In 2011, Rahm Emanuel barely broke a sweat to become the 55th mayor of Chicago: after serving President Barack Obama as the first chief of staff in his administration, Emanuel arrived in Chicago with an oversize campaign war chest and a Rolodex of high profile endorsements from both the entertainment and political worlds to face hometown opponents with little clout, less money, and no national prestige.
Helping things was a fairly apathetic electorate. With only 42 percent of registered Chicago voters showing up to vote, Emanuel’s 2011 mandate came from just 23 percent of registered voters.
Four years later, Emanuel is facing re-election on Tuesday, and things have changed.
According to successive polls over the past two years, the mayor’s support has taken a major hit. Chief among the cited reasons, his decision to shutter nearly 50 public schools in favor of privatized charters, and a perception among residents that a concentration on downtown development has come at the expense of efforts to revitalize the majority of the city, which has struggled with population loss, crime and economic stagnation.
“Out of touch,” says Lori Meehan of the mayor as she carefully navigates the icy sidewalks of Logan Square to get to the L train. Meehan, 39, voted for Emanuel in 2011 but admits she “didn’t know much about him” then. “Now we’ve had four years, and it just feels like the city is divided more than ever. He’s always coming here to ride his bike and look like he’s part of everyday people, but he’s not,” she says. “He’s for the money.”
While many of these problems existed long before Emanuel took office, critics say his policies have largely forsaken meaningful public investment in struggling areas that could get the ball rolling on private investment.
“Ultimately all this comes around to inequality,” says Larry Bennett, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. “If you live on the North Side, you live in a lovely world, but if you live in many parts of the South and West sides, it’s a disaster. He hasn’t done much to narrow the gap between the experience of life on the North Side, opposed to South and West.”
Emanuel is now suddenly looking vulnerable to having to face a runoff election April 7 against his most formidable opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and former state senator. Garcia has been leading a grass-roots campaign that is gaining momentum among some minority voters who largely have bought into the two-Chicagos narrative that Emanuel’s opponents have endorsed since 2013, when the mayor implemented what became the largest mass public school closing in U.S. history.
New player in town
When he served in the city council, Garcia was an ally of then-Mayor Harold Washington. While Garcia may not possess the charisma of the late Washington, his growing momentum against an establishment candidate resembles Washington’s out-of-nowhere campaign against incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and challenger Richard M. Daley, then the Cook County prosecutor, which ultimately led to an upset that local machine Democrats have not forgotten.
William Boback, 61, waits for a bus in Bucktown and says Garcia has more experience as a legislator in the city and state compared with the competition, including Emanuel. But he worries that Garcia doesn’t have enough clout to bring about meaningful change. But in the end, Boback just doesn’t believe that voting matters all that much.
“He’s too outside. Maybe too far outside,” he says of Garcia. “The leaders of this city seem to choose who they want, and the election don’t mean a thing.”
Garcia, backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, one of the most powerful labor organizations in the city, has crafted a message largely focused on what it calls Emanuel’s support for corporate welfare, providing public money for downtown hotels and other private developments in affluent areas while shortchanging public amenities and schools. Garcia has tried to link Emanuel to Illinois’ new Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who took office in January and last week proposed a budget that slashes funding for Illinois universities, mass transit, Medicaid and other social programs.
Nearby at a Dunkin’ Donuts, Jessica Paxton sips her coffee to get warm before heading to work in a realty office. She says Garcia has few specifics in his proposals but she is upset over soft taxes, such as fines for speeding and running red lights, which have increased under Emanuel
“There really isn’t much choice. I wish that would change,” she says.
Race to the finish
For Emanuel to avoid an April runoff, he needs more than 50 percent of the vote in this nonpartisan first round. And right now, he’s close. A Chicago Tribune poll released last week shows Emanuel netting 45 percent of likely voters, with Garcia earning 20 percent support. Garcia greatly outperforms Emanuel with Hispanic voters, while the mayor’s pushes for a minimum wage increase and an end to food deserts are credited for putting him in the lead with African-Americans.
The outcome, it appears, depends on the 1 in 5 voters who are still undecided. Because late undecided voters traditionally swing in favor of challengers, that would seem to benefit Garcia, but even there, there is uncertainty. Emanuel would need to sway only a small percentage of these voters to get him over the top.
Another factor potentially in Emanuel’s favor is the weather. Chicago is currently locked in a deep freeze, with subzero temperatures already responsible for four days of canceled classes at Chicago public schools; if the weather continues through Tuesday, it could drive down voter turnout, which could again help the mayor.
“It’s going to be close. Voter turnout is going to be absolutely critical. The lower turnout there is, the more it benefits Rahm,” says Wayne Steger, the political science department chairman at DePaul University in Chicago.
Emanuel has been hitting local airwaves hard with attack ads suggesting Garcia has a record of cronyism. In turn, Garcia is running a spot that criticizes Emanuel for being soft on crime.
This final sprint to Tuesday bears some hallmarks of Emanuel’s first run in 2011. The mayor is popping up at L stops during rush-hour commutes to shake hands with voters, his schedule includes a number of meet-and-greet stops in black and Hispanic neighborhoods to tout job growth, and famous faces are rolling through town to tout his record. This week the list included NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Obama, who told campaign volunteers the mayor “cares deeply about the children of this city” and is “willing to make some really hard decisions on behalf of those children and on behalf of our future.”
But Tuesday’s decision — four more years of Emanuel or another two months of debate with a populist challenger — is in the hands of Chicagoans.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story wrongly attributed a quote about the divisions between Chicago's neighborhoods. The quote was from Larry Bennett, not Larry Msall.