The big question: Will heavy-favorite Rahm Emanuel get the 50 percent of votes needed to prevent a runoff election?
Chicago voters cast ballots in a mayoral election Tuesday that didn’t include the name “Richard M. Daley” for the first time in decades — a contest that will bring new leadership to a city facing some of the most daunting economic challenges in its history.
The six candidates spent Tuesday morning still pushing for votes, shaking hands with surprised commuters and diner-goers and pleading their cases for why they should be picked to succeed the retiring Daley, who will leave office this spring after 22 years on the job.
“This is a critical election for the future of the city of Chicago. We’re at a crossroads,” front-runner Rahm Emanuel said as he greeted commuters at a South Side train station.
The campaign began last fall when Daley — with his wife ailing, six terms under his belt, and a future of fiscal challenges facing Chicago — announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.
The candidates who rushed in to fill that void included Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff; former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun; former Chicago public schools president Gery Chico; and City Clerk Miguel del Valle.
Emanuel led in the polls and in fundraising since he announced he was running last fall, and his confident, no-nonsense style resonated with many voters. Chico finished second in most of the polls, ahead of Braun and del Valle but far behind Emanuel.
To win Tuesday, a candidate must secure more than 50 percent of the vote, or face a runoff against the second place finisher on April 5.
Whoever wins will give the city a mayor unlike any it has had before: Emanuel would be Chicago’s first Jewish mayor, Braun would be its first black woman mayor, and Chico or del Valle would be the city’s first Hispanic mayor.
Justin Blake, a 42-year-old black general contractor who chatted with Emanuel on Tuesday, said voting for him was a no-brainer because of Emanuel’s “knowledge of what’s going on, not only here locally but worldwide.
“He’s been right up there with the president; why wouldn’t you vote for somebody who’s got that much collateral behind him?” Blake said.
Mark Arnold, 23, an auditor voting at a downtown polling place, said he is excited at the prospect of change.
“I think Daley’s done a lot of good things, but at the same time I just feel like the city right now, it’s kind of like a good old boys’ club,” Arnold said, saying the election would bring in “someone with new ideas who’s been in other places.”
Daley has been criticized for allowing the city to spend beyond its means, and Chicago’s finances were further damaged by the economic downturn of the last few years. The new mayor will have to quickly decide on a politically unpalatable strategy for improving city finances that may well involve raising taxes and cutting services and public employee benefits.
The five-month campaign took many unusual turns, even for a city where voting from six feet under is part of election lore. But after a race that included a challenge of Emanuel’s right to call himself a Chicagoan going all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court and Braun accusing another candidate of being strung out on crack cocaine, some voters complained they had not heard enough about where the candidates stood on the issues.
Some said they were focused more on the candidates’ resumes and influence.
“Daley had connections,” said Terrence Trampiets, 66, a North Side resident intending to vote for Emanuel. “You have to have that to get things done.”
Daley’s lock on City Hall had left many voters complacent. His decision at age 68 not to run again unleashed a sudden flurry of potential interest in running from nearly two dozen politicians, including the county sheriff, congressmen, state lawmakers and members of the City Council.
But the campaign focus quickly shifted from City Hall to the White House when Emanuel announced he was interested in the job — weeding many lesser-known candidates in the process.
That was followed by a sometimes weird tussle over whether Emanuel was a city resident and therefore even eligible to run because he had not lived in Chicago for a full year before the election, as required by law. He had lived in Washington working for Obama since soon after giving up his North Side congressmen’s seat in 2008.
The residency challenge turned into a spectacle that saw Emanuel on a Board of Elections witness stand in a makeshift courtroom in the basement of a downtown building being grilled for a dozen hours by regular Chicago residents with some very irregular questions, such as one from a man who asked if Emanuel had been involved in the 1993 Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas, when he worked for the Clinton administration.
Several tense days followed when an appellate court ordered Emanuel’s name thrown off the ballot, before the state’s Supreme Court stepped in and definitively ruled that Emanuel was a resident and could indeed run for mayor. Until then, Emanuel’s rivals had painted him as an outsider.
Meanwhile, a group of African-American leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, decided that their best hope of electing a black mayor was to convince all but one of the major black candidates to drop out of the race. Both U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and State Sen. James Meeks, the pastor of a megachurch on Chicago’s South Side, ended their candidacies and threw their support behind Braun.
The city’s first black mayor was Harold Washington, who was elected in 1983. The first woman mayor was Jane Byrne, elected in 1979.
The black consensus effort marked a return to the spotlight for Braun, who last won election in 1992 when she became the first African-American woman to win a U.S. Senate seat. She had largely been out of the spotlight since she announced a longshot bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004.
But Braun made headlines when, after rival Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins wondered aloud at a debate about Braun’s absence from public life, Braun shot back that the reason Van Pelt-Watkins didn’t know what she’d been up to was that she had been “strung out on crack.”
Van Pelt-Watkins said afterward she’d had a drug problem years ago, but denied ever using crack, and Braun later apologized. But she often showed sharp elbows during the campaign, in particular during exchanges with Emanuel. Some polls had her stuck in single digits or the teens while Emanuel scored well above 40 percent.
The other two main candidates, Chico and del Valle, have throughout the campaign struggled to get media attention, in large part because the fight over Emanuel’s residency took center stage. A sixth candidate, William “Dock” Walls, is also running.
Associated Press writer Lindsey Tanner contributed to this report.
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