Chicago Voters Head to Polls to Decide Rahm Emanuel's Fate

by | February 24, 2015 AT 10:00 AM

By Rick Pearson and Bill Ruthhart and Hal Dardick

Chicago voters head to the polls Tuesday and will decide whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel collects a majority and quickly wins a second term or faces six more weeks of campaigning and a politically risky runoff election.

Such an extended campaign has never occurred in a Chicago mayoral race since the law was changed ahead of the 1995 election. The city switched from its old setup, where candidates ran as Democrats and Republicans in the primary and then squared off in a general election, to the current nonpartisan system, where a majority of the vote in late February seals the deal.

Voters also will decide City Council races in most of the 50 wards, where like the mayor, aldermen are hoping to avoid a runoff.

Polling places will open their doors to voters at 6 a.m. and continue until 7 p.m. at all of the city's 2,069 precincts.

Emanuel and rivals Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Bob Fioretti, Willie Wilson and William "Dock" Walls largely followed the traditional election-eve campaign strategy of enlisting 11th-hour support. The candidates on Monday shook hands at busy transit stops and reached out to voters at senior centers, neighborhood gatherings and over restaurant lunch tables.

Emanuel began the day at the Loyola Red Line stop before scheduling three North Side meet-and-greets with seniors, a dedicated voting demographic. In an email encouraging supporters to turn out, Emanuel said Chicago had become "a very different city" after his election four years ago.

"You gave me a chance to make the tough decisions this city needed," Emanuel wrote, adding, "there's more work to be done, and I'll need your help to make sure we can continue the progress we've made."

Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and former alderman and state lawmaker, began Monday at the 95th Street CTA station, meeting with officials from the Amalgamated Transit Union, which endorsed his candidacy.

"We're headed to a runoff," said Garcia, who also is backed by the Chicago Teachers Union. "We have a strong organization, people are very enthused. We've picked up a lot of momentum over the past week and our goal is to get into a runoff."

Fioretti, the current 2nd Ward alderman, started off election eve at the CTA stop at Midway Airport. He was set to greet commuters at another train station and to shake hands with patrons at the Billy Goat Tavern on West Madison Street near the United Center before the evening's Bulls game.

"The elevator to the fifth floor is an elevator for everyone in this room," Fioretti told supporters of his bid for City Hall.

In addition to making a pick for mayor, all 50 City Council seats are on the ballot, with most of the wards contested. It's the first election since ward boundaries were redrawn to represent changes in population from the 2010 U.S. census. Aldermanic candidates who fail to clear the 50-percent-plus-one vote threshold face an April 7 runoff with the second-place finisher.

A super political action committee that backs the mayor and pro-Emanuel aldermen reported spending another $86,000 on council members it supports. It also reported spending about $10,000 to oppose 45th Ward Ald. John Arena, who often votes against the mayor on key issues and is locked in a tight race against three opponents, including Chicago police Lt. John Garrido.

In an unexpected move, the Chicago Forward PAC reported spending $4,185 on behalf of 5th Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston, who at times has been an outspoken critic of the mayor and is part of the progressive caucus that also counts Arena as a member. Hairston faces five challengers Tuesday.

All told, Chicago Forward has raised more than $2.6 million, spending about $450,000 on TV advertising for the mayor and about $800,000 to back 34 sitting aldermen and two candidates seeking open seats, according to state campaign finance reports. It also has spent nearly $26,000 to oppose Arena and 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack, another outspoken Emanuel critic.

The biggest beneficiary of recent Chicago Forward ad spending is 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney, who is being challenged by Lakeview businessman Mark Thomas and Scott Davis, an anti-red light camera activist and Republican project manager running in the nonpartisan election. Chicago Forward reported spending $8,125 on his behalf.

The fund also reported spending $7,480 on behalf of 33rd Ward Ald. Deb Mell, who faces challenges from high school teacher Tim Meegan and nonprofit consultant Annisa Wanat. Chicago Forward already had spent nearly $51,000 to back Mell, who is an Emanuel appointee.

There also are several citywide non-binding referendum questions on the ballot that include asking whether Chicago employers should be required to give paid sick leave to workers, whether Illinois elections should be publicly funded and whether city workers convicted of domestic violence should be required to get treatment.

In 37 of the 50 wards, voters will get to give their opinion on whether the Chicago Board of Education should be elected rather than appointed by the mayor, an issue of contention in Emanuel's re-election campaign.

Voters can check their registration status, see a sample ballot and find their polling location at Voters also can call the city's "election central" at 312-269-7870 with any questions or complaints.

The Chicago Board of Elections also said it will have more than 300 investigators working Tuesday, including inspectors who will be making unannounced inspections of polling places. The board also said it has teams of standby election judges who can be sent to polling places where staffing issues arise.

City elections officials said more than 1.42 million Chicagoans are registered to vote in this election, up almost 4 percent from November's general statewide election and up a little more than 1 percent from the February mayoral election in 2011.

Tribune reporters Hal Dardick and John Byrne contributed.

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