Latest endorsement in Chicago mayoral race is a devastating blow to Rahm Emanuel

Determined to woo African American voters back into his camp, Rahm just suffered a big setback

Published March 12, 2015 4:30PM (EDT)

Rahm Emanuel                    (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Rahm Emanuel (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Embattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sustained a major setback in his bid to win a second term Thursday, as progressive opponent Jesus "Chuy" Garcia secured the endorsement of Willie Wilson, the third-place finisher in the first round of voting last month. Wilson's endorsement has the potential to sway the city's African American voters -- a demographic seen as crucial to both candidates' hopes of victory.

The Garcia campaign announced yesterday that Wilson would formally endorse the Cook County commissioner on Thursday, 26 days before voters head to the polls for the April 7 runoff. Wilson received about 11 percent of the vote in the February 24 election. Garcia, the runner-up, won 34 percent, while Emanuel secured 45 percent of the vote -- well short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Both finalists assiduously courted Wilson's endorsement as the race moved into its next phase, hoping that the entrepreneur's backing would translate into votes from Wilson's sizable base of African American support. While Emanuel won a 42 percent plurality in the city's predominantly black wards last month, that marked a sharp decline from the 59 percent he won in his 2011 race, just after he stepped down as President Obama's chief of staff and before he alienated black voters amid neighborhood school closures, public transit woes, and gun violence.

Garcia received 26 percent of the vote in mostly black wards, and hopes to capitalize next month on African Americans' mounting disenchantment with the abrasive Emanuel. Already popular among Chicago's Latino voters, he aims to build a diverse coalition of progressive whites, African Americans, and Latinos.

"If Chuy can win this race, it's because he can put together all these different groups who aren't talking with each other as much as they should be," political consultant Kevin Lampe told Reuters earlier this month. "He has to build a new coalition."

Garcia may be well on his way to doing just that. Wilson's endorsement comes less than one week after Congressman Danny Davis, who backed Wilson in the first of voting, threw his weight behind the Garcia campaign during an appearance at an African American church. Meanwhile, progressive groups like the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America seek to mobilize liberals turned off by the mayor's privatization schemes, education "reform" agenda, and social service cuts.

After Emanuel came up short last month, the conventional wisdom held that many voters cast ballots against the mayor simply to register a protest, secure in the knowledge that Emanuel would ultimately score a relatively easy win on April 7. That's not how events look to be working out. The mobilization behind Garcia underscores a deep-seated discontent with the Emanuel administration, a discontent that a few conciliatory campaign ads won't easily ameliorate. The latest poll pegs Emanuel's support at 43.5 percent among likely voters, with 38 percent backing Garcia and no fewer than 18 percent undecided. While Emanuel's financial advantage and political machinery are not to be discounted, it's an ominous sign that Rahm -- a known quantity if ever one existed -- can't break 45 percent. Today's developments will make him sweat even more.

By Luke Brinker

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