Impeachment, Recalls, and Political Maneuvering: Should Emanuel Keep His Job?

 /  Jan. 30, 2016, 3:06 p.m.


Some say that it was inevitable. Others, “well deserved.”  With Rahm Emanuel facing an 18 percent approval rating, many believe that we are about to witness the fall of the Democratic Party kingmaker-turned-Chicago mayor. Despite concrete successes during his five years in office, such as job gains and a decrease in overall crime, Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting has placed him under greater public scrutiny than ever before, prompting calls for his resignation. However, despite this outcry for Emanuel’s departure, it is unlikely that he will be recalled––nor should he be. While the public’s outrage is reasonable, Emanuel’s record should not be enough to remove him from office.

The current demands for Emanuel’s resignation can be traced back to October 20, 2014, when seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald was seen walking down South Pulaski Road in Archer Heights, carrying a knife and breaking into vehicles. The police arrived around 10 p.m. to investigate reports of McDonald’s behavior. The narrative diverges at this point. According to the police report released on December 4, McDonald threatened the police officers on the scene, including Officer Jason Van Dyke. One officer reported that McDonald moved towards the police while swinging his knife. Another officer claimed that even after being shot, McDonald attempted to threaten the police further. This portrayal varies drastically from the dash cam video released on November 24, which shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald sixteen times less than thirty seconds after he arrives on the scene.

The circumstances of the shooting, the twenty previous allegations of misconduct against Van Dyke, and the release of the video and police reports of the shooting have unleashed a torrent of rancor against Emanuel. Since assuming office, Emanuel has had a complicated relationship with lower-income and black Chicagoans who believed that Emanuel’s interests aligned more with the downtown area than with their own neighborhoods. The 2013 closing of nearly fifty public schools in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods exacerbated this tension. The McDonald shooting proved to be the final straw for members of these communities and others who see it as proof of police corruption condoned by Emanuel. The shooting, coupled with allegations that Emanuel and his administration attempted to delay the release of the dash-cam video, has led to increased scrutiny of the Emanuel administration and calls for his resignation or a recall vote.

Until recently, it would have been impossible to recall Emanuel. The City of Chicago has no legal mechanism for a recall election. The State of Illinois only passed a provision to allow voters to recall the governor in 2010, after Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges. On December 10, 2015, State Representative La Shawn Ford proposed a bill that would allow two city aldermen to sign an affidavit in concurrence with a petition signed by eighty-eight thousand registered voters to recall Emanuel. However, this bill will most likely face legal challenges that will hamper its efficacy.

Ultimately, the question is whether Emanuel’s actions or alleged actions merit impeachment. The Constitution states that, the “President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” On the state and local levels, however, the grounds for impeachment are vague. The Illinois State Constitution mentions proper impeachment proceedings, but not impeachable offenses. Therefore, when deciding whether Emanuel has committed such an offense, it is best to refer to the Constitution’s definition. It does not appear that Emanuel has committed “treason” in the traditional sense of the word. Some of his detractors may argue that he committed treason against his constituents in a metaphorical sense, but few would agree that Emanuel actively “levied war” against the US. Similarly, Emanuel has not accepted or given bribes, as far as we are aware. The only “impeachable offenses” that remain are “high crimes and misdemeanors.” These have been described as “whatever the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” In practice, however, this definition would lead to impeachments every time there was a Democratic president and Republican Congress, and vice versa. Instead, a set of six commonly accepted criteria have developed, including “corruption, betrayal of trust, abuse of official power, neglect of duty, encroachment on the Senate and House’s prerogatives, and misapplication of funds.”

It does not appear that Emanuel has met these criteria or broken any laws. When Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries required Emanuel to turn over dash-cam footage and his emails regarding Laquan McDonald, he and his administration released the information. From the little public information that has been released, it is not even clear that Emanuel knew about the videos. Still, Emanuel could be recalled or impeached without having broken the law. Impeachment and recalls are not legal proceedings, but political maneuvers. Voters and aldermen, rather than legal scholars, must decide if Emanuel’s behavior merits his removal.

This question must be considered carefully. Only a handful of mayors have been recalled in recent years, and primarily in smaller towns such as Troy, Michigan, where voters recalled Mayor Janice Daniels in 2012 after she verbally attacked a city employee and posted anti-gay slurs on Facebook. In 2014, Falls River, Massachusetts voters recalled Mayor William Flanagan, whom voters accused of mismanaging funds and displaying bad judgement. There has never been a mayoral recall in major cities such as Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. The small-town mayors who have been recalled either exhibited behaviors such as alcoholism that prevented them from fully performing the duties of their office. Emanuel’s administration, by contrast, legally withheld information from the public and released it once Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama mandated it.

Some might argue that the withholding of the shooting video was an “abuse of power” and “betrayal of trust” by Emanuel, who was trying to place himself in a favorable position for the 2015 mayoral election. However, if voters recalled or impeached politicians every time they did not reveal certain information, it would be a regular occurrence. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may or may not have been aware of plans to close lanes on a bridge in order to spite a political opponent, and Senator Ted Cruz may or may not have been aware of a tax form omission of millions of dollars during his Senate campaign. Transparency should always be the gold standard of political behavior, but politicians may make mistakes, withhold information, or act irrationally. Emanuel has taken steps to correct the wrongs associated with the Chicago Police Department and increase transparency. On December 30, Emanuel announced changes to police training in order to prevent the rapid escalation of police encounters. Further, he has promoted the increased use of body cameras to ensure accountability. Although his approval ratings have decreased, under his tenure Chicago has experienced an increase in jobs totaling 1.4 million and a decrease from 2090 total crimes in 2012 to 1540 in 2015.

Given Emanuel’s accomplishments, his steps towards improving the Chicago Police Department, and the steep requirements for impeachment, it is both unlikely and unnecessary to recall Emanuel. Chicagoans had their opportunity to replace Emanuel in 2015 with the knowledge of his previous CPD policies before the Laquan McDonald shooting. The recent inquiries into corruption in the CPD should not be used as an opportunity to recall Emanuel, but as an opportunity to promote constructive change both in Chicago’s police department and throughout the country.

 The image featured in this article was taken by Daniel X. O'Neil. The original image can be found here

Lauren Futter


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