On June 14, 2018, Rahm Emanuel, then the mayor of Chicago, joined Elon Musk for an underground press conference in the bowels of the city’s downtown. The location was the site of an abandoned project from the mid-2000s that had been conceived to create a public transit “superstation.”
Here, the two would announce what would become another high-profile transportation boondoggle.
Musk’s aptly named Boring Company had been selected by the Emanuel administration to use its unproven “technology” to build a high-speed transit link between downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport. At the press conference, Emanuel boasted that the project was a sign of the city’s foresight, saying, “Chicago is always on the cutting edge, Chicago is always looking over the horizon to see what’s next.”
But what came next would turn out to be a whole lot of nothing. This would be the last the city would hear from Emanuel and Musk jointly on the plan, and two years later, Chicago has been left with a huge chasm below the city streets and no Chicago Express Loop, as the project was to be called.
The aborted scheme provides a window into how Emanuel governed during his time in public office — cozying up to billionaires, turning to private interests to provide public services and ultimately failing to deliver.
Today, Emanuel is reportedly under consideration by the incoming administration of Joe Biden to serve as a cabinet member, heading the U.S. Department of Transportation. The potential appointment has been met with outrage by progressives in the Democratic Party, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, as well as residents and elected officials in Chicago. Over 5,000 signatures have been gathered on a petition urging Biden not to select their former mayor.
The animus is understandable. In Chicago, Emanuel gained the moniker “Mayor 1 Percent” for his record of serving corporate interests while neglecting the demands of grassroots community groups. And on the national level, Emanuel’s reputation has become toxic within the Democrats’ left flank, which views him as an embodiment of a discredited centrist political approach that’s aligned the party with market forces over the needs of working people.
Emanuel helped pioneer this approach during his time in Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s. There, he co-authored the infamous NAFTA trade deal that fueled the offshoring of jobs, decimated American manufacturing and led to the flatlining of wages that continues today. Other highlights from his time in Clinton’s White House include helping pass welfare reform, a policy that led to a dramatic spike in extreme poverty while accelerating the shredding the U.S. safety net and marshalling the 1994 crime bill that inaugurated our current age of mass incarceration.
After leaving the Clinton administration, Emanuel cashed in on the connections he’d made, going to work in private finance, taking a cushy position in the high-powered world of investment banking where he made an eye-popping $16 million in just two years.
By 2002, Emanuel, aided by his record in Washington and fundraising abilities, won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was quickly elevated to serve as head of the powerful Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). In that position, Emanuel orchestrated what many in the press at the time hailed as a brilliant strategy of recruiting conservative Blue Dog Democrats to run in swing districts, helping the party retake the chamber in 2006. As has since been made clear by Ryan Grim and other journalists covering Democratic politics, however, in reality Emanuel’s strategy cost the party seats in a number of races and helped usher in disastrous losses in the Tea Party wave of 2010 that saw a sea of Blue Dogs lose to Republicans. And it wasn’t just a political failure. Doug Cole, a DuPage County Democratic Party activist, said in 2006 that, under Emanuel, the DCCC was “as autocratic as any ensemble of Republicans.”
In 2009, Emanuel left Congress to serve as chief of staff in Barack Obama’s administration. For his first act, Emanuel did everything in his power to lower the amount of funding in a proposed stimulus package aimed at stabilizing the economy following the financial crash. While a number of Obama’s economic advisers urged for a larger stimulus, Emanuel ultimately won out, and years later the diminished economic jolt was credited with helping lead to a sluggish recovery with most gains going to the top of the income ladder.
This experience is of particular relevance when it comes to Emanuel’s possible appointment by Biden, as the new president will similarly be charged with shepherding a stimulus bill through Congress to help ease a financial crisis that’s now battering poor and working people across the country.
In the Obama White House, Emanuel also made a name for himself by encouraging the president to put off healthcare reform, wanting to avoid a high-profile fight in Washington. Obama decided not to follow Emanuel’s advice and instead succeeded in passing the Affordable Care Act, which expanded health insurance to millions of Americans.
Emanuel also pushed Obama to delay action on immigration reform, which earned him the ire of organizers across the country. Previously, Emanuel had instructed Democrats to avoid the issue altogether, calling it “the third rail of American politics.” And in 1996, he wrote a memo to President Clinton advising him to “claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens.”
During his time in the Obama administration, Emanuel also was involved directly in transportation issues during the auto bailout of 2010. While Obama and Biden were celebrated for helping save the domestic automotive industry from going under, Emanuel’s contribution to the effort was to alienate organized labor, saying in response to demands from the United Auto Workers, simply: “Fuck the UAW.”
The next year, Emanuel moved from Washington, D.C. to his hometown of Chicago, where he rode his connections with Obama straight to the mayor’s office. There, he got to work implementing his market fundamentalist political project on a citywide level.
He quickly moved to shut down half of Chicago’s public mental health centers, and later closed 50 public schools in what was then the biggest mass school closure in U.S. history. These closures opened the door for private operators and for-profit charter chains to fill the vacuum. In 2012, Emanuel provoked a historic strike with the Chicago Teachers Union, continuing his pattern of attacking organized labor, though the union was ultimately successful. Emanuel’s budgets were packed full of tax breaks for corporate giants, alongside increased regressive fines and fees for working-class residents. He continued to sell off public goods and services through privatization schemes, and oversaw mass layoffs of unionized public sector workers. He also shut the city’s community groups out of decision making, instead listening to CEOs and the business elite when charting Chicago’s political future.
Beyond his fizzled venture with Elon Musk, Emanuel’s transportation initiatives included overseeing a red-light and speed-camera program, which was found to be plagued by corruption and which targeted drivers to fill city budget gaps. His actions also included abandoning plans to expand public transit near Chicago’s Museum Campus, and doing little to respond to rapidly declining bus ridership across the city. This résumé is of particular alarm, considering President-elect Biden should be charged with developing a nationwide plan to aggressively expand public transportation while also limiting emissions to curb the impacts of climate change.
One area where Emanuel has been celebrated is for his record of increasing bike lanes and expanding a bike sharing program in Chicago. Yet while supporting biking infrastructure is beneficial, both in terms of urban planning and climate change mitigation, critics have slammed his decision to concentrate these projects in wealthy, white areas of the city while largely ignoring poor communities of color. Even Chicago Magazine, in a piece lauding the former mayor, admits that his foray into biking policy “was all part of Emanuel’s gentry liberalism strategy — turning the Loop into a playground for young tech professionals.” That’s certainly not emblematic of the the type of equitable transportation development that progressives would prefer from a Biden administration.
On the issue of policing, Emanuel’s record as mayor was abysmal. Under his leadership, the Chicago Police Department was later found to be rife with abuse. And one infamous instance of that abuse directly implicated Rahm Emanuel himself: the police murder of Black teenager Laquan McDonald. While the horrifying killing of McDonald, with 16 bullets, occurred in 2014, the videotape showing the execution wasn’t released until months after Emanuel’s 2015 reelection, following public outcry. The withholding of the tape was widely believed to be a cover-up, and Emanuel has been accused of helping orchestrate it. The scandal led to a collapse of public support behind the incumbent mayor, and in 2019 he decided not to seek a third term in office.
Today, Emanuel has a comfortable perch as a political analyst for ABC News. While his punditry is regularly reviled by progressives, he’s been limited in how much damage he can do by no longer holding public office. However, that state of affairs could soon come undone if Emanuel is chosen by Biden to join the incoming administration. Whether it’s serving as Transportation Secretary, or as U.S. trade representative, Emanuel would once again gain access to the levers of state power to carry out his corporate-friendly agenda at the expense of working people.
The next U.S. transportation secretary will have to confront powerful forces in the fossil fuel industry to enact an agenda that limits carbon emissions while also expanding renewable energy-powered transportation options across the country with high-speed rail and other public transit. Emanuel’s political history has been an illustration of the opposite: partnering with profit-hungry corporations to peel back progressive, publicly controlled assets and services.
Biden’s presidency is an opportunity to initiate a new direction for U.S. politics that offers an alternative to both Trumpism and the failed Democratic centrism of the past. Progressives were key to Biden’s victory, and the new administration has signaled that it plans to listen and respond to the party’s newly ascendant left wing. One way to get off on the right foot would be to immediately dump the idea of Rahm Emanuel having any role in the new administration whatsoever. He’s had his chance at proving capable of serving in public life — and now he’s squandered it.
Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a web editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin