CITY HALL — Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015, they did — time and again.
It was that sort of year at City Hall, and things weren't all that much better for aldermen in the City Council, which saw considerable turnover in the municipal election.
Of course, one could argue that things bottomed out with the release of the Laquan McDonald dashcam video, except that it was followed by Emanuel being prodded to fire Police Supt. Garry McCarthy. Then, the mayor faced calls for his own resignation in protests that curtailed the city's holiday shopping on Black Friday after Thanksgiving and even on Christmas Eve.
If we set the Laquan McDonald case aside as a Chicago story too big for any mere City Hall overview, there was still plenty of bad news to go around for Emanuel, starting with ...
1. Rahm's runoff and re-election. Emanuel became the first Chicago mayor to have to weather a runoff when he failed to garner 50 percent of the vote in the municipal election on Feb. 24. Cook County Board Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago) was the runner-up, and rode a progressive wave to challenge Emanuel in the April rematch, but came up short when the mayor won re-election with a robust 56 percent of the vote. A punchy day-after news conference was as good as things would get for Emanuel. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of the City Council changed seats, with 13 new aldermen elected.
2. Barbara Byrd-Bennett's downfall, and Forrest Claypool once more unto the breach. Byrd-Bennett, the Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer, went on leave in April in the face of a federal probe into her dealings with former employer SUPES Academy. It was no mere fishing expedition, as Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in October. Borrowing a tactic from Mayor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel thrust his top trouble-shooter, Claypool, into the position, only a few months after he'd brought him back to City Hall as chief of staff after Claypool had served successfully as CTA chief during the mayor's first term. Claypool was immediately embroiled in a billion-dollar CPS budget shortfall that ultimately led to threats of layoffs, with the Chicago Teachers Union preparing for a strike in response.
3. Record increase in property taxes. Not even the routine matters of government were routine this year. In the face of state-mandated pension payments, Emanuel's 2016 budget was balanced out with a record $589 million hike in property taxes. Fourteen of the 50 City Council aldermen voted against it, 15 if you count freshman Ald. David Moore (17th), who approved the budget, but not the new $9.50-a-month fee for garbage collection. Homeowners will feel the tax hike next summer when second-installment bills go out. So, yes, things can always get worse next year.
4. Dyett hunger strike. Remember those more innocent, carefree days when all the mayor had to worry about was a dozen protesters staging a monthlong hunger strike to retain and revitalize Dyett High School? Dyett had been slated to close, resulting in just 13 students completing their senior year there last spring. Yet the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett demanded that CPS accept its proposal to reopen and convert the school into a Global Leadership and Green Technology High School by declaring a hunger strike in mid-August. Things came to a head when the hunger strikers took the stage at a community budget hearing at the South Shore Cultural Center in September, forcing the mayor to be rushed out by police, including Supt. Garry McCarthy. Immediately after that incident, CPS attempted to co-opt the protesters by announcing Dyett would become an open-enrollment arts school next year. Undercut, protesters called off the hunger strike after 34 days, but bitter feelings lingered.
5. Burge reparations. Chicago became the first U.S. city to offer reparations for police misconduct when it created a $5.5 million fund for the cause in May. It was something many aldermen thought they'd never see. The driving force behind it was the decades of torture conducted by infamous Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his "midnight crew" of police henchmen. The city had already paid out $64 million in Burge settlements when it created the reparations fund, largely to aid torture victims whose cases were beyond legal recourse due to the statute of limitations. So even the good news of reform coming out of the City Council this year was rooted in the shameful police practices of the past.
It wasn't all bad news. There were a few larks along the way. A 19.3-inch snowfall prompted us to recall the major blizzards of the past, as well as to ponder the origins of "dibs," which might actually lie in the so-called Pittsburgh parking chair. Emanuel drew on Yiddish to describe the Cubs' playoff collapse. The election of 26-year-old Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) led to a search to find that the youngest member of the City Council on record was none other than Tribune news baron Col. Robert McCormick, 23 when elected alderman in 1904. Another former contender for youngest alderman, Ald. Edward Burke (14th), was caught shopping for hats on his smartphone during Emanuel's 2016 budget address.
On that note, ponder what notorious 1st Ward "Lords of the Levee" Aldermen "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna might have been caught looking at on their smartphones if they had existed a century ago, and consider that, yes, things could have been even worse at City Hall this year — if only in one's imagination.
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