WASHINGTON– The toughest battle of Rahm Emanuel’s career comes to a close on Tuesday as Chicago voters head to the polls to choose their next mayor.
And though Obama’s notoriously hard-charging former chief of staff has weathered many difficult fights before, Emanuel’s allies aren’t predicting victory yet.
Public polls show the mayor leading challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia by double-digit margins, but the historic nature of the election — it’s Chicago’s first-ever runoff, sparked when Emanuel failed to top 50% in the first round of voting in February — and unusual timing has the city’s political observers guessing.
“We’re heading into spring break. There’s two days after Easter. It’s right in the middle of Passover. I mean, we’ve never had a runoff before in the city of Chicago for a citywide office,” Election Board spokesman Jim Allen told reporters this weekend.
The race has seen a huge surge in early votes, with more than 142,000 Chicagoans submitting their ballots early, up from just about 90,000 before the February vote, which saw unusually low turnout to begin with. Turnout was particularly high in wards with contested aldermanic races, but it was low in Hispanic-majority wards, a less-than-ideal early signal for Garcia.
He dismissed the early results, however, as a result of inexperience among the city’s Latino population.
“They’re not as seasoned and experienced as other communities because they became citizens not that long ago,” he said while voting early himself, according to the Sun Times. “I feel really positive about the early vote.”
But the winner’s reward is not necessarily an ideal prize — it’s a Chicago beset by growing financial problems, including a $20 billion pension crisis and $300 million operating budget shortfall that have resulted in multiple downgrades in the city’s bond rating. Those challenges have taken center stage in the final week of campaigning as Emanuel has sought to paint Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, as inexperienced and unfit for the job of fixing the city’s financial mess.
He’s aired a series of hard-hitting attack ads accusing Garcia of dodging questions and refusing to offer particulars on his policy proposals. And Garcia has given the incumbent ample fodder for such attacks — he’s refused to name members of an expert panel he plans to appoint to craft those policies, won’t put dollar amounts on the reforms he has proposed and significant chunks of his plan aren’t even under the mayor’s control.
But those financial woes are also part of what have made Emanuel so vulnerable to a challenge. Many of the city’s residents believe he hasn’t done enough to solve the city’s sluggish economy, and critics say what steps he has taken — like closing public health clinics, 50 public schools and installing red light cameras to raise fees — have only made the problem worse for Chicago’s low-income and minority communities.
The perception that Emanuel’s forgotten about the disadvantaged pockets of the city has put Chicago’s sizable African American vote into play, and the two candidates have spent the final weeks of the campaign vying for the black vote on Chicago’s South and West sides.
Emanuel’s rolled out the endorsements of a number of the city’s most prominent African American state legislators, and campaigned with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Saturday, before hitting a number of churches for Easter Sunday.
Garcia, meanwhile, has been playing up his affiliation to former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, and has touted endorsements from Emanuel’s main black challenger during the first round of votes and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
That perception also fueled a progressive backlash against Emanuel that parallels the broader debate within the Democratic Party, between its business-minded and working-class wings.
Garcia’s hit Emanuel as a traditional pay-for-play politician more interested in helping his wealthy donors than improving the city, pointing to the business leaders who have contributed to his campaign, and could stand to benefit from city grant money, as evidence.
In contrast, the challenger has framed himself in the mold of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and is getting help from many groups that consider themselves a part of the “Warren wing” of the party — Move On, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party, to name a few. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who’s emerged as another leader of the progressive movement, campaigned for the challenger in Chicago last week.
Garcia’s allies are hoping that grassroots support and the organizational strength of some of the city’s biggest unions — including Chicago’s teachers, who are furious with Emanuel over his school closings and have the week off to get out the vote due to Spring Break — could help the underdog break ahead. Garcia’s campaign was predicting as many as 7,000 volunteers could hit the streets to turn out the vote for the challenger on Tuesday.
Emanuel’s strategists readily admit their ground operation fell short in the first round of voting, when the mayor faced four challengers and took just 47% of the vote. But they’ve ramped up their efforts, undertaking an aggressive early vote push to get out the mayor’s base in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods spanning the lakefront and North side.
That, coupled with a rebranding of sorts to show off the notoriously caustic mayor’s softer side, has Emanuel’s supporters hopeful that those ambivalent about the mayor the first time around will make it out to the polls this time.
Regardless of the outcome, however, both candidates characterized the significance of the election in similar terms this week, as a battle over the “future of Chicago,” as Emanuel put it.
“[Chicago voters] know this is a significant election with serious consequences because of what we know is just ahead of us,’ he said this weekend, according to the Sun Times.
By Alexandra Jaffe