Opinion: What the Obama School Name Change Means For the Mayor's Political Future - NBC Chicago
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Opinion: What the Obama School Name Change Means For the Mayor's Political Future

The strategy-minded political animal has yet to master Chicago's racial politics.



    Here in Democratic Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's pitch to name a brand-new North Side high school after hometown hero Barack Obama—an otherwise winning concept—was instead greeted with scorn rather than celebration as critics wondered why City Hall overlooked the South Side, where the First Family has a home.

    Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett signed off on the idea months ago, unveiling splashy plans to open Barack Obama College Preparatory High School, a $60 million top-tier institution near Skinner North Classical School in the Old Town neighborhood, circa 2017.

    But Emanuel, hinting at the backlash, said Thursday that he had scrapped his proposal, announcing: "Over the last few months, my team has listened to questions and concerns from the community, ranging from location of the building to the naming of the school. We take that community input seriously, which is why—as we continue to look for a thoughtful way to honor President Obama—we will look for other possible names for this future school."

    Facing re-election in February, Emanuel must overcome a decline in his job approval rating and a diminished reputation among African-American constituents for whom President Obama's historic Hyde Park-to-Oval Office journey is a source of local pride. The Trib last month published a gloomy poll revealing that nearly 60 percent of black survey-takers said they disapproved of Emanuel's performance as mayor, up from 48 percent in May 2013.

    The Obama College Prep blow-up speaks to Emanuel's shaky standing within Chicago's black community—a crucial voter segment for the incumbent Democrat—and reaction to the decision to remove the president from the school's moniker was on the chilly side.

    Fourth Ward Ald. Will Burns, a South Sider and Emanuel friend at City Council, was quoted in the Sun-Times as saying "There’s a strong concern with protecting the legacy of President Obama and his connection to the South Side of Chicago. It was a very quick decision. It was a well-intentioned one."

    Beyond the name switch, the location of the yet-to-be-named elite school remains a source of controversy. Said Burns: "The concern was that a school (is being built) on that part of town and our kids aren’t gonna be able to get in."

    (Emanuel has supported the North Side locale, citing its easy access to multiple modes of public transit and status as a recipient of tax increment financing money.)

    Meanwhile, Chicago political consultant Delmarie Cobb—referencing a recent report that Chicago's top-ranked public high schools have enrolled more white students in the past five years—told the AP, "It doesn't change the fact that (Emanuel is) still willing to spend millions to construct a new school on the North Side after studies have shown that enrollment of African-American kids is dropping in these selective enrollment schools."

    The frustration recalls frosty feedback last year to Emanuel's proposal to rename the South Side's Stony Island Avenue after the late Bishop Arthur Brazier, another episode steeped in racial politics. (That didn't stop Apple Maps from re-naming it anyway.)

    Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote Thursday that the mayor's tone-deafness on "issues involving race and class" clouds the good things he has done, lauding his CTA Red Line Reconstruction Project as a "source of desperately needed jobs" and vast improvement on "a system that tens of thousands of black workers depend on to get downtown every day."

    In Mitchell's view, Emanuel would do better to find a different location for the school than to give it a new name. She opined, "South and West siders are still begging for development. These voters aren't worried about what name hangs on a school. These voters are still seething because they couldn't even control the pitiful, failing, schools in their own neighborhoods."

    Which opens up all sorts of questions: Would Rahm even consider relocating the project? Will he have enough time to change hearts and minds in time for February's election—and what will he need to do? The clock is ticking, a charismatic foe is waiting in the wings and Rahm's political future hangs in the balance.