For Emanuel and Rauner, a wobbly 2015

Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke to the Chicago City Council, presided over by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in May 2015.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke to the Chicago City Council, presided over by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in May 2015.

Time will tell, but 2015 could go down as the year the wheels came off the mayoralty of Rahm Emanuel, and Bruce Rauner’s Illinois developed a serious wobble.

Rauner’s vague campaign rhetoric about shaking things up turned out to mean he would block any state budget unless his agenda for suppressing unions was enacted.

At this point, there are serious doubts about whether the state will ever get a budget for this fiscal year. The needed legislative votes for increased revenue become more difficult as the next election approaches – even as the deferred budget grows the gap that needs to be closed. That gap is even bigger for next year, and people are now talking about the possibility of two years without a state budget.

Sharing the blame is House Speaker Michael Madigan, who inexplicably insisted that a 2011 income tax increase be made temporary. But the state’s massive and steadily expanding deficit is now Rauner’s major accomplishment – along with a crisis in the social service sector and serious hardship for many of the least well-off residents of the state.

Rauner has shrugged off the suffering as “short-term pain for long-term gain” – though in the real world, there’s no way his “reform” agenda would achieve the economic turnaround he thinks it would. Nor does his agenda have majority support among Illinois residents.

Perhaps to deflect attention, Rauner – once cast as a social moderate – hitched onto the Donald Trump juggernaut by seeking to block Syrian refugees from entering the state. He apparently thinks fear-mongering and bigotry is what moves his grassroots base. (His billionaire base is another matter.)

On the other hand, Emanuel is being pushed hard by his constituents to address the city’s fundamental problems. Can he step up to the plate?

His year started badly when he was forced to spend $24 million (double what he paid in 2011) to reconstruct his own record and falsify his opponent’s in order to win reelection. That was followed by the indictment of his schools chief and a record-breaking, multi-year property tax increase ­– the very tax hike he had promised during the campaign to avoid.

When he held his first community budget hearings since 2011, he was shut down by supporters of hunger strikers demanding a neighborhood high school at Dyett.

Then came the Laquan McDonald video, and Emanuel faltered badly in his response. In rapid succession, he appointed a commission, fired his police superintendent, opposed and then embraced a sweeping federal investigation. Speaking before the City Council, he acknowledged racial inequities in how communities are treated by police as well as the existence of a police code of silence. These were big steps for a politician who weeks earlier had been decrying the “YouTube effect” on police.

But Emanuel couldn’t get in front of the story, because he couldn’t address his own role in it. That goes beyond whether or not the McDonald video was suppressed in order to facilitate Emanuel’s reelection. The case was handled the same way scores of cases are handled each year – shunted aside, delayed, hidden from the public.

The failure of the police accountability system has long been known. And it has been tolerated by those in positions to do something about it, most prominently Emanuel.

What’s changed? One thing is a local and national movement, building on last year’s protests in Ferguson, Mo., demanding accountability in police shootings. This has done a remarkable job of focusing the media’s attention on the issue, and it’s bolstered journalists who have been covering these stories all along.

Emanuel now faces the biggest challenge of his political career. It seems to me he’s got two main tasks, and frankly I’m not sure he’s up to either one. First, he has to lead the city in something approaching a full accounting of the wrong that’s been done. This would seem to require Emanuel acknowledging his own mistakes in allowing police misconduct to be routinely covered up.

Second, he’s got to institute thorough reforms in how police officers are monitored and supervised and how they relate to the communities they police. The problem here, as commentator Aaron Renn puts it, is that Emanuel “lacks an operational orientation.” His leadership style is “all tactics, no strategy,” aimed entirely at controlling the political narrative. His inability to grasp the city’s fiscal crisis or effectively support the city’s schools does not bode well here.

The coming year will likely see court rulings overturning Emanuel’s pension reform and his elimination of health care benefits for retirees. Then the teachers may strike. Then homeowners will start getting their property tax bills.

And throughout, we can expect a steady stream of new stories of police abuse that’s been swept under the carpet. And I hope protests continue, large and small, calling for the mayor’s resignation. The threat of removal concentrates a politician’s mind wonderfully.