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TRNN interviews “Mayor 1%” author Kari Lydersen about Rahm Emanuel’s battles with Chicago’s 99% pt 2

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m in Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

This is part two of our discussion with Kari Lydersen. She’s the author of the new book Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Thank you so much for joining us, Kari.


NOOR: So, Kari, we just–in our first part of this interview, we talked about Rahm and the Chicago teachers strike.

Rahm wasn’t done squaring off with the Teachers Union and other community groups after the teachers strike was over. The next battle, which actually the strike kind of set up, was this battle over school closings. Rahm ended up closing 50 schools around the city, almost exclusively in poor black and Latino communities on the South and West side of Chicago. It earned him the title, along with “Mayor 1%”, of “the Murder Mayor”, because he was closing schools and forcing students to cross gang lines.

Talk about the lessons of the teachers strike that Rahm either got or should have gotten and what the impact was in this battle over school closings.

LYDERSEN: Right. So the teachers strike, it was pretty much universally agreed by people in all sides that Rahm Emanuel mostly lost, you know, quote-unquote, lost the strike, and obviously both sides made concessions. But the teachers not only showed how much massive public support and political power they had, but, you know, they also did get more of what they wanted in the contract, as opposed to what the administration had been pushing for. So Rahm Emanuel’s really known as someone who hates to lose and is very competitive. So I think for both probably mostly personal and maybe also political reasons, after the strike it was almost like a campaign more than as if he was in office and now supposed to be, you know, working to mutually carry out this contract that both sides had signed. He actually ran ads and, you know, he continued or his administration and his proxies continued to really demonize the teachers and to try to make their points in the media and putting the national media to talk–make it look like they’d come out better after the strike than they had, and, you know, especially stressing the longer school day, which was one thing that the administration had gotten, although not quite as long and in the same way as they wanted.

So, anyway, it was shortly after this, or, really, almost simultaneously, that the talks started about massive school closings, and the school’s administration was really tightlipped all along, which they’d been famous for or infamous for even before Emanuel took office. It was clear that a lot of schools were going to be closed. But which schools, the criteria by which they were chosen, all the mechanics of it were kept pretty secret and a lot of mixed messages were given to the public and to reporters.

And the two main reasons that were given was that schools were underperforming or that schools were underutilized–basically, too few students. And the administration really kept changing their story about what the criteria was, and then also, in terms of schools being underutilized, there was, you know, the question of you have a lot of special ed kids. You know, if you have smaller classes, which most people would think is a good thing, does that lead to the school being a target for closure?

So, anyway, it was a really bitter, contentious public debate. The union, parents, community groups–as much or more so than during the strike, you know, this was, you know, something that affected massive communities, affected whole communities in big parts of the city. And along with the closings, it was clear that people were also going to lose their jobs, both staff and teachers.

So to try to jump ahead, hundreds, literally hundreds of hearings were held on the school closings plan. And as far as I know, the mayor and his appointed board of education members didn’t go to a single one of them. Parents and students and teachers and election officials, aldermen, made their cases at these hearings about why their school shouldn’t be closed. And ultimately more than 40 schools were closed, predominantly on the South and West sides, disproportionately affecting African-American families.

And then this fall, you know, there were a lot of concerns about increased violence because of kids crossing gang lines and being in new environments. Anyway, so I can talk more about that, but I’ll let you jump in.

NOOR: So, Kari, you know, Rahm–you’ve called your book Mayor 1%. And you cover a whole range of issues in your book, b ut it seems like the 1 percent moniker really, really sticks to education policy, ’cause Rahm has embraced not just school closings, teacher evaluations, but things like charter schools, which are backed by, you know, billionaires like Bill Gates, millionaires like Eli Broad, around the country, and he’s kind of really, as a Democrat, really embraced this conservative agenda.

But you don’t just talk about education. You also, for example, start your book off by describing a scene where health care or mental health advocates are trying to speak to Rahm Emanuel about their health clinics being closed, one of the first fights he took on. And, you know, as you describe, they wouldn’t even look–Rob wouldn’t even look at them. He would walk out. You know, as you reported, one of the women who confronted Rahm ended up, you know, dying a few–like, soon after. She confronted Rahm. There’s no link between the closing of her clinic with her death, but, you know, it is–those closings were something that did impact many people in Chicago.

But what I want to ask you this: you know, despite these acts, which have been unpopular in many communities, Rahm is still expected, for example to win another term in office. He’s already raised $5 million. So we’ve talked about kind of Rahm Emanuel, but let’s end this discussion by talking about what else community groups can do, what else unions can do if they really want to take on his power and maybe challenge him, this next election.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. I mean, it is interesting. There’s massive discontent. His popularity ratings are pretty low, really low with African-American residents. So there’s definitely desire and a lot of talk about an opposition candidate. But as of now, it doesn’t look like there’s really any challenger who is likely to win.

But there has been a movement formally launched to oppose him and to lay the groundwork for an opponent. The Grassroots Collaborative, which is a coalition of faith and labor and community and other groups, held a forum about six weeks ago called “Take Back Chicago”, where they launched this initiative to build a movement that can be, you know, the groundwork for not only a mayoral candidate, but also different opposition aldermen candidates to emerge, because that’s part of this whole thing is that Chicago has [incompr.] rubberstamp city council that Rahm Emanuel has had completely at his disposal to push through all these different things. So, you know, there’s the idea that over time, a more independent and politically diverse city council could, you know, help not only unseat the mayor indirectly, but also rein in the really autocratic tendencies tendencies of a mayor like this.

But, realistically, can that happen by February 2015? That would be a long shot. I think people may already be thinking toward 2019 as sort of a–bizarre is that may sound.

NOOR: And why is that? Why–what’s keeping these groups from really kind of challenging his power? I mean, he obviously is very well connected. He has, you know, really strong ties to the business community. But can you talk about what specifically is keeping him in power, keeping him, like, as a likely future mayor for this next term?

LYDERSEN: I mean, there’s a lot of speculation about something about Chicago that causes this inertia or or resignation even at the same time we have all these really vibrant movements. You know, people voted for Mayor Daley time after time after time, even though there was massive dissatisfaction with him. So, you know, there’s something going on there, and people have a lot of theories, and there’s no clear answer what it is.

But I think, you know, one thing just in terms of Rahm Emanuel, I mean, it has only been two and a half years that he’s been in office, and he probably–groups, I think, have been forced into the position of being reactive and defensive on specific issues like the school closings and the teachers strike and any given year’s budget cuts. You know, those things–on one hand, those things have helped to galvanize wider and more cohesive movement, but they’ve also, I’m sure, made it harder for groups to think long-term and really strategize long-term, because they are responding to these really acute crises that the mayor has provoked. So that’s part of it.

NOOR: Kari Lydersen, thank you so much for joining us.

LYDERSEN: Thank you. My pleasure.

NOOR: Kari’s book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%. You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter. You can Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor. Thank you so much for joining us.


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Kari Lydersen, a Chicago journalist and author, wrote "Mayor One Percent" to explore what Rahm Emanuel's leadership means for Chicago -- including the way he has galvanized the city's labor movement and fueled a debate about economic priorities. Lydersen specializes in covering labor, energy, environment and immigration stories. Until 2009 she worked for The Washington Post out of the Midwest Bureau; she's also written for The New York Times, People Magazine, WBEZ public radio and other outlets. She currently works for the Medill Watchdog Project at Northwestern University and is working on an ebook about the closing of Chicago's two coal-fired power plants.