"Pushed to the brink of extinction": How Rahm Emanuel won — and became the biggest loser in Chicago

Last night, the Chicago mayor scored an election victory he never should have needed in the first place. Now what?

Published April 8, 2015 4:30PM (EDT)

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

Rahm Emanuel is the Duke University of politics: Nobody likes him, but he keeps winning. On Tuesday night, Emanuel was re-elected mayor of Chicago, defeating Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia 56 percent to 44 percent in a runoff election. Frankly, that margin of victory is is like Duke needing overtime to beat Oberlin College. Six months ago, most Chicagoans had never heard of Garcia. Emanuel outspent Garcia by ahuge margin — $23 million to $6 million — and received an in-person endorsement from President Obama.

“This victory doesn’t bode well for his political future, with so much money and the president’s endorsement,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr, a Garcia supporter.

A stronger candidate would have defeated Emanuel, who alienated voters by closing 50 schools in low-income neighborhoods, doubling water rates, installing speed cameras and nicking one-tenth of a second off red lights to trap more motorists into tickets. Garcia was dragged into the race last October, as the third choice of the progressive movement. The first choice, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, decided to run for re-election last November. The second choice, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, dropped out after developing a brain tumor, and drafted Garcia, who was unprepared for a mayoral campaign. After landing in the runoff, as the beneficiary of protest votes against Emanuel, Garcia didn’t reveal his plan for the city’s finances until March 13, three-and-a-half weeks before the election.

Under Emanuel, the city’s bond rating has been downgraded five times, to two steps above junk status, and pensions are consuming an ever-increasing share of the city’s budget. Garcia proposed cutting Tax Increment Financing districts and share expenses with other governments. But he also suggested a graduated income tax, which is unconstitutional in Illinois, and put off more specific decisions by promising to form a committee to “examine the full range of existing and potential revenue options that are available to the city.” Asked in a debate who would serve on that committee, he responded that he was “not at liberty to say.”

Such vagueness allowed Emanuel to portray Garcia as a political weakling who would raise property taxes before demanding sacrifices from the city’s public sector unions.

Garcia had an answer for that in his concession speech at the University of Illinois-Chicago Forum on Tuesday night. He implicitly blamed Emanuel for Chicago’s financial problems, because of his failure to make the city an attractive place to live. Chicago has led the nation in murders every full year of Emanuel’s mayoralty, its schools and neighborhoods have been neglected at the expense of downtown development, and its middle class feels nickel-and-dimed by traffic tickets and fees.

“We’ve got some big problems,” he said. “In the last 15 years, Chicago has lost 200,000 people. We have a debt crisis and a pension crisis. We have a growth crisis. That means people moving here, not leaving. That means a growing middle class. We can’t tax our way out of this crisis. We can only truly grow a way out. There are too many shootings. We need to end the violence. We need to end school closings and privatization. We need to stop paying so much attention to what happens downtown and more attention to what happens in our neighborhoods. A less violent city is a more attractive city. A city with good neighborhoods is a more attractive city. It’s a city that doesn’t have a pile of bills and a pile of discarded people it can’t afford to take care of.”

Despite their defeat, Chicago progressives were able to force Emanuel to the left. Last year, the mayor supported an increase in the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour. After Garcia promised to end the speed camera program, Emanuel pulled cameras off 25 street corners.

“Mayor Emanuel, in a sense he lost though he won,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who hugged Garcia when he appeared in the arena after the TV stations had predicted his defeat.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi, who defeated a Machine-backed incumbent to win a seat in the state legislature, predicted that Garcia’s campaign would inaugurate an anti-establishment movement in Chicago.

“This campaign was up against impossible odds, and yet in an incredibly short span of time these people built a movement that pushed a political apparatus of nearly infinite resources to the brink of extinction,” Guzzardi said. “Movement building takes time. It’s not an overnight process. This movement’s going to keep growing.”

Emanuel may not be its next target, though. On the same day the mayor was re-elected, Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed reported that Hillary Clinton would name Emanuel to her cabinet if she’s elected president. That would be a good move for Rahm, after he nearly bungled away the mayor’s office to an obscurity. He could avoid the humiliation of losing an election, or retiring to avoid better-prepared challengers emboldened by the fact that he was forced into a runoff this year. He’d be back in Washington, his natural environment, where his abrasiveness is considered colorful. In four years as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel has demonstrated he’s not an effective chief executive. He was perfect in the role of bullying donors and congressman for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Every leader needs someone to do his dirty work, but that someone is never beloved by the public.

Who would replace Emanuel as mayor? As newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote in his obituary of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the immigrants who built the city "were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king or rural sheriff," and they passed that fondness for order and authoritarianism down through the generations.

As luck would have it, Patrick Daley Thompson, the grandson of the first Mayor Daley, was elected to the City Council on Tuesday. A Daley made way for Emanuel, and Emanuel could make way for another Daley, after keeping the seat warm for the city’s ruling family. The Daleys know how to wield power in Chicago. They would never have let a guy like Garcia get so close to the mayor’s office.

By Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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Chicago Chicago Mayoral Election Jesus “chuy” Garcia Politics Rahm Emanuel