WASHINGTON – The fatal police shooting of a Black teen in Chicago seven years ago is looming large over former Mayor Rahm Emanuel as he hopes to win Senate 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 Emanuel from consideration for that coveted diplomatic post. They see his nomination as out of sync with the values of an administration that says “comprehensive and meaningful police reform" is a priority.
Emanuel's city administration refused to make public the police dash cam video of the killing for more than a year, and only did so after being compelled by a state court. He later apologized for his handling of the situation, which led to weeks of mostly peaceful protests in the nation's third-largest city after the video's release.
Emanuel, in prepared remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, makes no mention of the shooting. The hearing comes on the seventh anniversary of McDonald's death.
Emanuel’s reputation for sharp elbows — developed over nearly 40 years in national politics as an Illinois congressman and top adviser to 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 on Tuesday pushed back against the criticism, saying Biden's “commitment to police reform speaks for itself."
“At the same time, he selects and has nominated a range of ambassadors to serve the United States overseas because of their qualifications, whether it’s from business, public service, or other reasons that would make them qualified for these positions," Psaki said.
If confirmed, Emanuel will 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.
“My top priority will be to deepen these ties while we confront our common challenges," Emanuel says in his prepared remarks. “China aims to conquer through division. America’s strategy is security through unity. That regional unity is built on the U.S.-Japan alliance."
No Democratic senator has publicly stated he or she would vote against Emanuel. The White House expects he will win support from several Republicans, including some who served with him in the House from 2003 to 2009.
Among the Democrats most critical of Emanuel's nomination are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who called the pick “deeply shameful," and 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 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 Chicago to make a series of changes in policies on police cameras, the 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.
Eight Black members of Chicago's City Council who were allies of Emanuel during his tenure praised Emanuel, in a letter to the Senate committee, 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 on Emanuel's behalf, arguing that Emanuel 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 said.
Emanuel was a fierce advocate for Biden's White House campaign run and has been a TV analyst. He 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.
Some Chicago activists have urged the Senate to reject Emanuel's nomination, noting that in addition to the McDonald shooting, Emanuel's tenure as mayor was clouded by the closure of dozens of public schools and several mental health clinics in predominantly minority neighborhoods as the city dealt with a budget crunch.
Norman Solomon, national director of the liberal organization RootsAction.org, said his group is helping coordinate a grassroots campaign urging lawmakers to vote against Emanuel.
Solomon criticized the committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, for holding the hearing on the anniversary of McDonald’s killing, saying it demonstrates that many Democrats are in a “clueless bubble.”
If confirmed, Emanuel would follow in a long line of prominent political figures who have been dispatched to Tokyo by presidents of both parties. The list includes former Vice President Walter Mondale, ex-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan's onetime 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 Emanuel 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.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.