What Hurt Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

by | February 26, 2015

By Rick Pearson and John Chase

When President Barack Obama dropped into his hometown a few days before the city election to designate the historic Pullman district a national monument and heap praise on Rahm Emanuel, rivals decried the move as pure politics aimed at pumping up African-American support for the mayor.

A look at the results in Tuesday's historic election showed that political benefit didn't materialize for Emanuel. Voters in the predominantly African-American 9th Ward, where Pullman is located, backed Emanuel with 43 percent of the vote. But four years earlier, Emanuel got nearly 60 percent there.

The 9th Ward returns symbolized a larger and more consistent problem that Emanuel has yet to resolve as he tries to win a second term: lagging support from black voters upset by school closings, violent crime and a lack of neighborhood economic development in poorer communities.

In addition, Emanuel was hurt by the low turnout as he failed to capture a majority and is now in a runoff against Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. Both Emanuel and Garcia will work to get more voters to the polls in six weeks and compete for the key African-American constituency. How those two efforts play out in April will say much about who gets sworn in as mayor in May.

Four years ago, it was the black vote that helped carry Emanuel to victory, and Tuesday's results revealed it was a drop-off in black support that helped deny the mayor outright victory this time. In 2011, Emanuel won at least 58 percent of the vote in six wards that are more than 90 percent black. This time, Emanuel's support in those wards ranged from 42 percent to 45 percent.

In his first campaign for mayor, Emanuel was largely a blank canvas upon which he placed his TV ad-campaign image as a hard-charging politician, powered by connections to Obama and President Bill Clinton, and ready to make hard decisions facing the city.

But by re-election time, voter disenchantment with Emanuel and his policies and persona couldn't be overcome by an onslaught of millions of dollars of TV ads that sought to soften the mayor's hard image and portray a sense of competence over his rivals.

David Axelrod, who supports Emanuel and worked with the former Obama White House chief of staff, said Tuesday night that Emanuel's moves at City Hall might have hurt him politically but were necessary to move the city forward.

"He made tough decisions, and the flip side to making tough decisions is you also antagonize people at times," Axelrod said. "But the situation the city faced demanded those hard decisions. And anyone who is running for mayor who suggests they wouldn't make those hard decisions or that they could make those hard decisions without inflicting any sacrifice on anyone is now going to have to explain it."

Emanuel defeated Garcia in 18 city wards in which blacks are the majority population. But Emanuel got less than 50 percent in all those wards as third-place finisher, African-American businessman Willie Wilson, took one-fifth to one-fourth of the votes. In the 9th Ward where Pullman is located, Wilson got almost 24 percent to Garcia's 22 percent.

A day after the election, Wilson told WGN AM-720 that he met for an hour with Emanuel and had another meeting set with Garcia. During the campaign, Wilson said if he lost he would not endorse the mayor. Now, Wilson said he wants his supporters to decide who he should endorse. Any endorsement could come by week's end, he said.

The mayor is better positioned than Garcia in African-American majority wards, but Emanuel must try to bring to his camp voters who cast ballots for Wilson and perennial candidate William "Dock" Walls and work to make sure they don't simply stay home in April.

Garcia has sought to point out his time as a City Council ally to Harold Washington, the city's first African-American mayor. But Garcia's lack of money didn't allow him to deliver that message effectively.

After greeting morning commuters at a downtown CTA stop Wednesday, Garcia said he plans to keep building a campaign that is "truly multiracial, multiethnic across faith, across geography."

"I think the only way Chicago can move forward is when it recognizes that we are each other's future, and the city can only become a sustainable place when we address issues that have to do with long-term planning and making it a city that is more equitable," Garcia said.

Later, Emanuel sought to frame the campaign as less about a referendum on his leadership.

"There was a multiple choice. Now, we have a clear choice. Two choices," Emanuel said. "The real test here going forward is who has both the plans and the perseverance to make clear progress across the city of Chicago."

Low voter turnout also was a factor in Emanuel's failure to avoid a runoff.

Emanuel unofficially got 110,000 fewer votes this time compared with his first election. At the same time, turnout using new ward boundaries dropped by nearly 150,000 ballots cast from four years ago.

The poor turnout was widespread but hurt Emanuel in key areas where he did well, such as the downtown 42nd and 2nd wards. Emanuel received 73 percent and 65 percent respectively in those two wards, but combined totaled about 12,600 votes. In the 42nd Ward alone four years ago, Emanuel received more than 14,100 votes. Encouraging turnout in those downtown areas is difficult because so many residents live in high-rises.

The mayor also took hits in other strongholds where there were competitive aldermanic races that drew protest votes, which tend to benefit challengers.

Take the Northwest Side's 40th Ward, home of Ald. Patrick O'Connor, the mayor's City Council floor leader. On Tuesday, Emanuel got 47 percent to 42 percent for Garcia. Four years ago, Emanuel secured 61 percent.

In the nearby 39th Ward, home of ally Ald. Margaret Laurino, Emanuel received 48 percent. In 2011, he garnered 58 percent. And unlike the trend citywide, more people in the ward voted Tuesday than last time.

The two aldermen had tough races. O'Connor had no opposition in 2011, and this year faced a challenger who received 41 percent of the vote. Laurino barely avoided a runoff, while she easily defeated her challenger in 2011.

"What it told us yesterday in the neighborhoods is that operatives and the precinct captains still matter," said one longtime local Democratic operative who asked not to be identified. "It is still Chicago, and Rahm ran a D.C.-style race. He's never been in an election like this."

Indeed, Emanuel's campaign manager sent out an email to supporters announcing Wednesday was the "beginning of phase two of this campaign." Such emails usually ask for small donations. This one sought volunteers.

Garcia, whose campaign was buttressed by support from the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor organizations, has made it clear that he wants to energize opposition to Emanuel through a populist progressive effort.

One issue where Garcia could find a base upon which to grow his support is a CTU-backed initiative that would make the city's school board an elected one following the Emanuel-picked board's closure of 50 schools primarily affecting African-American students and neighborhoods.

On Tuesday's ballot, a nonbinding referendum asking voters whether the school board should be appointed was approved by at least 83 percent of the voters in the 37 wards where the question appeared on ballots. In mayoral balloting in those wards, the race between the two leading candidates was much closer than the unofficial citywide figures, with Emanuel getting 41 percent and Garcia getting 38 percent.

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