Where is Emanuel in the budget fight?


June 02, 2017

When Richard M. Daley was Chicago’s mayor, legislators in Springfield were assured of one thing: At least one day every year, they’d get a good meal. Daley would direct some of the city’s most prominent vendors to the state capital to feed legislators he wished to influence. During the “Taste of Chicago in Springfield,” lawmakers would be using one hand to pick up grub like cheesecake, rib sandwiches and deep-dish pizza while their other hand was pressed into Daley’s for votes.

“Mayor Daley, he didn’t just glad-hand, he arm-twisted, too,” says Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax & Budget Accountability, a think tank in Chicago. “It’s incumbent on the mayor to lobby for the city.”

That old-school style of lobbying has essentially vanished during the tenure of his successor. Mayor Rahm Emanuel spends little to no time downstate and leaves lobbying to a small city department. The state budget crisis has dissolved into an ugly war of words between Emanuel and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, which has many lawmakers scratching their heads because the two have a friendship that has thrived outside of politics. The bond between the two is now so frayed that they decline to share a stage. If both are booked for an event, oftentimes one will leave the building before the other is slotted to speak.

Emanuel and Rauner both campaigned on their formidable negotiation skills—Rauner in the high-stakes world of private equity and Emanuel in Congress and the White House. And yet they’re not negotiating. “There’s no one in this process who has a relationship with the two like they have with each other,” says state Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Democrat. “(House Speaker Michael Madigan) doesn’t know Rauner like the mayor knows Rauner. I don’t know Rauner like the mayor knows Rauner. It makes sense that the mayor play a role in the talks.”

But he’s not. And taxpayers are left holding the bag. In May, Emanuel announced Chicago would borrow $389 million to keep Chicago Public Schools running through the school year and help meet a massive pension payout for the teachers’ union due this month. That will be added to the staggering $9 billion of debt the school district already owes.

There’s no doubt that Rauner is a considerable foe. His “Turnaround Agenda” dictates that he not sign an unbalanced budget or raise property taxes. Adding to the gridlock is Madigan’s refusal to work with Rauner—and in some cases even Emanuel. Two years ago, the House, which Madigan controls, rejected Emanuel’s CPS pension bill, which would have extended the window for pension payments.

The result of this impasse: no state budget in two years. With Chicago carrying the economic weight of the state, Emanuel is positioned better than most big-city mayors to break the stalemate. It’s frustrating that he hasn’t tried, Ford says. “When you have the governor who is not willing to listen to the people of his state, you need someone to get to him. It’s my hope that the mayor could.”

Of course, there’s a limit to what any one politician—even one as experienced as Emanuel—can accomplish long-distance, particularly in a state and a party so dominated by the likes of Madigan and an opponent as entrenched as Rauner. And with Emanuel’s backing, City Hall in the most recent legislative session scored some wins around crime, school funding and a bump in the city’s 911 tax, while close lieutenants such as Michael Sacks worked the back channel to move some pension and tax measures forward. That said, the standoff in Springfield constitutes an emergency of epic proportions for the city of Chicago—and its chief executive has remained away from the public front lines in the fight.

Emanuel declines to speak for this story but provided input through a spokesman. At a City Council meeting in late May, he jokingly told reporters that he would cover their rooms at a Springfield Holiday Inn if they traveled there to pressure Rauner for a budget. When asked why he was not in Springfield lobbying for it, he said, “How do you know I’m not on the phone?”

Even if Emanuel did get involved, it is doubtful he would be as effective as Daley, or his father, Richard J. Daley. Getting in the face of lawmakers, especially downstate Republicans, reflected the younger Daley’s brazen style of politicking, but it helped that, as a former member of the Illinois Senate himself, he already had relationships locked up. For him, Springfield was familiar territory with familiar faces that responded to familiar favors. Besides pizza and ribs, Daley offered lawmakers, many of whom were his friends, the spoils of his clout, a currency that carried enormous weight in the horse-trading culture of Illinois politics.

“Has he made it the top priority and said, ‘No matter what, you’re going to see me in Springfield every other week until something gets done and using the full extent of my influence to get lawmakers to where they need to be?’ I’m not sure he’s done that,” says City Treasurer Kurt Summers.

The mayor’s Springfield indifference is especially odd considering Chicago desperately needs state money to curb the “two cities” narrative that has grown in prominence since he took office. While downtown and the North Side are booming with construction cranes, the outlying neighborhoods on the South and West sides are suffering from economic neglect. Critical aid from social services agencies is at risk, if not eliminated, health care institutions are awaiting state reimbursements, South Side colleges, community colleges and universities such as City Colleges of Chicago and Governors State University have been crippled by layoffs and closings, students from low-income households are not graduating due to state aid shortfalls, the Chicago Transit Authority faces transportation cuts and CPS is buried under a skyscraper of debt—an estimated $130 million budget hole with a $720 million pension payment due late this month.

But Emanuel has largely chosen to jawbone about it from the safety of City Hall as the budget crisis persists. He spent much of his second term mitigating a police reform crisis while filling his schedule with no-risk agenda items like ribbon-cutting ceremonies and challenging President Donald Trump’s travel ban. The last time Chicagoans witnessed Emanuel and his administration in rapid action mode was its frantic public relations campaign for a new lakefront museum housing the art collection of filmmaker George Lucas, an Emanuel friend. The failed effort had critics questioning his priorities in light of more urgent issues facing the city.


Last year, Rauner blasted Emanuel for mismanagement of city finances and has said that his failure to show up in Springfield is evidence that he doesn’t care about finding a solution other than raising property taxes. The governor later vetoed a pension bill for CPS, saying Chicago already has the money in its tax-increment financing funds. He also wants Emanuel to OK a deal to sell the James R. Thompson Center downtown, which the governor says will generate $45 million in property taxes for the school system. Emanuel says that number is not guaranteed and has called Rauner’s offer a “stunt.”

The bitter divide between them is surprising considering that not so long ago they were business partners in the private sector and even vacationed together. Adam Collins, a spokesman for Emanuel, declines to describe their current relationship but insists the stalemate is not the mayor’s responsibility: “Not the mayor nor anyone else can change the fact that the governor has not done the most basic tenet of his job, which is to propose a budget. There is nothing we can do to force him to propose a budget.”

Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis calls Emanuel “a one-way-street mayor” who expects state funds for his city despite having “no interest in helping the state solve its own issues.” He “throws stones from afar instead of acting in good faith to address the financial woes of the city and state,” she says.

“Why isn’t the governor talking with the mayor of the third-largest city in the U.S.?” asks Chicago Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, who’s frequently at odds with Emanuel. “Why isn’t the mayor showing up in a Springfield hearing and saying ‘Hey, we all have the same interest here, the city and state are interdependent.’ I think not doing that damages the overall state, and the city loses credibility.”

Similarly, Cook County Board Commissioner Richard Boykin says the stalemate is indirectly fanning​ the gun violence plaguing city neighborhoods because it threatens funding for police, education and social services. Emanuel, he says, shares part of the blame: “As the mayor of a city of about 2.7 million people, you have to work with the governor, you have to work with the County Board president, and the governor has to work with the city.”

Other big-city mayors face unfriendly statehouses, too. But New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a Democrat, routinely shows up in Albany to lobby members of the GOP-controlled state Senate for his agenda items, including a “mansion tax” on high-priced home purchases or his push to renew the state’s “millionaire’s tax.”

Jak Pichenor, interim director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, says it’s common in Illinois to have local mayors roll through Springfield to get face time with the lawmakers they rely on for funding. “To a certain degree, having the mayor in Springfield matters. Lawmakers get a better understanding of what’s going on,” he says. Emanuel may be working deals behind the scenes, but “we’re not seeing it,” he says.

Emanuel may be absent because he is calculating the risk after several missteps during his six years in office, culminating in the public outrage that followed the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager. Emanuel at first fought the release of a video that showed the killing but agreed in November 2015, after the city settled with the victim’s family for $5 million.

A top Chicago political consultant who asked not to be named says that after that scandal and the continuing federal investigation into how the Police Department and the Emanuel administration handled the case, the mayor “has less political capital to spend,” so not getting involved in Springfield’s dysfunction is a risk worth taking. “From both a political and time-management perspective, it’s not the worst decision if a high-profile person like the mayor is not involved in the budget talks, because if you lose, it’s not necessarily a reflection on him, but on Springfield. You don’t want that lack of success splashing on you,” the consultant says. “The mayor’s pretty calculating that way.”

But another reason is one that existed long before the police reform issue caught fire: Emanuel’s lack of clout. The previous two Daley administrations had iron-bound ties to Springfield because father and son were both major power brokers in the Democratic Party and with Republicans. Richard J. served 10 years in the state House and Senate before becoming Cook County Democratic chairman and then mayor; Richard M. was an Illinois state senator for eight years. That experience translated to power once they presided over City Hall because legislators understood that to survive re-election, they had to give Chicago’s mayor what he wanted.

Richard J. Daley “could simply instruct his legislature to vote in certain ways, and they would for the most part comply,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Richard M. Daley wielded similar influence, even with a Republican governor like Jim Edgar who knew that, in exchange for funds and bonding powers, Springfield could count on votes from the other side.

Having previously served in Washington—six years in Congress and then as chief of staff during President Barack Obama’s first term—Emanuel doesn’t have those built-in Springfield connections, nor does he appear to have forged any. So what he can offer lawmakers downstate is negligible. “He doesn’t have any effect for anyone who wants to get re-elected. He certainly doesn’t have the troops to give campaigns. So why should they care what he thinks? He’s not a player,” Simpson says.

Even Democrats Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton appear unmoved by the mayor “because he doesn’t have an effect on whether they can get elected or not,” Simpson says. “He has money, but he hasn’t used it to elect people at the state level, he only used it to elect aldermen.”

In fact, it’s Emanuel who got help from Madigan when the speaker provided a small army of government workers to wrangle petition signatures and door-to-door help across his Southwest Side power base for Emanuel’s re-election. But Madigan never formally endorsed the mayor and worked against certain agenda items he saw as harmful to his special interests, such as an Emanuel-backed bill to close two old coal-fired power plants in the city in exchange for state money to help the same owner launch a wind farm. Madigan is also closer to the city’s labor unions, a powerful political group come election time that Emanuel has largely antagonized. Madigan operates without fear of the mayor and is not as reliable an ally as the dynamic would suggest.

So far it appears that Emanuel has left city lobbying to the Department of Intergovernmental Affairs. Collins, his spokesman, would not say who is in charge of such lobbying, and phone calls to the department were not returned. Michael Rendina stepped down​ last year to become Emanuel’s senior adviser.

While there is mystery behind Emanuel’s relationship with Springfield, it is certain that if he were to relocate there tomorrow he would face stiff opposition from Rauner. Still, the clock is ticking for Chicagoans who need a strong voice to force action on their behalf.

Share this story on your favorite platform: