“Mayor 1%,” Kari Lydersen’s new book on Rahm Emanuel and his time as Chicago mayor is being released this month. The book places him squarely in the camp that his critics have pegged him since he came into office: a member of the 1%, the obscenely wealthy, elite class called out by the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.
Thoughtful and well-researched, Lydersen’s book takes us from Emanuel’s childhood to his pivotal role in the Clinton White House and his behind-the-scenes maneuvering to pass bills like the North American Free Trade Act despite the opposition of unions and immigrant rights groups. Emanuel comes across as the quintessential New Democrat, more chummy with corporate leaders than community groups and looking to pass business-friendly policies at any cost.
What makes "Mayor 1%" (Haymarket Books) particularly compelling is Lydersen’s day-to-day chronicling of the movements and organizations that have stood up to Emanuel’s political philosophy in his first few years as mayor, from the Mental Health Movement to the Chicago Teachers Union.
The author of four books, Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist who contributes to The Chicago Reporter and has worked in the Midwest bureau of the Washington Post. The Chicago Reporter chatted with Lydersen recently about “Mayor 1%.”
Your book delves deeply into the first few years of Emanuel’s time in Chicago, but it also goes into his background as a legislator an investment banker. Why was it important to connect these roles?
Because it is the underpinning of the way he has governed so far in Chicago. His time in investment banking cemented his high finance connections and even more important than his connections are the way that he sees the private sector, and specifically the business, top-down, private sector approach. That’s what has been so problematic during his time as mayor. It shows a lot about his priorities and approach to governing. As mayor, you should have principles and involve the well-being of your constituents, and not just play the levers of power.
We're still not done with Emanuel's time in office. Why chronicle it now, rather than wait for a retrospective?
It was actually the publisher’s idea, Haymarket Books. It actually became more about his time as mayor than even they or I had planned, because it proved to be the most interesting. The book is a combination of look who we have in City Hall, and letting people know, if they have missed it so far, what is going on in terms of the resistance in Chicago.
How much of Rahm Emanuel’s time as mayor has to do with his personality and how much has to do with the political priorities of being a New Democrat?
I don’t think his personal personality as opposed to his political personality with define or shape Chicago in the way that the Daleys did, but I think his personality is part of the problem with the way he governs. Even aside from the whole New Democrat philosophy, it’s his way or the highway, and he is so impatient he doesn’t take the time to deliberate or listen to other voices
I hear all the time that Rahm Emanuel has been making people nostalgic for Richard M. Daley, who preceded him. Are you nostalgic for Daley?
I was sad to see Daley go because it was so fascinating to watch what he does and what kind of responses he provokes, in a sort of detached intellectual way. But if you look at the facts, he was selling out the city more than people allow themselves to remember. That nostalgia is really misplaced. He did most of the same things as Rahm, but he did them in a more folksy way.
From the prominence it gets in the book, the Mental Health Movement clearly touched you. Tell me why you feel it’s so instrumental to understanding Emanuel's time as mayor.
I think the Mental Health Movement activists are sort of the perfect foil, really just kind of the opposite of him because he has so much power and privilege in almost every possible way, and it’s a diverse group but a lot of the members are lower income. They rely on mental health services, which makes them vulnerable in that sense. They are saying my needs are just as important and have just as much value as those of millionaire donors. As a group, they are wonderful, truly grassroots, truly collective. When they are in their meetings and you see them together, it’s clear they care so much about each other.
What kind of effect do you hope the book will have?
I hope it lets more people know basically that there is a growing organizing movement to sort of take back or shift the direction of the city. It can serve as some kind of tools for groups that are organizing. It’s one more little voice to the chorus of people calling for a safety net and opportunities and decent jobs for regular people.
The last few weeks have seen the Take Back Chicago rally and a start to calls for a different political future for Chicago. What do you think of these?
I’ve been following what some of these groups have been doing for years. I think it’s really positive and exciting that this movement and group [were] formally launched. The campaign is obviously still in the relatively early stages, and it’s more than just about the election. There are some really amazing and brilliant leaders out there, and the swell of discontent and desire for change is certainly big, and there is fertile ground for them to tap into it.