Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is running for re-election, but he may have a much tougher time than he did four years ago. Back then, Emanuel swept into his hometown on a whirlwind three-month campaign to succeed outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley. With a $13 million chest and an endorsement from President Obama, Emanuel won handily. He beat a field of six other challengers, garnering 55 percent of the vote -- more than double his closest opponent -- and avoiding a runoff. He had broad support from whites, blacks and Hispanics, and from neighborhoods all across the city. A political strategist for one of his opponents likened Emanuel to a “hurricane.”
Things might be very different this time around. As the mayor seeks re-election next month, he’s facing two progressive challengers who say Emanuel has neglected large swaths of Chicago during his time in office. Alderman Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia accuse the mayor of catering to wealthier residents while ignoring the needs of other parts of the city.
Emanuel also faces a more skeptical electorate from the one that put him in office four years ago. His first term has seen a number of controversial, high-profile episodes that have soured many residents on the mayor’s performance. Chicago experienced a devastating spike in violent crime. The city still faces a persistent pension crisis. Emanuel’s decision to close nearly 50 public schools drew outrage across the city, particularly among minority groups in neighborhoods affected by the closures. And the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike was another black eye for the administration.
Chicagoans weren’t happy, and the mayor’s ratings tumbled; one Chicago Tribune poll in August showed Emanuel’s approval at an anemic 35 percent. Other more recent polls have also suggested that the mayor’s re-election bid will be no cakewalk. When he took office four years ago, Emanuel had widespread support and a lot of political goodwill, says former alderman and University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson. “That’s all changed pretty drastically now.”
Emanuel’s overarching struggle, say Simpson and others, is the perception of “two Chicagos” -- one city that has prospered over the past four years while another has been left behind. Emanuel’s critics like to portray him as an elitist who’s cozy with Wall Street financiers, a jet-setting “Mayor 1 Percent” out of touch with everyday Chicagoans.
That theme helped fuel interest last year in a possible election run by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Her group had organized the 2012 strike, and Lewis was considered a frontrunner to challenge Emanuel before she was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent surgery in October. Another strong challenge to Emanuel could have come from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; one preliminary poll last spring showed her essentially tied with Emanuel in a hypothetical matchup. But Preckwinkle in June announced she would not run for mayor, and she won re-election to her county post unopposed in November.
Now the “two Chicagos” idea is being pushed hard by both Fioretti and Garcia. “The mayor’s policies have created two Chicagos, and no amount of campaign cash or TV ads can change that fact,” Fioretti said in a statement last month. “Chicagoans want a new direction and are ready for a vision of safe streets and strong neighborhoods. I am the candidate with the backbone to make that happen.”
“Most of the prosperity that Chicago has experienced has been limited to those at the top,” says Garcia. “People in the neighborhoods feel left out.”
Emanuel himself talks about two Chicagos. But rather than a division of haves and have-nots, the mayor draws a distinction between the Chicago of today and the way things worked in the past. “In the old Chicago, you got a job based on who you know. In the new Chicago, you get a job based on what you know,” Emanuel said at his official campaign launch last month. “In the old Chicago, a government job meant a credit card, a car or free parking. In the new Chicago, we’ve cut those perks and put taxpayers first.”
Rather than defending against the charges from his critics, Emanuel is touting his own achievements. He has expanded full-day kindergarten throughout the city and has lengthened both the school day and the school year for Chicago Public Schools. Graduation rates have improved significantly. The mayor implemented a citywide recycling program and has invested in rebuilding elevated train lines. The city also has benefited from nationwide economic trends: Retail sales are surging, and unemployment has declined every year since Emanuel took office.
But extremely tough challenges remain. The city’s debt is high and continues to rise, up nearly 12 percent over the past four years. Public pensions, a problem Emanuel pledged to fix when he took office, are still woefully underfunded. The city’s four employee pension funds have a combined unfunded liability of more than $20 billion, up 38 percent from 2010.
Much of the election will focus on crime. Overall violent crime is actually down significantly, dropping by one-quarter from 2010 to 2013, according to statistics from Crain’s Chicago Business. And the city’s murder rate is at its lowest level since the 1960s. But the city’s nightmarish 2012 spike in homicides -- which that year topped 500 for only the second time in the last decade -- is still fresh in many Chicagoans’ minds.
There’s little doubt Emanuel will be the top vote-getter in the Feb. 24 election. Polls show him with a decisive lead over his challengers. One poll released last month showed Emanuel leading with 44 percent of the vote, with Garcia trailing at 16 percent and Fioretti at 15 percent. The real issue is whether Emanuel can get the 50 percent of the vote he needs to avoid a runoff. “That’s the critical question,” says Simpson. “If he goes into a runoff, he could definitely be vulnerable to people who want to vote against him in April,” when a runoff vote would take place.
Emanuel’s re-election prospects are strong, Simpson says, but far from inevitable. “One shouldn’t count Rahm Emanuel out, and one shouldn’t pop the champagne corks either.”