Rahm was good for transportation, but McDonald coverup disqualifies him for USDOT post

Rahm Emanuel at the December 2012 opening of the Dearborn Street protected bike lane. Photo: Steven Vance
Rahm Emanuel at the December 2012 opening of the Dearborn Street protected bike lane. Photo: Steven Vance

Edward McClelland ran an interesting piece in Chicago Magazine yesterday looking at the case for making former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel U.S. Department of Transportation secretary under the new Biden-Harris administration. (Emanuel is also reportedly being considered for the housing chief position.)

In a vacuum, Emanuel would be a strong candidate for the transportation post. He’s obviously got tons of federal government experience working under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and his record on transportation as mayor of Chicago was very good overall.

McClelland notes that Emanuel racked up many wins for sustainable transportation as mayor, probably the most forward-thinking aspect of his eight years in office, including the city’s first protected bike lanes and the Divvy bike-share system. He also points out that as chief of staff for Obama, Emanuel helped get $9 billion for high-speed rail included in the 2009 federal stimulus bill.

I’d add the following to Emanuel’s list of sustainable transportation wins as mayor:

But while that’s an impressive resume, the idea of Emanuel getting a position in the new cabinet should be a non-starter due to his handling of the 2014 Laquan McDonald police murder case. By suppressing video footage of the killing before the 2015 mayoral election, Emanuel made a calculated decision to let the officer who fired 16 shots into the body of a Black teen, who was walking away from him at the time, avoid prosecution.

A person who prioritizes their political ambitions above public safety and racial justice has proved themself unfit to hold public office. And in the wake of the year’s Black Lives Matters protests, hiring Emanuel would be a remarkably tone-deaf move for Biden, sending a clear message that he’s not taking the urgent need for racial reckoning seriously.

McClelland notes that Congressional rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has stated just that on Twitter. And 47th Ward alderman Matt Martin seconded that, despite the fact that, as one of the city’s most proactive Council members on walk/bike/transit issues, he probably respects Emanuel’s transportation record, and Emanuel lives in his ward.

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On top of the McDonald case, many Chicago progressives feel other aspects of Emanuel’s administration were dealbreakers, such as the closing half of the city’s mental health clinics and some 50 public schools, mostly in Black and Latino communities, plus alleged misuse of the city’s tax-increment financing program to provide tax breaks to corporations and developers, at the expense of school funding and other public needs.

McClelland argues that Emanuel’s political alignment isn’t that relevant to the USDOT position, which he calls “far removed from ideological policymaking,” noting Barack Obama appointed a Republican for the slot: former congressman Ray LaHood, a Peoria native. But LaHood is a political moderate, and he was downright left-leaning when it came to transportation issues. He stood on a table during the National Bike Summit’s 2010 congressional reception to pledge that the department would be de-prioritizing cars for a new focus on walking, biking and transit.

Fortunately there is a person who embodies all the positive aspects of the Emanuel administration when it comes to transportation, with almost none of the political baggage, and he’s also a possibility for the USDOT post. Rahm’s first Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, currently working as a consultant, would be an excellent pick.

Gabe Klein at the opening of Chicago's first pedestrian scramble intersection at Jackson and State in May 2013. Photo: John Greenfield
Gabe Klein at the opening of Chicago’s first pedestrian scramble intersection at Jackson and State in May 2013. Photo: John Greenfield

Klein has tons of leadership experience in the field, having not only led CDOT, but also the Washington D.C. transportation department, where he launched the nation’s first modern bike-share system and a handy circulator bus route. Although he was in Chicago less than three years (he left well before the McDonald coverup), he was the driving force behind most of the accomplishments on the above bullet point list, so he’s got a proven track record for getting smart transportation projects done fast. Heck, the guy even built protected bike lanes in front of the White House.

Klein has already been tapped for Biden-Harris’ Department of Transportation transition team, which will also review the National Transportation Safety Board, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation / AMTRAK, and the Federal Maritime Commission.

Granted, Klein isn’t the only extremely well qualified candidate for the job. For example, former New York DOT chief Janette Sadik-Khan also did groundbreaking transportation and public space work, such as helping to launch the extensive Select express bus system and pedestrianizing Broadway.

However, it would be great to have a USDOT chief who’s already well acquainted with Chicago’s transportation challenges and opportunities. McClelland notes that having Emanuel in the position could help our city win the federal funding needed for the long-awaited $2.3 billion Red Line extension.

But Klein would be an ethical choice for the transportation slot who wouldn’t alienate the Democratic party’s progressive wing. So hopefully Biden-Harris will forget about Rahm, and consider giving Gabe a chance instead.

Read the Chicago Magazine piece here.

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