How Rahm became a Democrat again 

As his reelection bid looms, the mayor drops his tough talk.

Rahm Emanuel (right) endorsed Governor Pat Quinn as the mayor shifts leftward before his own reelection bid.

Rahm Emanuel (right) endorsed Governor Pat Quinn as the mayor shifts leftward before his own reelection bid.

Chandler West/Sun-Times Media

It was almost funny to watch the eagerness with which Mayor Rahm Emanuel waved the flag for Governor Pat Quinn's reelection at a rally last week.

Anything to remind Chicago's voters that he, the mayor, really is a Democrat.

It was equally amusing to watch the governor hold back on reendorsing Rahm—as if to say, hey, man, don't blame me for him.

The mayor's appearance was part of his efforts to rewrite the history of his first three and a half years in office, after he finally figured out that his Republican policies are exceedingly unpopular in a Democratic town.

It's funny what the prospect of an election does to people. Next thing you know, Rahm will be swearing up and down that in 2011 he actually voted for Miguel del Valle.

Lest we're tempted to forget, I feel compelled to sift through some of the wreckage of his first term.

The budget: As you recall, Mayor Emanuel stormed into office talking big about firing workers and privatizing operations as part of his mission to balance the books.

That won him high praise from his old pundit pals like David Brooks at the New York Times, who wrote about the "dexterity and speed" with which the mayor sliced the budget and got his administration moving in "spectacular fashion."

Unfortunately for the mayor, not everyone was as impressed, starting with people who actually live in Chicago. At the mayor's budget hearing at Kennedy-King College in the summer of 2011, a chorus of laid-off workers asked him tough questions about the cuts and outsourcing that had hurt their families and communities.

That criticism, more than anything else, probably convinced the mayor not to have any more budget hearings.

These days you don't hear the mayor talking about cutting services and laying off workers. In last month's budget address, he papered over the deficit with gimmicks adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars, called the budget balanced, and changed the subject.

How about Nik Wallenda!

I call it the budget punt. Former mayor Richard M. Daley turned it into high art during his administration.

As you probably figured, budget punting won't stop Mayor Emanuel from airing campaign commercials claiming to have made the difficult decisions that only a tough leader can make.

Then again, Mayor Daley ran the same kind of commercials, and look where that got us.

Pensions: Once upon a time the mayor talked about how our unmet pension obligations were like a ticking time bomb that only he had the courage to defuse. And he would do it mostly by kicking granny in her false teeth.

That is, he told cops, firefighters, and teachers he was going to cut their pensions. He was feeling so badass in those early days that he'd march into firehouses—backed by security guards, of course—and tell firefighters that one day they'd thank him for the pension cuts he'd make.

Then a firefighter named Sam Holloway had the guts to tell Mayor Emanuel that there were options besides cutting pensions—such as slapping a tax on LaSalle Street financial transactions.

Apparently, the mayor didn't like hearing such talk. These days he drops in on firehouses about as often as he holds a budget hearing.

I guess he's going to let that time bomb tick on till after the election—just as Mayor Daley would have.

Schools: This has been the mayor's most spectacular retreat. Remember the days when he enjoyed fighting with the Chicago Teachers Union, doling out charter contracts, and closing schools?

His education transition team was a who's who of charter advocates, including Diana Rauner, wife of Bruce himself.

Emanuel also attached himself to Juan Rangel, the former boss of UNO, one of the biggest charter operators in the state.

Rangel was a cochair of the mayor's first election campaign—the guy who was going to sell candidate Emanuel to Hispanic voters, especially on the southwest side.

Once in office, Mayor Emanuel put Rangel on the Public Building Commission, which among other things oversees construction of new schools.

In 2011 the mayor also took Rangel's side in a zoning fight with 36th Ward alderman Nick Sposato. Even though aldermen have traditionally had the final say on zoning matters in their wards, the mayor forced Sposato to take an UNO charter school in his northwest-side ward.

Then the mayor made a point of sitting next to Rangel at the school's grand opening, just to let everyone know—especially Alderman Sposato—who called the shots for the mayor on schools.

My, how things have changed. Rangel stepped down from UNO after getting embroiled in a contracting scandal. And Mayor Emanuel doesn't stop by UNO schools anymore.

For this election, the mayor has apparently selected Congressman Luis Gutierrez for the job of selling him to the Hispanic community.

Good luck with that one, Mr. Congressman.

Meanwhile, the mayor's school board appointees quietly put a freeze on new charters for the coming year.

They also made sure to find the money not to cut school funding this year, even though they said they were dead broke.

They're almost apologizing for the way they closed all those schools.

I'm still waiting for the mayor to offer a mea culpa for closing mental health clinics in high-crime, low-income communities. And maybe while he's at it he could put an end to all those south- and west-side marijuana busts.

But my guess is that he probably figures no one who votes gives a damn about low-income mental health patients, which is why he felt he could save a few bucks by closing their clinics to start with.

On the other hand, if we see him firing up a blunt and jamming to Bob Marley, we'll know that electoral desperation truly has set in.

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