Increasingly concerned that former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel is on the verge of being awarded a plum position in President Joe Biden’s administration, activists and relatives of victims of police violence in the city are publicly urging the president to slam the brakes on considering him for a high-profile ambassadorship.
But some of Emanuel’s biggest Democratic critics are conspicuously silent in response to reports that he will be nominated as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, raising questions about whether they see a prominent posting abroad as worth internecine fighting.
“Rahm Emanuel covered up the murder of my son,” said Dorothy Holmes, mother of Ronald Johnson, who was shot in the back by Chicago police in 2014. “Rahm Emanuel does not deserve to be the ambassador of anything. Rahm Emanuel belongs behind bars.”
On Thursday, more than two dozen victims of police violence in Chicago and their relatives released a joint statement condemning Biden’s reported choice of ambassador, accusing the former two-term mayor and onetime White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama of “contempt for communities of color” during his mayoralty.
Emanuel, the signers wrote, “became a symbol of lethal disrespect for Black lives,” and making him an ambassador “would make the U.S. government a similar symbol.”
“The possibility that Rahm Emanuel will become the U.S. ambassador to Japan is abhorrent to those of us who continue to mourn the loss of our loved ones due to police violence that he aided and abetted as mayor of Chicago,” the letter states. “He showed callous disregard for terrible losses suffered by the families of those who were killed or brutalized by officers of the Chicago Police Department.”
Among the letter’s signatories include Holmes; Emmett Farmer, father of Flint Farmer, who was shot by police three times as he lay on the ground in 2011; and Crista Noël, an activist with Women’s All Points Bulletin, which works to end police violence against women in the city.
“I do not think that the former mayor has made peace with the city of Chicago,” La Shawn Ford, a Democratic member of the Illinois House of Representatives and a longtime critic of Emanuel’s, told The Daily Beast. “I think that should be considered for his nomination. I mean, he will be representing the United States of America, and I think that he owes the city of Chicago, the taxpayers of Chicago, the Laquan McDonald family, a sincere public apology—and to really sit down and make sure that he’s forgiven.”
Emanuel is a controversial figure in Democratic politics. A former chief of staff to a popular president, with close ties to President Joe Biden, he has enjoyed relationships with many of the party’s most senior members. But his eight-year tenure as mayor of Chicago was riven with scandals over police brutality and allegations of cronyism—particularly relating to the murder of Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
The death of McDonald, a 17-year-old boy who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer while he was walking away from the police, led to nationwide protests after dashcam footage showing his death was revealed to the public despite attempts by Emanuel’s administration to prevent its release. Pointing to the footage’s burial until after Emanuel’s re-election four months later, as well as the city council’s decision to award McDonald’s family $5 million within weeks of his death and without the conclusion of an official inquiry, people accused Emanuel of orchestrating a coverup to prevent the murder from negatively affecting his candidacy.
When Emanuel was floated as a potential secretary of transportation or housing in the Biden administration, progressive Democrats widely condemned his consideration for any position in government.
“Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted in November, after Biden won election. “Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership.”
Emanuel was eventually passed over for secretary-level positions in Biden’s cabinet, as well as lower-tier roles like U.S. trade representative, for which he was also briefly considered. But Emanuel’s reported selection as the president’s representative in Tokyo, first reported by Axios last month and confirmed to The Daily Beast by a person familiar with the current makeup of the next slate of ambassadors, the reaction from elected Democrats was more muted.
The ambassadorship in Japan is seen as a major honor in the informal rankings of diplomatic postings for political allies of incoming, with past ambassadors including Caroline Kennedy and Walter Mondale. But concerns about Emanuel, whose reputation even among his supporters is far from diplomatic, are currently being expressed primarily by those with the least amount of influence over the potential nomination.
While some, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), have pushed against the potential nomination, those with the biggest sway are staying comparatively mum. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a much-needed vote for Emanuel’s confirmation who has a longstanding feud with the former mayor, declined to comment on the potential nomination through a spokesperson, and Ocasio-Cortez has been silent on an ambassadorship for Emanuel as well.
Ford, who proposed a state law that would have created a mechanism for a recall election of Emanuel as Chicago’s mayor, told The Daily Beast that while he doesn’t “believe in lifetime ban for anybody with anything,” he believes that Emanuel has not yet humbled himself enough to earn the support of his former constituents.
“There’s still a lot of wounds out here in Chicago from his administration,” Ford said. “It should be required of him, if he’s going to be nominated, that he shows that he has the ability to be diplomatic in situations—especially ones that he has control over.”