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Beyond Chicagoland

Free advice to Biden: Do yourself a favor and don’t hire Rahm Emanuel as USDOT chief

Emanuel test rides a Divvy bike at Chicago’s Daley Plaza. Photo: John Greenfield

Appointing widely-reviled former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to be the next U.S. Department of Transportation secretary is the bad idea that refuses to go away.

As I discussed a couple weeks ago, in a vacuum, Emanuel would be a solid choice for the job. He's got tons of experience cutting deals at the federal level, and he racked up many wins for sustainable transportation as mayor. These ranged from rebuilding the Chicago Transit Authority's Red Line on the South Side, to opening the Loop Link express bus corridor downtown, to launching the Divvy bike-share system. And having a person who's intimately familiar with Chicago's transportation challenges and opportunities on the job at a time when the CTA is trying to secure funding for the $2.3 billion for the Red Line extension would be a boon for our city.

But Emanuel's handling of the 2014 Laquan McDonald police murder case is a dealbreaker. As mayor he 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, Biden hiring Emanuel would send a clear message that he’s not taking the urgent need for racial reckoning seriously.

Moreover, there are plenty of highly-qualified individuals who could do at least as good a job, will little or none of the ethical baggage. Emanuel's first Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, who previously led the Washington, D.C. DOT and is on Biden's transportation transition committee, was the driving force behind most of the Emanuel administration's successful projects, and he left town well before the McDonald killing. Former New York DOT chief Janette Sadik-Khan, who did groundbreaking transportation and public space work in that city, would also be an excellent pick.

But Crain's Greg Hinz reported today that the deeply-flawed notion that Emanuel merits a place in the Biden cabinet is still alive and kicking. It appears that the ex-mayor has been lobbying hard for a job, and one insider told Hinz, “I’d give you 75/25 odds it happens, as of today.”

On the other hand, another person in the know told Crain's they'd be “very surprised” if Emanuel gets the gig. A third individual said it's more likely Emanuel will be appointed to the lower-profile position of U.S. trade representative, which might draw less of a backlash from the left. But progressive standard-bearer Congressional rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already made it clear even that idea is a non-starter.

What is so hard to understand about this?

Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership.

This is not about the “visibility” of a post. It is shameful and concerning that he is even being considered.

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 23, 2020

Aside from the McDonald murder coverup, there are a host of other reasons progressives are opposed to Emanuel getting a federal job. These include his closure of half of the city’s mental health clinics and some 50 public schools, mostly in Black and Latino communities, and 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.

Democratic Socialist Chicago alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez did a good job of enumerating them in this piece in Jacobin Magazine. (Yes, it's a hard-left publication, but this well-reasoned op-ed could just have easily run in the right-leaning Chicago Tribune.) She even brought up the most embarrassing aspect of Emanuel's transportation legacy, his cheerleading of Elon Musk's scheme to dig a 17-mile tunnel to O'Hare Airport for expensive "electric sled" service, noting that the idea was "absurd on its face, from a logistical perspective alone," not to mention inequitable.

Oboi Reed, head of the group Equiticity, which lobbies for equitable transportation access in communities of color, is on the same page with Rodriguez-Sanchez. "Rahm should go nowhere near the Biden administration," Reed said. In addition to the aforementioned issues, he argued that Emanuel oversaw egregious racial profiling of Chicagoans of color by the Chicago Department of Transportation. Most glaring, he noted, was the CPD's admitted use of exponentially higher rates of bike ticketing in Black neighborhoods as a pretext to conduct searches. "He should not be Secretary of USDOT, nor have any other role in the incoming administration."

Joe Biden, if you're reading this, please do yourself and the nation a solid and don't pick Rahm as your transportation chief. There are plenty of non-killer-cop-enablers who could do the job as well or better. And announcing Emanuel as your choice would almost certainly fill the streets of Chicago, and perhaps other cities, with hundreds or even thousands of justifiably angry protesters. You really don't want to kick off your administration that way.

Read today's Crain's article here.

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