The fatal police shooting of a Black teen in Chicago seven years ago is looming large over the city’s former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, as he looks to win confirmation as President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Japan
Several liberal House lawmakers and activists complain that Emanuel's handling of the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times as he ran away from police, should have disqualified him for consideration for a coveted role. They see the nomination as out of sync with the values of an administration that says “comprehensive and meaningful police reform" is a priority.
Emanuel's administration refused to make public police dash cam video of the killing for more than a year and not until being compelled to do so by a state court. He later apologized for his handling of the situation, which sparked weeks of mostly peaceful protests in the nation's third-largest city after the video's release.
Emanuel is set to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday for his confirmation hearing, which is occurring on the seventh anniversary of McDonald's murder.
Emanuel’s reputation for sharp elbows — developed over nearly 40 years in national politics as a congressman and top adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — also is part of the backdrop as he tries to demonstrate that he has the temperament for international diplomacy, particularly in protocol-conscious Japan.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week held out Emanuel’s “commitment to public service and broad experience in policymaking" as attributes that make him suited for the job.
If confirmed, he'll be Biden's chief envoy to Japan at a moment when the two nations are looking to strengthen ties as their common adversary, China, has strengthened its position as an economic and national security competitor in the Pacific.
The White House is confident Emanuel will be confirmed by the Senate despite sharp criticism by several of the president's allies in the party's liberal wing of the House, whose members do not vote on confirmations.
Thus far, none of the Senate's Democrats have publicly stated that they would vote against Emanuel. The White House also expects he will win support from several Senate Republicans, including some who served with him during his time in the House from 2003 and 2009.
Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., who served as former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Tokyo, is slated to introduce Emanuel to the committee.
Among the Democrats most critical of Emanuel's nomination are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who called the pick “deeply shameful," and Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, who has called on the Senate “to do the right thing and block his nomination."
The head of the NAACP and a number of police reform activists have also spoken out against the nomination of Emanuel, who also had been in the running to be Biden's transportation secretary.
The release of the McDonald video — which showed the teen repeatedly shot as he was running from police — led the city to make a series of changes in policies on police cameras, use of force and training. Months before the video's release, the city agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to McDonald's family.
Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald 16 times. was convicted of second degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated assault and sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. The episode strained Emanuel's relationship with the city's sizable Black community.
Ahead of the hearing, eight Black members of Chicago's City Council who were allies of Emanuel during his tenure and former deputy mayor wrote to the Foreign Relations Committee, praising Emanuel for lengthening the day for the city's public schools and taking other steps that benefited long-neglected Black neighborhoods.
Rev. Martin Hunter, the great uncle of McDonald, also wrote to the committee on Emanuel's behalf, arguing that he had “inherited a deeply flawed system" on police investigations that tied his hands.
“There is more to this individual than the caricature that is presented in the public,” Hunter wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
After leaving the mayor's office, Emanuel was a fierce advocate for Biden's successful White House run and served as a TV political analyst. He also made $13 million, the bulk from his work as a senior adviser to the investment banking firm Centerview Partners Advisory Holdings, according to financial disclosure documents.
Norman Solomon, national director of the liberal organization RootsAction.org, said his group is helping coordinate a letter writing and phone call campaign urging lawmakers to vote against Emanuel’s nomination.
Solomon also slammed the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, for holding Emanuel’s confirmation hearing on the anniversary of McDonald’s killing, saying it demonstrates that many Democrats are in a “clueless bubble.”
Rev. Ira Acree, a civil rights activists in Chicago, said Biden's decision to reward Emanuel with an ambassadorship was disappointing.
“What he did was commit an unpardonable political sin,” Acree said of Emanuel. “But the president and Democratic Party appears to want to reward him because of his clout, what they perceive to be his high political acumen and his extraordinary ability to raise money.”
If confirmed, Emanuel would follow in a long line of prominent political figures who have been dispatched to Tokyo by both Democratic and Republican presidents. The list includes former Vice President Walter Mondale, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan chief of staff Howard Baker.
Diplomacy, however, hasn't always been Emanuel's strong suit. His old boss Obama acknowledged during Emanuel's mayoral reelection campaign that he could sometimes come off as “a little hard headed."
Emanuel once sent a dead fish to a pollster whose work he was unhappy with and was legendary for his blunt — and often coarse — communication style.
Yuko Nakano, a Japan analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while Emanuel has limited foreign policy experience, Japanese officials are pleased that Biden wants to send someone with Emanuel's profile to lead the Japan mission.
“His experience in the White House and Congress with the decision-making process is a very appealing aspect to the Japanese," Nakano said. “Those qualifications outweigh him not being an expert on Japan, or even a foreign policy expert for that matter.”