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Is Rahm Emanuel doomed?

The Chicago mayor's political capital is drying up, thanks to his autocratic style and unpopular education policies

July 29, 2014 6:00AM ET

In some ways, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Karen Lewis, the fiery president of the Chicago Teachers Union, are very much alike — profane, tough, outspoken, unapologetic. Both are Jewish, and both are ardent fans of ballet.

But a face-off between the two in the city’s 2015 mayoral election — should Lewis decide to run — would be a clear referendum on two wildly different versions of politics and views of the city’s future.

That such a contest might be on the horizon shows how Emanuel’s cavalier, steamroller style of governance has alienated Chicago voters, invoked racial and class tensions and made one of the country’s most feared political operatives potentially vulnerable to an unorthodox challenger out of left field.

A poll released by The Chicago Sun-Times on July 14 showed Lewis — an outspoken former chemistry teacher who has led the teachers’ union for four years — beating Emanuel by 9 percentage points in a one-on-one matchup, with 45 percent of voters choosing Lewis and 36 percent choosing Emanuel.

The result came as a shock to many political observers. Lewis, who is African-American, has no previous experience with electoral politics outside the union. Some are repulsed by her brash demeanor. Others have disparaged her weight (she recently underwent weight loss surgery in Mexico) or cringed at missteps. (She once mocked U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s speech impediment.)

That an unconventional contender such as Lewis is winning over people across the demographic spectrum shows just how upset Chicagoans are with Emanuel’s autocratic style, his dedication to Big Business and flashy downtown startups at the expense of regular residents and neighborhoods and — perhaps most significant, given Lewis’ standing in the teaching community — his drastic moves to restructure the public school system.

More than one constituency

Lewis hasn’t been the only potential challenger mentioned by observers. Bob Fioretti, one of the few aldermen who speak out against the mayor in the notoriously rubber-stamping city council, is considered a possible candidate. And the July poll, with 1,037 respondents, showed Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle 24 points ahead of Emanuel in a one-on-one matchup. Preckwinkle’s subsequent announcement on July 15 that she will not run for mayor disappointed Emanuel critics bent on seeing him defeated. But it cleared the way for a challenge by Lewis, who has formed an exploratory committee, though she has not officially entered the race.

Preckwinkle, who is African-American, would — like Lewis — have represented the constituency most alienated by Emanuel. The mayor’s administration closed almost 50 public schools in 2013, predominantly in black neighborhoods and, controversially, “turned around” schools by firing almost all their staff. Thousands of teachers and other public employees have been laid off, with black teachers and other black workers disproportionately affected.

Chicago has long been plagued by segregation and inequality, but many black residents feel Emanuel has widened the gulf even further between Chicago’s two cities (i.e., the haves and have-nots). An earlier poll, released by The Chicago Sun-Times in May, showed Emanuel with only 8 percent support among African-Americans, who were key to his 2011 election — thanks in part to backing from Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. The July poll found that a full 52 percent of black voters would choose Lewis in a one-on-one race while 34 percent would vote for Emanuel.

Emanuel’s stark unpopularity among African-American voters comes as Chicago’s black population has declined steeply — down by about 200,000 people in the past 20 years. The mayoral election will in part be a measure of how much power the black community can still wield. Several African-Americans have already announced they are running for mayor: former Alderman Robert Shaw, police officer Frederick Collins and Amara Enyia, a municipal planner and daughter of Nigerian dissidents who has inspired a multicultural corps of progressive supporters. Likely none of them have a real chance at winning, though each could siphon crucial votes from Lewis if she runs. 

In a city legendary for larger-than-life mayors, Emanuel, with his boasts about remaking the city while huge swaths of it suffer, may have created a mayoral race for the ages.

Lewis has the support of some black leaders, including Danny K. Davis, the popular congressman. But some Chicago residents wonder whether she will be able to command broad support. “Whites won’t vote for that crazy black lady,” one plainspoken but astute longtime political observer and neighborhood gadfly told me. However, in the recent poll, 39 percent of white voters said they would vote for Lewis, not far behind the 42 percent who said they would vote for Emanuel in a head-to-head race.

That’s partly because the outrage against Emanuel is not just race-based. The city’s residents have also taken issue more generally with the offhand way Emanuel’s administration has done business.

For instance, it announced the school closings while the mayor was on a ski vacation in Utah, after hundreds of public meetings for which neither the mayor nor his appointed school board members showed up to hear the emotional pleas of parents, teachers and students.

Shortly thereafter, the mayor’s office announced up to $17 million in taxpayer subsidies would go to expand Walter Payton College Prep, a public school downtown with one of the higher proportions of white students. Later he announced that a new high school to be named after Obama would be located in a wealthy neighborhood on the North Side, not the South Side African-American neighborhoods where Obama once worked as a community organizer.

Meanwhile, drastic budget cuts to individual schools citywide further alienated black parents, teachers and principals while mobilizing a new group of Emanuel critics among wealthier, white, North Side parents previously more likely to support the mayor. 

The Lewis line of attack

Emanuel’s camp, for its part, called the results of the poll “laughable.” But it’s just this dismissive attitude — too often adopted by the mayor himself — that has helped fuel the steep drop in his approval ratings among African-American and other disillusioned voters.

Lewis has capitalized on Emanuel’s drop in popularity, attacking him as an elitist, heartless creature of Wall Street at a time when the idea of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent has increasingly resonated. With her rhetoric of class struggle, she has become something of a folk hero. She has called the mayor and schools administrators “fat cats” and has compared the corporate interests backing Emanuel to the robber barons who historically exploited workers. She brought tens of thousands of Chicagoans into the streets during September 2012’s galvanizing teachers’ strike. Lewis insists she is fighting for the very concept of public education, demanding that resources be poured into neighborhood public schools rather than diverted to privately run charters that don’t guarantee admission to local residents.

The Chicago mayoral race is partly a referendum on the national contentious debate over charter schools. Emanuel is a strident champion of charters, while Lewis considers them union-busting privatization and vehemently opposes them. Adding fuel to Lewis’ fire, Juan Rangel, a civic leader and an adviser to the mayor, was ousted from his post at the United Neighborhood Organization over a scandal involving the group’s alleged nepotistic politics and financial dealings at its charter schools. The organization had millions in grant money suspended, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation. In addition, another charter chain welcomed by the Emanuel administration is being investigated by the FBI.

Meanwhile, the city continues to make international headlines for gang violence, leading Lewis to peg Emanuel the “murder mayor.” For instance, after school closings prompted worry last fall that students would have to cross gang lines to attend new schools, Emanuel mobilized police, fire and other city personnel to guard safe passage routes, but the extra forces were scaled back significantly after just two months. He makes it a point to call the parents of young murder victims, but such gestures ring hollow to police who say they need funds for more boots on the ground and to residents of poor neighborhoods who see city resources spent disproportionately to bolster startup businesses and attract employers downtown.

If interactions between Lewis and Emanuel thus far are any indication, a mayoral contest between the two would be a brutal fight filled with ripe language that bares long-standing racial and class divisions. In a city legendary for larger-than-life mayors, Emanuel — with his boasts about remaking the city while huge swaths of it suffer — may have created a race for the ages.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago journalist and the author of “Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.” She is a leader of the Social Justice News Nexus reporting fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She was on the Northwestern swim team from 1993 to 1997 and was a U.S. national team member and two-time national champion in marathon swimming.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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