Embattled Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel courts voters in race to avoid election runoff
Support for challenger Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia and controversy among black voters about schools policy have the former White House chief of staff fighting hard
Mark Guarino in Chicago
Sunday 22 February 2015 07.00 EST
With the clock ticking on his political career ahead of Tuesday’s mayoral election,Rahm Emanuel took a break from his multi-million-dollar campaign on the airwaves for a weekend lunch date at ground zero for black voters’ support in Chicago.
His challengers, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Bob Fioretti, spoke to voters and officials for an early morning event at the headquarters of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition, as early voting got underway Saturday. While Emanuel was finishing up his lunch nearby, on the south side, Clarence Lear was filling up his gas tank a few blocks north.
“He don’t care because he doesn’t know this part of the city,” Lear, 45, said of the mayor.
Lear, who is black, said his daughter now has to attend second-grade classes three miles from their home, even though there is an elementary school right down the street: “Would he do that to his kids?”
Emanuel, who rose to international fame as the hard-charging chief of staff for the first black US president, is now fending off his downfall with a big-money campaign push by courting black voters who insist they remain conflicted. The mayor needs a majority vote to secure a second term and avoid an April runoff election that local political watchers here predict would become a “free-for-all” against a progressive Latino candidate and which could quickly grow beyond city walls.
Chief among reasons why Emanuel has struggled with so many voters – Chicago is the third-largest city in the US, with the third-largest black population – is the last year’s mass closing of public schools, the largest in US history, in struggling neighborhoods on the south and west sides.
Emanuel insists the decision was based on low performance ratings in addition to low student attendance, but his many critics say the shutdowns were part of a larger strategy to privatize public schools for profit and that shuttering schools in the neediest neighborhoods contribute to escalating crime and poverty. They also argue for an elected school board, while Emanuel insists those appointments come from city hall.
A divided city
The result is a divided city with a full quarter of its black voters undecided heading into election day, just four years after Emanuel handily won over the coalition after leaving the White House.
“He has yet to fix the schools, but some of the schools were definitely underutilized,” said Bishop Edward Peecher, the head of Chicago Embassy Church in Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood on the south side that has struggled with escalating crime and systemic population loss.
Calling education the top issue in the city, Peecher said he admired Emanuel’s attempt to push for new and better schools even if his policy “may have cost him politically”.
“He’s done the best job that he can. I hate the idea he closed the schools, but I know he had to close the schools to move forward with what his plan is,” said Debra Payne, who has lived in the Englewood neighborhood for 34 years. “What I hate is the schools don’t have parent participation in the way they should. They didn’t fight because they didn’t have enough in numbers.”
Emanuel has not alienated black voters entirely – 42% supported him in a Chicago Tribune poll released on Thursday and the Chicago Defender, an historic black newspaper, called his first term “effective” in an endorsement this month. He also got a bump from a visit on Thursday from Barack Obama, who said his former top adviser “cares deeply about the children of this city” and was “willing to make some really hard decisions on behalf of those children”.
But Emanuel’s desperation campaign signalled a stunning setback for a political celebrity who has had to redirect nearly all his campaign energy, including approximately $15m in attack ads and direct mail literature, against Garcia.
‘Much more of a free-for-all’
Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and former Illinois state senator, has turned into Emanuel’s greatest threat, receiving the majority of labor endorsements including that of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Many here have compared Garcia’s progressive platform and surge in popularity to the campaign of Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first black mayor when he defeated the longtime establishment figure Richard M Daley in 1983.
Last week’s Tribune poll found Emanuel with 45% of support from likely voters, but Garcia’s 20% support suggested a potential runoff.
If a runoff happens “everything changes”, said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman.
“Garcia will get much more money, the national media is going to come in, and Rahm no longer looks invincible,” he says. “Rahm still may win, but it’s going to be much more of a free-for-all at that point.”
Critical to Tuesday’s election, then, are the undecideds. One-quarter of black voters are still unsure who they will vote for on Tuesday, compared to the approximately 12% of white and Hispanic voters who remain undecided.
Outside a Walgreen’s pharmacy in the historically black neighborhood of Bronzeville, Maryanne Garvey said she planned to vote if she could get off work on time on Tuesday. She said Emanuel’s name recognition alone could win her over.
“I don’t know any of the others,” she said.
Get-out-the-vote efforts will be critical, as early voting tends to focus on minority communities. More than 57,000 early votes were cast by late Friday, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.
“I’ve heard opinions either way about whether or not there will be a runoff, but the reality is no one knows,” Simpson said. “It’s almost too close to call.”