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Incumbent leads five-way race but fails to secure more than 50% of votes required for outright victory

Mark Guarino in Chicago
Tuesday 24 February 2015 23.22 EST

The Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, must face a runoff election after failing to capture a majority vote for a second term.

The former White House chief of staff under Barack Obama easily led the five-way race in Tuesday’s contest. However, because he failed to get more than 50%, he and Cook county commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia will run against each other in April for the job.

The result exposed possible vulnerability for an incumbent who has widespread support from business leaders, national name recognition and millions of dollars in his campaign fund. He participated in half a dozen debates and forums and received a last-minute boost from President Barack Obama.

Still, Emanuel faced low popularity ratings, particularly after a 2012 teachers’ strike and closing dozens of neighborhood schools.

One of the most high-profile brands of the Democratic party, Emanuel secured nearly 46% of the vote.

He now faces a run-off election against Garcia, a former Illinois state senator whose grassroots campaign helped put him in second place with nearly 34% of votes. Set for 7 April, it is the first run-off election in Chicago history. 

With less than 100% of precincts tallied, Emanuel appeared at the ChicagoPlumbers Hall to address supporters.

“We have come a long way and we have a little bit further to go,” he said. “This is a first step for a really important journey in our city. For those of you who voted for someone else I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come.”

Nearby at a local banquet hall, Garcia told supporters: “Nobody thought we’d be here tonight.”

“They wrote us off, they said we didn’t have a chance, they said we didn’t have any money while they spent millions attacking us. Well, we’re still standing. We’re still running. And we’re going to win,” he said.

“We have something to say to all those big corporations and all those special interests who spend all those millions to install their own mayor: we want change.”

The reality of a run-off election is a significant defeat for Emanuel, who raised more than $16m during the campaign – far more than competitors who included Chicago alderman Bob Fioretti, businessman Willie Wilson and community organizer William “Dock” Walls. Not only did the incumbent raise the most money, which helped him dominated local airwaves and flood mailboxes with direct mail literature, he also summoned the star power of several of his surrogates, including Obama himself who arrived in town last week to help stump on Emanuel’s behalf.

Polls over the last year showed Chicagoans growing dissatisfied with Emanuel, with the star power that helped him return to Chicago and become mayor clearly tarnished. Last August his approval rating bottomed out to 35% from 50% a year earlier. The greatest disapproval came from black and Latino people.

In 2011 Emanuel received about 326,000 votes; on Tuesday he received about 196,000 votes. “Rahm no longer looks invincible and the ballgame changes,” said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago. “Rahm may still win but it’s going to be much more of a free-for-all at that point.”

Larry Bennett, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago, said many of Chicago’s problems, such as systemic population loss and crime, went back decades and were never solved by his predecessor, Richard M Daley, who was mayor for six terms. But Emanuel had failed to show voters meaningful policies that could turn things around.

“Voters haven’t seen a lot of creative ways public investment can spark private investment in the neighborhoods,” he says. “What is called ‘school reform’ here is called privatization everywhere else. You’re taking one more lifeline out of the place. Some of those schools probably needed to be reorganized, but you don’t just pull stuff out of areas, you have to also put stuff in.”

On the morning of election day Emanuel had visited three separate senior centers before having lunch in the South Loop with US Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Illinois secretary of state Jesse White and Chicago city clerk Susana Mendoza, who faced no challengers on Tuesday.

Garcia and Bob Fioretti dined nearby at Manny’s, a traditional lunch spot for meet-and-greets among local political operatives.

Recent polling had shown Emanuel facing a possible run-off because he did not secure more than 50% of support from likely voters.

That did not deter Allison Fine, 66, who said she voted for Emanuel because she felt “he is a good politician and has the best interest in the city at heart”. Holding on to a white feathery hat amid whipping winds outside her polling place in Logan Square, Fine said she disagreed with Emanuel’s controversial decision to shutter nearly 50 public schools, the largest closing in US history.

She said she hoped the election would show him “he needs to listen to educators and needs to support them”.

For Jordan Trammell, 28, who moved to Chicago from Tennessee in October, Emanuel was not the mayor he expected based on his reputation as brash and uncompromising. Enrolled in Harold Washington College, Trammell said he was convinced to support Emanuel based on his recent decision to offer free tuition in the city college system to Chicago public schools graduate with at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

“I thought he was a political hack but then he starting making these good policies,” Trammell said.

Garcia’s proposal to add 1,000 more police officers to the rolls as an effort to fight crime in the most marginalized of neighborhoods resonated with Adrian Martinez, 34. “We don’t want a city known for crime,” he said. “Some people say there’s no money for it but the mayor is spending money on other stuff that’s not as important.”

Light snow, high winds and freezing temperatures were factors in what was one of Chicago’s lightest voter turnouts in years. Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago election commissioners, estimated the figure to be near the 33% recorded in February 2007, an all-time low.

Strong early voting was one indication of a low turnout. The majority of early voters represented the most traditional voters in Chicago: age 50 and older, and registered ahead of the deadline. “Strong voter interest drives turnout, not sunshine. We’re hoping for a better evening rush now that’s warmer than this morning,” he said late on Tuesday afternoon.

In 2011 just 42% of registered voters in Chicago came out to the polls, according to election officials. “We don’t expect to reach that 42% or anywhere near it,” Allen said.

About 1.42 million people in Chicago are registered, up 1% from four years ago. Twitter updates from voters throughout the city reported mostly vacant polling places.

Supporters of both Emanuel and Garcia told supporters they planned to achieve victory in April.

Gutierrez reminded reporters late on Tuesday that Emanuel was still in first place. “We are well positioned to win any run-off,” he said. There were similar sentiments from Garcia’s camp.

Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org, said the results represented “a huge win for progressives and working families across Chicago”.

“Rahm Emanuel’s millions of dollars weren’t enough to whitewash his record of siding with big-money corporate interests over regular people.”

 

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