PULLMAN — In the movies, Rocky Balboa took beatings that bloodied his face, broke his nose and blurred his vision, yet he still managed to land a few haymakers that gave him a chance to win.
On Thursday, in real life, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had one of those Rocky moments when he announced that he successfully fought to convince Whole Foods to abandon its distribution center in Northwest Indiana and build a new one in Pullman.
“This is another great day for the Pullman/Roseland community and another bad day for Indiana, and I’m a very happy person,” Emanuel said, scoring applause and a celebratory hoot from the crowd gathered to hear the news. “Yeah, for 150 jobs and a potential to grow.”
Just a few months ago, stealing a food warehouse from Munster, Ind., might not have been considered such a big win Emanuel, a boss who played power politics on a national stage and persuades Fortune 500 companies to bring their world headquarters to The Loop.
But ever since a judge forced City Hall to release the video showing a Chicago cop shoot Laquan McDonald with all 16 bullets in his gun until the boy was dead, Emanuel became a punching bag for angry protestors.
Mark Konkol plays nice with Mayor Emanuel.
The mayor has been smacked around by the press, disparaged by political pundits and, maybe most painful for him, publicly dissed by his powerful friend, Hillary Clinton, as she campaigns to win the White House.
In post-Laquan McDonald Chicago, there’s no other type of economic development — not seizing the Downtown post office building, not clearing the way to build dozens West Loop high rises and definitely not his latest plan spend taxpayer cash to build a fast lane for speed-demon cyclists on the lakefront path — that can save Emanuel from getting knocked out of office in 2019 the way stealing a grocery store distribution center from Indiana can.
The public doesn’t trust him. Fewer aldermen fear him. His enemies pummel him with jab after jab, waiting to throw a final knockout punch, and all Emanuel can do is absorb the blows.
The attacks are so unrelentingly brutal that some people who really hate Rahm actually have sympathy for him.
“I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Rahm right now,” a kindhearted Emanuel-hater told me on Election Night. “Everywhere the guy turns someone wants to punch him in the head and kick him when he’s down.”
The end of the beatings certainly isn’t in sight, particularly when it comes to the shots Emanuel continues to take over the public’s lack of trust in the Chicago Police Department and the city’s broken system for investigating officer misconduct and holding dirty cops accountable.
What Emanuel has going for him is that he won’t quit. Knock the mayor down and he gets back up.
Say what you want about Rahm — he’s a tone-deaf, know-it-all, bully who can’t be trusted, for instance — but you’ve got to respect the guy’s fight.
A few sources — some who aren't always Emanuel's cheerleaders — told me that once the mayor made it his mission he never stopped battling to drag that Whole Foods distribution center across the state line away from our neighbors in Northwest Indiana, the armpit of the Chicago area.
Without Emanuel's persistence — and the promise of a $7.5 million tax break — the organic grocer would have kept its regional distribution hub in Indiana.
Emanuel was especially psyched about his victory because it proved that Chicago can recruit businesses that creates working-class jobs and revives local micro-economies in suffering neighborhoods at a time when Gov. Bruce Rauner claims his pro-business, anti-labor turnaround agenda is the only answer to making Illinois more competitive.
Still, stealing one warehouse and creating 150 new jobs doesn’t mean Emanuel will be spared future beatings while the city struggles to find a new normal in our post-Laquan reality. Frankly, as Chicago’s boss, he deserves the punishment … and I’d like to think he knows it.
But it’s important to note that Emanuel finally landed a haymaker that could help him regain the faith so many Chicagoans — particularly African-American voters who supported him for a second term — have lost in him.
There was a time not too long ago when Emanuel strutted down to the South Side to take credit he didn’t deserve for economic development victories that were in the works long before he took office. That rubbed some people down here the wrong way.
But Thursday seemed different.
I wasn’t there to hear Rahm’s remarks, but I listened to a recording of the mayor’s giddy digs at Indiana and joyous rambling about all the good that has come in Pullman because the people who live there didn’t quit fighting to rebuild all that had been lost.
“When you don’t give and you don’t give up and you see brighter days ahead … it’s days like today that take note of all the evenings you spend planning, persuading, talking, working together … that you can see other companies … that decide to create jobs and economic opportunity … It’s being built on a solid foundation,” Emanuel said.
“I can’t say enough about the community that said, ‘You can talk about our history and we should be respectful of that, but let’s get to work at building a future.’”
A cynical Rahm-hater might dismiss the mayor’s hopeful words at a happy press conference as away for him to deflect attention from bigger, more important problems facing the city’s future.
But not an optimist like me.
I think Emanuel’s Whole Foods victory for Pullman is a sign that all those beatings Emanuel has taken may have started to knock some sense into the mayor.
There’s a chance Emanuel realizes the best way to save his political future — and save a city starkly divided by race and class from itself — is to be Chicago's unrelenting warrior determined to rebuild neglected neighborhoods home to people who are sick and tired of fending for themselves.
But there’s no way to tell, really.
People who know about the current state of City Hall have told me that Emanuel has surrounded himself with underlings too terrified to tell him that not every one of ideas, policies and plans is the right thing to do. For that, what we see is a man fighting for his future on pure instinct.
And if that’s the case, what Emanuel needs someone in his corner — a metaphorical “Mickey” to his Rocky Balboa-persona — to keep the mayor focused on doing what’s right, the thing so many people have considered impossible; work that might redeem him in a post-Laquan Chicago: A commitment to fight to revive the South Side … and never give up.
“Fight for them, Rahm. Fight,” a good mayoral corner man would shout.
In the event no one close to Emanuel has the guts to make that passionate argument, the mayor should click on YouTube and watch the flashback scene in "Rocky V" where Mickey tells Rocky about what happens when people are beaten down so low that they lose the “motivization” to live.
“I think that people die sometimes when they don’t wanna live no more. … And nature is smarter than people think. Little by little, we lose our friends. We lose everything. We keep losin’ and losin’ till we say, you know, ‘Oh what the hell am I livin’ around here for? I got no reason to go on,” the fictional boxing trainer said.
Mickey might as well be talking about a lot of people in forgotten parts of Chicago, living extreme poverty and surrounded by gang violence.
People living there who haven’t given up hope yet are desperate for somebody to fight to rebuild their neighborhoods. They’re looking for someone with Rocky’s never-quit spirit that inspired Mickey to want to keep living even as his health started to fail.
If Emanuel, inspired by his success with Whole Foods, made redeveloping poor parts of town with wide swaths of vacant land a bigger priority and used all his might to push other corporations that only want to set up shop in the rich, white parts of Chicago to invest in rebuilding downtrodden neighborhoods, there’s a real chance to replicate a Pullman-like resurgence in places that desperately need it.
Emanuel could win back the faith people have lost in him, make the city stronger, keep his job and maybe, against all odds, gain the loyalty of Chicagoans who wish he’d just go down for the count.
Sure, people will say that can’t happen.
To them, I, the eternal optimist, quote Mickey in "Rocky II."
“What’s can't? There ain’t no can’ts! There’s no can’ts!”
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