CHICAGO (CBS) — Since dropping the bombshell that he won’t seek a third term in office, there has been plenty of speculation about why Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t running for re-election. But the mayor insisted his decision has nothing to do with the upcoming murder trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke, or any inside information on Amazon’s decision about where to build their second headquarters.
At times combative, reflective, and emotional, the mayor sat down with CBS 2’s Rob Johnson on Wednesday for a one-on-one interview about his two terms in office and his plans for the future.
While not getting into specifics, the mayor said he has plenty of work he needs to get done in his last nine months in office, noting he has several meetings over the next few days with Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, and other members of his cabinet.
“Do I look like I’m sitting back?” he said. “I’ve got nine months to get two-and-a-half years of work done. That’s what you’ve got to ask me about, and that’s what I’m going to be focused on.”
Emanuel’s announcement that he won’t run for another term came one day before Officer Jason Van Dyke was set to go on trial for killing Laquan McDonald in 2014, but the mayor insisted the trial had no impact on his decision.
“If other people want to conjecture, I’m not going to … I know what it is, I know what the truth is, and that’s it. The Van Dyke trial was known all the time. It’s been known for the last year. So if that was the case, I could have decided this a year ago,” Emanuel said. “That was not the reason.”
The mayor also flatly denied any speculation that he will be stepping down at the end of his term in May because he already knows Amazon has decided not to locate their second headquarters in Chicago.
“I also think the notion that I would leave because of that is foolish,” Emanuel said.
While the mayor has led the effort to convince Amazon to choose Chicago from the 20 finalists for its $5 billion second headquarters, Emanuel said he doubts the corporate giant’s decision swings on whether Emanuel is still mayor in 2019.
“Amazon is on their own clock, and it’s not just dependent on me,” he said. “We’re in a strong position, because we’re for the first time we have an economic strategy as a city of how to recruit companies.”
Emanuel said he spent much of the past few months talking to his wife, Amy Rule, about their future, and noted that it was the first time in his life he was facing a decision on re-election as an “empty nester” after his youngest child started college this month.
“I understand that people are going to conjecture. I know what’s in my soul, what was the right decision for us as a couple,” he said.
The mayor bristled when pressed about the city’s ongoing problems with violent crime, and how that has affected the city’s image around the world.
“We’re also setting some other examples as a city. The best graduation rate growth of any urban school system. The best reading and math growth. So the media appropriately focuses on a real problem. It’s a life-and-death problem, but the answer to that is also the solution that’s working in the city of Chicago, which is in the classrooms of the city of Chicago,” he said.
“One day we’ll have a full discussion about journalism, and what you do,” Emanuel added. “Which may explain why people are searching out information from a wider source.”
A testy Emanuel said he takes the city’s crime problems personally.
“I go and visit these parents in the hospital. I go and see them. I hear everybody talking about them. I’m actually there trying to hug them, and trying to help them. And so I would say to you is I know the real challenge it is, not just from a headline perspective. The sense of senseless loss of life.”
Emanuel said it’s unfair for anyone to portray the city’s violent crime as a problem for the Chicago Police Department to solve on its own.
“This is not on police alone. It’s on all of us, from parenting to pastors to principals, and it takes all of us to change that situation,” he said.
However, it’s clear the city’s crime is something that still weighs on Emanuel as he enters the final nine months of his tenure.
“We have a real challenge. We have had it for a long time. And we have to deal with people’s access to guns. We have to deal with, in my view, a shortage of values and impulse control. We have to deal with real despair, and creating opportunity. We have to deal with a criminal justice system that people don’t have any faith in, and it’s not just policing. People don’t have faith in the criminal justice system when they see people that they just got arrested back out on the street. They’ll take the law into their own hands.”
Emanuel made no bones about the fact he’s given thought to what his legacy will be after eight years as the mayor of Chicago, both what he’d like it to be, and where he’s fallen short.
“If anybody told you they didn’t think about legacy, they’d be lying to you,” he said.
The mayor said he’s particularly proud that he will leave Chicago in better financial shape than when he took office, and of the work he’s done to benefit the city’s children.
“Short of politics, put how you personally feel about me aside. In tough fiscal times, even though we repaired the budget, we always found the resources to invest in our children,” he said. “If you just don’t measure it by public school, but overall – after-school, summer jobs, mentoring, public health – you’ll see, I think, an incredible set of investments with actually the results that are starting to set national standards.”
In particular, the mayor pointed to his work to offer universal full-day preschool programming, a longer school day and school year for the Chicago Public Schools, and improved graduation rates and other gains for CPS students.
“You can measure it by record high graduation, record low dropout, record high amount of kids going to college and post-high school education,” he said. “More kids have quit smoking in the city of Chicago because of the stiffer regulations I put on. More kids are in mentoring, and after-school, summer jobs.”
While Emanuel frequently touts the gains at CPS during his time in office, he has been a constant target of criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union, in particular his 2013 decision to close 50 public schools the administration deemed to be underutilized and under-performing. The closings came one year after the city’s first teachers’ strike in decades.
As he faces the start of one final school year as mayor, Emanuel said one thing he would do differently if he had the chance would be his decision shortly after taking office in 2011 to cancel 4 percent pay raises for teachers that had been negotiated by his predecessor, Richard M. Daley.
At the time, Emanuel defended cancelling the raises as a necessary move in the face of a financial crisis for the school district, and said while the teachers were getting raises year after year, and city officials enjoyed labor peace, “our children got the shaft.”
On Wednesday, Emanuel called that decision “a total mistake,” and said he instead should have negotiated a solution with the teachers.
“We should have basically sat down and said, ‘Okay, the system – because of what’s going on – can’t afford it. So how do we do this?’” he said. “We did it arbitrarily. I’m responsible. I’m accountable. So that’s not everybody. It should have been done more collaboratively than unilaterally. Total mistake.”
As for the $7.6 million campaign warchest he amassed ahead of next year’s election, Emanuel said he plans to return that money to his donors.
“I’m giving it back to organized labor, and the business community. It’s their money, not my money, and I appreciate their vote of confidence which their support reflected,” Emanuel said.
The mayor also offered some advice to his eventual successor, whoever it might be.
“You have to have judgment. You have to have the ability to learn and grow, because nobody’s prepared on day one,” he said. “Who has the judgment, who has the character, who has the capacity to learn, because you will learn – I’ve learned a lot – and be self-critical to learn. … Those are the qualities, not a thing, and if that happens we’ll be good as a city.”
“The next mayor will have to be able to prove that they can actually help continue to grow this city,” he added.
For his own part, Emanuel said he already has plenty of job offers.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay,” he said.
Emanuel choked up as he looked ahead to the next stage of his life with his family.
“I have my health, I have an unbelievably supportive spouse, I have three incredibly great children who have become the young adults I wanted them to become. I’m going to be fine. Don’t worry about me,” he said.