By Bill Ruthhart and Rick Pearson
Rahm Emanuel failed to win a second term Tuesday, suffering a national political embarrassment as little-known, lesser-funded challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia forced the mayor into the uncharted waters of an April runoff election.
It's the first time Chicago has had a runoff campaign for mayor, which is what happens when none of the candidates eclipses the 50 percent benchmark in round one.
With 98 percent of the city's precincts counted, unofficial results showed Emanuel with 45.4 percent and Cook County commissioner Garcia at 33.9 percent. Businessman Willie Wilson had 10.6 percent, 2nd Ward Ald. Bob Fioretti had 7.4 percent and frequent candidate William "Dock" Walls was at 2.8 percent.
Emanuel, who spent millions on TV ads to try to repair his image with voters following a difficult four years, attempted to portray optimism and patience despite the results.
"We have come a long way and we have a little bit further to go. This is the first step in a real important journey in our city," Emanuel told supporters. "For those who voted for someone else, I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come."
Garcia sought to keep the pressure on by portraying himself as the populist progressive and attacking the mayor as a puppet of the large corporations and special interests he said filled Emanuel's massive campaign fund. Garcia gleefully continued to embrace his role as Chicago's underdog.
"Nobody thought we'd be here tonight. They wrote us off. They said we didn't have a chance. They said we didn't have any money while they spent millions attacking us," Garcia said. "Well, well, we're still standing. We're still running, and we're gonna win."
For Emanuel, the runoff represents a personal and political setback for a Washington-polished powerbroker long known on the national stage. His rivals consisted of lesser-funded and less-experienced candidates, and at times the mayor's campaign carried an aura of inevitability, though it often lacked enthusiasm. That was reflected, in part, by the low voter turnout, which also came on a day with chilly temperatures and occasional snow.
Chicago election officials estimated turnout would finish just above the record low for a mayoral race of 33 percent set in 2007 when former Richard M. Daley won his sixth and final term in office. Turnout this time around was expected to hit 34 percent, officials said.
Unofficial results showed Garcia eclipsing Emanuel in 15 of the city's 50 wards, including 11 of 12 overwhelmingly Latino wards on the Northwest and Southwest sides. The mayor won the city's remaining 35 wards. Among Garcia's victories was the 14th Ward, home of veteran Ald. Edward Burke, where the challenger unofficially topped 52 percent.
The runoff sharply changes the political dynamics. Voters will now measure Emanuel against just Garcia instead of a field of four other candidates. And Garcia will try to get those who voted against Emanuel, but not for him, to line up in his camp.
Emanuel's aggressive fundraising and TV ad advantage are expected to continue. But the mayor also now faces more pressure to engage Garcia one-on-one, rather than largely dismissing his four opponents as Emanuel did during five debates.
Emanuel thanked Chicagoans "for your vote of confidence." But Tuesday's results show that if the election was a referendum on Emanuel's first term, he fell short of earning a passing grade. The main reasons: voter dissatisfaction with Emanuel's decision to close 50 schools, his standoff with teachers during their 2012 strike and his struggles to tamp down violent crime, which spiked at times the last four years.
The results also reflect that Garcia's message gained traction as he slammed Emanuel for a spate of shootings, school closings and not creating enough jobs in the neighborhoods, which the challenger argued had been "left behind."
Garcia, a former alderman and state lawmaker, was a late entry into the race. He assumed the mantle of the Chicago Teachers Union after its president, Karen Lewis, ended a potential bid for mayor after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
Emanuel amassed a campaign fund of more than $16 million, with nearly half of it dedicated to 16 different broadcast television ads in which the mayor sought to shave off the sharp edge of his persona and overcome criticisms that marked his first four years.
But the advertising blitz, which included more than 4,600 TV spots that continued to churn Tuesday as the polls were open, was not enough to get to the 50-percent-plus-one-vote support Emanuel needed to prevent the city's first mayoral runoff election since Chicago campaign law was changed 20 years ago.
In a precursor to the April runoff, Emanuel's campaign night party featured remarks from prominent supporter Democratic U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who often spoke in Spanish. It was a direct acknowledgment of Garcia's base in the Hispanic community.
"We're in first place tonight and we're going to be in first place again in April!" Gutierrez said.
Much like his race for mayor four years ago, Emanuel spent heavily to get his message before voters. But this time around, he placed less focus on his well-known political caricature as a fiery and often foul-mouthed politician. Instead, as a longtime political operative well-versed in campaign messaging, Emanuel made the calculation that his campaign should be less about him and more about what he has done.
As a result, his campaign website's home page focused on an interactive Chicago map of city improvements over photos of Emanuel. His campaign slogan was rebranded from "Chicago for Rahm" to "Chicago Together." And almost all of his campaign ads did not include him talking, but instead featured supporters lauding his specific accomplishments. It was an effort to soften Emanuel's image with voters.
Emanuel had sought to paint his rivals as unable to articulate a cogent or comprehensive solution for dealing with the city's financial problems, though he stopped short of providing solutions, including a potential property tax increase to deal with a looming $550 million police and fire pension payment.
Opponents, particularly Garcia and Fioretti, sought to seize on the school closings and the city's spike in shootings on Emanuel's watch as reason for voters to replace the mayor. Garcia repeatedly slammed Emanuel for not fulfilling a campaign promise to hire an additional 1,000 police officers, while the mayor countered he reassigned hundreds of officers from desk jobs to street beats. Garcia vowed to hire 1,000 additional cops, but did not entirely accounted for how he'd pay for it.
Garcia and his fellow challengers also pushed for an elected school board as an answer to Emanuel's appointed Board of Education voting to back his school closings.
In August, Emanuel's job approval rating bottomed out at 35 percent, according to a Tribune poll that also found for the first time that every major demographic group in the city disapproved of his performance as mayor. That same poll had Emanuel trailing in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup with Lewis.
For four years straight, Tribune polling showed voters backing the Chicago Teachers Union over Emanuel when it came to their disputes on how best to run the city's school system.
A week before the election, a Tribune poll found Emanuel's support at 45 percent with 18 percent undecided. But based on Tuesday's results, Emanuel failed to grow support in the final days while Garcia, who had 20 percent in the survey, captured the bulk of undecided voters.
The mayor's failure to collect a majority came despite a visit by President Barack Obama just five days before the election. Emanuel was Obama's first White House chief of staff. The president's visit became the source for a final Emanuel ad, aimed at African-American voters who had questioned the mayor's support of poorer communities after they embraced his first mayoral campaign.
Emanuel's opponents sought to turn the mayor's financial advantage that paid for the ads into a weakness, often invoking the "Mayor 1 Percent" nickname he's been given by critics because of the large amounts of money he's raised from millionaires and billionaires.
All four challengers also accused Emanuel of running a pay-to-play administration after a Tribune series this month found that 60 percent of the mayor's top campaign donors, accounting for $14 million since he first ran for office, had received some benefit from City Hall.
Emanuel repeatedly refused to discuss his campaign fundraising throughout the campaign, only to generally say he had changed the culture of ethics at City Hall. In the final weeks of the campaign, Garcia sought to spotlight Emanuel's backing from millionaires and billionaires as weakness and evidence he's out of touch with average Chicagoans.
In his speech Tuesday night, Garcia aimed to sustain that pressure.
"Today, we the people, have spoken, not the people with the money and the power and the connections, not the giant corporations, the big money special interests, the hedge fund and Hollywood celebrities who poured tens of millions of dollars into the mayor's campaign," Garcia said. "They all had their say. They've had their say for too long, but today, the rest of us had something to say."
For his part, Emanuel said he would return to campaigning Wednesday morning, heading to "L" stops to appeal to voters in a contest he contended will be about "who has the strength, who has the leadership, who has the ideas to move this city forward."
Asked earlier Tuesday whether the prospect of having to face a runoff had made him more humble, Emanuel quipped, "Listen. I've got three teenagers at home and a wife. Don't worry about humble."
Tribune reporters David Kidwell, John Chase, Jeff Coen, David Heinzmann and Patrick M. O'Connell contributed.
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