Highland Park residents.

Any future Chicago Jewish mayor would probably have to go the Emanuel route through running for other offices first. There is no Jewish political power base left in the city, as there was on the old West Side, from which the likes of Democratic kingmaker Jacob Arvey sprung.

Emanuel proved his religious background was no bar to citywide office. Although he was proud of his dual immigrant and Israeli roots, he did not wear his ethnic background heavily.

“The door is not closed to having another Jewish mayor of Chicago because there is a lot of talent available, and Chicago voters have open minds,” said Minow.

“It’s not likely it will happen again, but I don’t think it’ll be one-and-done for a Jewish mayor,” said Rose.

But whatever the future holds, Emanuel will always be remembered as the city’s first Jewish mayor. And the odds of him being remembered fondly are better now that he has dropped out of the race.

As David Axelrod said during a round of TV interviews after Emanuel’s announcement, “Better to leave too soon than too late. It’s rarely a mistake to leave too soon. It’s often a mistake to stay too long.”

Chicago Jewish News special correspondent George Castle, and JTA contributed to this report.

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