Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Fails to Avoid Runoff, Despite Massive Campaign War Chest


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel failed to clear the 50 percent threshold during Tuesday’s mayoral elections, paving the way for an April runoff between him and second place finisher, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. It will be Chicago’s first mayoral runoff since nonpartisan elections were instituted in the 1990s.

A majority of voters chose candidates other than the incumbent first-term mayor, whose brash governing style saw him clash with teachers, health care workers and progressives.

During his rocky first term, Emanuel oversaw the first teacher’s strike in the city since 1987 and the closure of nearly 50 public schools in a district whose school board members are appointed by the mayor rather than elected.

The unpopular decisions did not end there. Emanuel also backed the closure of six of the city’s twelve mental health clinics as part of a cost cutting plan that yielded only $1.7 million in savings. Community activists argued that the costs would simply be shifted to other areas, such as prisons. The closures of both the schools and mental health clinics came in mostly low income, minority neighborhoods.

Critics point out that at the same time those facilities were closed, the mayor was backing a new basketball stadium for DePaul, a private Catholic university on the city’s north side with a 2014 endowment worth nearly a half billion dollars. The plan calls for $77 million to come from the quasi-government agency known as the McPier Authority, and another $33 million from the city itself.

“This project could not be worse for human priorities,” said Bob Fioretti, an alderman who later decided to run against Emanuel. “We can’t afford neighborhood schools, but we can bankroll an unnecessary basketball arena for a private university?”

The disconnect with voters is not only over policy but also the mayor’s insider connections and perceived corruption.

Emanuel first served as a staffer under former President Bill Clinton. He left the White House to join a Wall Street firm where he earned $16.2 million as an investment banker over the course of two and a half years — despite having no business background. He later became a member of Congress representing the north side of Chicago and a chief of staff to Barack Obama during the president’s first term.

Following the announced retirement of long-time mayor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel left Washington to mount a mayoral campaign of his own. Emanuel, who faced only token opposition, avoided a runoff in 2011 when he received 55 percent of the vote.

The dramatically different outcome from Tuesday’s election is remarkable considering the advantages that the incumbent enjoyed: not only did Emanuel receive a personal last-minute appeal from President Obama, the mayor raised boatloads of cash — nearly $30 million between a campaign committee, a separate campaign fund and a Super PAC created to support city council candidates that back his agenda.

The mayor’s campaign benefited not only from the largesse of wealthy contributors across the country, but also developers who do business with City Hall.

As the Chicago Sun-Times reports, Emanuel received $65,900 from developer Dan McCaffery and his wife. Just months prior to the donation, McCaffery’s business received approval for a controversial plan to build apartments, condos and stores on a former children’s hospital site in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Chicago’s pay-to-play politics have become symbolic of a campaign finance system built on massive donations from special interests. All told, thirty-two individuals donated $100,000 or more to one of the three Emanuel-backed funds.

Despite being flush with cash and saturating television stations with non-stop campaign ads, Emanuel still only managed 45 percent of the vote, barely ten points ahead of second place finisher Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who most voters had never even heard of until recently. Garcia only entered the mayor’s race in late October after Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis declined to run following a cancer diagnosis.

“We were up against huge amounts of money and people with power who lined up to protect the status quo,” Garcia said Wednesday. “Voters rejected that. They want a deeper debate, and we intend on giving them that. We’re very enthused that the voice of ordinary Chicagoans is being heard and that, as we move forward, it bodes well for Chicago’s democracy.”

Garcia, who only raised $1.3 million, is a Mexican immigrant and Democratic officeholder hoping to build on the coalition of former mayor Harold Washington. He has garnered the support of both the city’s rapidly growing Latino population and progressives looking to turn the page on Emanuel.

Garcia says that his campaign is built on the support of ordinary Chicagoans, not wealthy campaign donors. His platform has focused on bread and butter issues popular with the party’s base, including a moratorium on school closings, suspending the city’s graft-ridden red light cameras, halting charter school expansion, pushing for an elected school board in Chicago, and hiring new police officers to combat crime.

The next six weeks will center around those types of issues as both Emanuel and Garcia gear up for the April 6 runoff, where the fundamental question of the campaign has shifted. The focus will no longer be on whether it is possible to bring down the political Goliath that is Rahm Emanuel but rather Garcia can assemble a coalition from the candidates who collectively received 55 percent of the vote on Tuesday.

If Garcia manages to pull it off, he would not only make history as Chicago’s first Latino mayor — it would also be one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory.

Image Credit: Daniel X. O’Neil, flickr

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