Could Chicag’s Rahm Emanuel lose re-election?

Voters are unhappy with the mayor, but his fundraising prowess is a big deterrent for would-be challengers

Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard University on October 18, 2013, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Paul Marotta / Getty Images

CHICAGO — Rahm Emanuel has everything a winning mayoral candidate would seem to need: name recognition, a campaign war chest nearing $10 million and famous friends in Hollywood and the White House who are more than willing to slide into town at a moment’s notice.

Yet polling has consistently shown that the former Obama administration chief of staff has one significant deficit in his campaign for re-election next February: The majority of voters in his city do not like him.

Over the last 12 months, Emanuel’s approval ratings have been on a downward spiral. A Chicago Tribune poll released in August, for example, shows that 35 percent of likely voters approve of the job he has been doing, down from 50 percent about a year ago. The results are similar regardless of voters’ race, income, age or gender. A Chicago Sun-Times poll from May shows similar dissatisfaction: Only 18 percent of those surveyed said Emanuel was doing a better job than previous mayor Richard M. Daley.

The polling results reflect a growing tension over leadership in Chicago. To many, Emanuel represents a problem. In 2012, the first full year of his term, the city’s homicide count surpassed 500. And, many say, his decision to shut nearly 50 public schools — the largest mass school closing in U.S. history — and to strike development deals downtown instead of in lower-income neighborhoods has deepened the city’s economic divide.

Critics say Emanuel, who once earned more than $18 million over a two-year period as a Wall Street investment banker, professes concern for struggling households, but has done little on their behalf. They say his many unpopular measures — a rollout of traffic cameras, privatizing public transit and expanding charter schools amid mass teacher and custodian layoffs — contradict the mayor’s narrative that he is fighting for all of Chicago.

“The Emanuel tenure has been a huge wake-up call for a lot of people,” says Tim Meegan, a high school social-studies teacher who is running for city-council alderman in the city’s 33rd Ward, an ethnically diverse area on the city’s northwest side. “He’s not a working-class guy from the streets of Chicago, and he’s refused to compromise except to the 1 percent. He’s so insulated that he doesn’t really understand the city he has been charged with governing.”

At the moment, if Rahm ran today, Rahm would win despite what the polls show.

Dick Simpson

University of Illinois at Chicago

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks with his former boss President Barack Obama on the tarmac upon the president's arrival at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in May 2013.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Emanuel has publicly brushed off the polls, saying they are likely tied to the sagging economy and that voters are feeling squeezed by shrinking opportunities in the job market. His campaign spokesperson Steve Mayberry wrote in an email that the mayor has created 26,000 new jobs and is fighting to raise the minimum wage.

“There’s a lot more work to do — especially in the neighborhoods suffering most from joblessness and violence,” he wrote. “But by making the tough decisions that were avoided for too long, Mayor Emanuel is providing the strong leadership to make Chicago work for everyone.”

And, despite the polls, Emanuel remains, so far, in a comfortable position. He is not yet feeling the heat from any high-profile challenger who will outspend him. Despite Chicago’s gaping budget holes, the most underfunded pension system in the U.S. and lagging unemployment — issues a GOP candidate in another city might pounce on — the Republican party here is virtually nonexistent. That means any opposition must originate from Emanuel’s own party. But in a patronage town where loyalties are tribal, that can be risky. 

And Emanuel, who established his political career as a prodigious fundraiser, is trying to ensure that critics from within his own party are dissuaded from even thinking of entering the race. Chicago Forward, a super-PAC representing Emanuel backers, has already raised more than $1 million to advocate for the mayor’s policies. Emanuel also persuaded a group of loyal alderman to form their own organization to advocate for his policies.

The divide-and-conquer approach has so far paid off: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, enormously popular in Chicago and a clear winner over Emanuel in the polls, announced this summer that she would not run. Her decision came two months after the Tribune revealed that an Emanuel spokesperson was trying to pitch negative stories about her to reporters.

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody and they have to have name recognition and they have to raise resources. At the moment, if Rahm ran today, Rahm would win despite what the polls show,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Time and time again, he’s not listened to Chicagoans and what they want.

Michael Kolenc

Campaign strategist for Emanuel challenger

Yet polling shows that, despite his efforts to mute the opposition from within his own party, Emanuel may still be vulnerable to Democrats who are voicing populist outrage over his alleged scandals and missteps. Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti, one of the few dissenting voices in the city council, has announced his candidacy; Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who became the public face of the outcry over the school closings, is also expected to run.

Simpson says Emanuel is not invincible in the coming election and that the escalating nickel and diming from his office have gouged people at a time when they are hurting most. They see the mayor’s pet projects — a giveaway of premium parkland to filmmaker George Lucas to house a personal art collection and the use of public tax money to build a South Loop basketball stadium for DePaul University — as producing little to no impact beyond the downtown area.

Take the red-light cameras. Emanuel insisted they were intended for public safety. But according to a 10-month Tribune investigation, it appeared the cameras were rigged to issue thousands of unjustified $100 tickets, confirming public suspicions that their primary purpose was to generate income. A separate investigation showed that Redflex Traffic Systems, a city contractor, was involved in a $2 million bribery scheme to win the contract. Two company officials, plus a city official, received federal indictments in August; they say they are not guilty.

The scandal underscores the perception that Emanuel is out of touch. It didn’t help when, in the spring, media reports showed that he had regularly blown through speeding cameras, racking up 20 citations for various violations since 2012, but had them dismissed.

These misfires have galvanized the opposition and played directly into the “two Chicagos” narrative it embraces. Fioretti, a Chicago native and Democrat who recently declared his candidacy, says he will audit the city’s books and issue a moratorium on charter schools.

Michael Kolenc, Fioretti’s senior campaign strategist, says that Emanuel is not vulnerable on a single issue, but many. “Time and time again, he’s not listened to Chicagoans and what they want. Instead, he’s gone off on his own. So the streets are less safe, our schools need to be stronger, and we need to bring economic development to all parts of the city, not just one,” he says.

Mayberry, Emanuel’s spokesperson, blasts Fioretti for “a notorious history of pandering and inconsistency on some of the city’s most pressing issues” and says his “lack of political backbone has been on display since the day he assumed office.”

Emanuel’s most formidable opponent may be Lewis, who became a vocal critic of the mayor following a teachers’ strike early in his first term. Lewis is currently gathering petitions to get her name on the ballot. The Tribune poll shows her beating Emanuel in a head-to-head challenge 43-39 percent. A Chicago Sun-Times poll shows her beating Emanuel 45-36 percent.

If either Fioretti or Lewis wins, they will inherit a rapidly worsening pension crisis that predates Emanuel. Observers say that means they too will be faced with the ugly choice of raising taxes or deferring the problem, like the current mayor and his predecessor, Daley, have done. The 2015 election year budget has a $297.3 million deficit; it would be nearly triple that amount, but the city decided to defer the $550 million jump in pension contributions for police and firemen until a later date.

Ralph Marteri, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, in Chicago, says that even though Emanuel “is faced with fiscal constraints that are not of his making,” he, and any potential successor, is responsible for enacting reform measures to ensure the city will not reach bankruptcy.

“We can’t let any elected official off the hook, because that’s what they all want,” he says. “It’s their job. Leading means telling taxpayers what they need to hear [more] than what they want to hear, then do that. Instead, you get pandering, and that never solves problems.” 

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