Rahm Emanuel's Chicago Is Burning — Can He Put Out the Flames?

At a recent meeting with leaders of Chicago’s faith community, Chicago’s first Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel, admitted that mistakes were made in how city government handled the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. And then, the mayor stopped talking and listened.

“My stock in the mayor went up” as a result, said Rabbi Capers Funnye Jr., spiritual leader of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, in Chicago. “I am not easily impressed. Sometimes things are done for political capital. In this instance, I felt there was nothing he was trying to gain politically, other than saying, ‘We have done things wrong; we need to make adjustments, and we need to move forward.’”

Funnye, who is African American and the first cousin once removed of Michelle Obama, said he is acutely aware of both the frustration in the black community and the unease among Jewish residents toward the mayor since the release of a video that showed McDonald, 17, being shot dead in the street by a Chicago police officer in October 2014. The video showed that although McDonald held a knife, he appeared to be keeping his distance and veering away from a confrontation with the police when he was shot.

Until the video’s release by court order, after a yearlong battle by the city to block this, the official story put out by the police and the city claimed that McDonald had attacked cops on the scene, forcing them to shoot him to protect their lives.

“The Jewish community is very concerned. I cannot emphasize that enough,” said Funnye. “But the [mayor’s] effort to rectify those mistakes and reconfigure our direction as a city… I am extremely impressed with.”

Funnye is a member of both the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the spiritual leader nationally of the Hebrew Israelite community, an African-American community whose relationship to mainstream Jewry has often been strained. But in this case his sentiments appear to be broadly shared.

Despite Emanuel’s still unclear role in the city’s fight to block the video’s release, a good number of Jews in Chicago believe Emanuel has taken decisive steps following its disclosure to deal with the root cause and aftermath of the McDonald shooting — firing police chief Garry McCarthy, among other top brass, and dismissing the head of the police oversight agency.

“I think a lot of us in the Jewish community still have a level of hope and confidence in Rahm,” said Michael Bauer, a former lawyer who co-chairs Illinois’s Holocaust & Genocide Commission. “If he puts his mind to it, he can make effective change.”

Not all Jews believe this, though. Don Rose, a locally renowned political consultant and longtime Emanuel critic, is skeptical. “His [citywide approval] numbers are down to 18%,” Rose noted, “so that has to include a lot of Jews. He has lost the trust of Chicago.”

Indeed, Susan Gzesh and Benetta Mansfield both supported Emanuel’s opponent in the April runoff election, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Gzesh, a member of KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park, said Emanuel’s problems are “inherited and self-inflicted.” Among the self-inflicted is approving a $5 million settlement for Laquan McDonald’s family in the midst of his reelection campaign before they ever filed a lawsuit. “The timing of that really smells bad,” she said.

Mansfield, a retired labor lawyer, doesn’t mince words about her disapproval of the mayor. “I don’t think he should be in office,” she said, though she knows there is no way to recall him and he will surely not resign.

Since taking office in 2011, Emanuel has faced a mountain of criticism for controversial political moves, including the closing of nearly 50 schools in minority neighborhoods, fighting with the Chicago Teachers Union, and possessing what critics perceive as a gruff and arrogant style of governing. Many perceive him as putting corporate interests ahead of struggling Chicagoans.

Yet even Emanuel’s supporters say that where he goes from here may be the mayor’s real test.

Josh Kantrow, a Jewish commercial litigation lawyer and moderate Republican who voted for Emanuel in both elections, said the former congressman and White House chief of staff to Obama inherited an “absolute mess” in the culture of the police department. Still, he said, he has never seen the city so on edge. And he wonders about Emanuel’s follow-through. “I think the question is, two months from now what does it look like,” Kantrow said.

Rose opined: “It’s a matter of the steps he takes. I don’t think he can make any speeches that can turn things around.”

“He has got to make changes,” said lawyer and city power broker Bill Singer, a former alderman who represented Chicago’s heavily Jewish and liberal 43rd Ward as an independent insurgent decades ago. “Over time, people will regain their confidence in the mayor. I certainly have not lost it.”

Establishment leaders in the Jewish community agree that if Emanuel wants meaningful change, he will get it.

“One quality Mayor Emanuel has that nobody disputes is that he is a determined person. He sets his focus on getting something done, and he does not let go,” said Alan Solow, a longtime friend of the mayor and a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I think that the early signs of the steps that he has taken are very important and they are positive. And yes, he is going to have to continue to do more.”

Shalom Klein, an Orthodox Jew and the executive director of the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park, said the video has occupied little, if any conversation among members of that neighborhood’s Orthodox community. Instead, he said, residents wish the mayor would pay more attention to their neighborhood. During discussions over Sabbath dinners or while walking down Touhy or Devon Avenues, he said, “I hear conversations about the library that needs to be improved and the park that needs improvement. The video does not come up.”

Kantrow said the conversations around his family’s dinner table, as well as inside and outside his synagogue, Anshe Emet, in Lakeview, show a wellspring of support for the mayor that remains steady despite his missteps. He said he and others believe that on many issues plaguing the cash-strapped city, Emanuel is the right man for the job.

Still, Kantrow admits that if you talk to anyone — Jewish or not — about the death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of a white officer and about the city’s failed response, you will get a very different answer.

“If the question really is focused on the McDonald case, I would be surprised if 1 or 2% [of voters] were supportive,” Kantrow said. “It is hard to defend how this video was handled, nor would I try to.”

Contact Meribah Knight at feedback@forward.com

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