March 3, 2015 | By Richard C. Longworth

Chicago Picks a Mayor

Minority Report Blog / Creative Commons

Chicagoans, or at least a few of them, will vote next month in a mayoral election notable both for its importance and for its meager turnout. Either Mayor Rahm Emanuel or his challenger, Jesus (Chuy) Garcia, will be the next mayor. In a sense, it’s a shame they both can’t win.

This mayoral election has demonstrated the fact that Chicago really is two cities—split racially and ethnically, as usual, but even more so, split economically, between the booming, globalized part of the city and the rest, the eroding racial and ethnic neighborhoods bypassed by the global economy and its benefits.

Emanuel, the hard-charging and well-connected former top aide to President Obama, is the mayor of Global Chicago. Garcia, a veteran pol whom everybody calls simply “Chuy” (pronounced chewy), speaks to the rest of the city.

A rational city would elect both of them in the election run-off April 7. Then Emanuel could run his part of the city and Garcia could run his. The two mayors could have lunch weekly at Petro’s, across the street from City Hall, to make sure their two cities are on the same page.

In my dreams. Chicago, like all cities, is limited to one mayor at a time. The heavy betting here is that Emanuel, having been given a good scare in the first round, will tap his ample war chest and win another four years on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Actually, Emanuel was favored to win the first round outright by getting more than 50 percent of the votes against four challengers, including Garcia, just as he had in his first mayoral campaign four years ago. The fact that he was forced into a runoff was seen as a humiliating result: The Chicago Reader, one of the city’s alternative weeklies, led its story with the headline, “Chuy Defeats Rahm.”

Actually, Emanuel got 45% of the vote, Garcia got 34% and the other three candidates got about 20% altogether.

Most pundits saw the result as a protest vote—against Emanuel’s imperious and chilly style, against his relentless self-promotion, against his badly-handled closing of 50 schools (mostly in black wards), against his battles with the unions, against unabashed courting of out-of-town hedge funds and other donors to build his $30 million campaign bank account. (Garcia, by contrast, raised $1 million.)

It’s generally assumed that many of these protest voters, having gotten Emanuel’s attention, will dutifully vote for him in the run-off, if only because he radiates a competence that Garcia can’t match. Chuy, while well-liked, shows no sign of the ability to run the city. Indeed, he has been more effective so far in attacking Emanuel’s ties to “the big money special interests” than in suggesting solutions to the city’s real problems.

But the real key for both candidates may lie in getting out the vote. A shrewd analysis in In These Times magazine by a political activist named Marilyn Katz noted that the city’s total vote in the first round was some 200,000 votes below that of last fall’s gubernatorial election.

More to the point, this total was some 120,000 votes below that of the 2011 mayoral election, which Emanuel won outright. 

According to Katz, vote totals in the predominately African-American wards fell by 97,000 below those in the gubernatorial election, and by 91,000 in the predominately white wards. The total vote in the Hispanic wards was off only 15,000.

In other words, Emanuel, who won both the white and black votes in 2011, simply failed to get out the vote. He vastly outspent Garcia on TV ads and the other weapons that money can buy, but seemingly didn’t invest much in the kind of door-knocking retail politics familiar to most Chicagoans.

Compared to 2011, Emanuel got only two-thirds as many votes last month, a dip of some 111,000 votes.

The Mexican-born Garcia did better, but not much. He may have forced Emanuel into a runoff, but he still got 37,000 fewer votes than the two Hispanic candidates whom Emanuel beat four years ago.

It’s obviously distasteful to stress these racial and ethnic components. Distasteful, but unavoidable. Chicago, although not quite so segregated as it once was, remains a balkanized place, with entire wards that are black, Latino or white ethnic.

Not every black voter votes black, of course, and not every white voter votes white. But race still counts. Emanuel won more than half the black vote in 2011, and his success in the runoff may depend on getting the endorsement of at least one of the two black candidates he defeated last month.

Emanuel faces an uphill challenge in winning these black votes, for reasons that illustrate the problems facing this city and any mayor who tries to run it.

Chicago is America’s most heavily indebted city, mostly because past mayors bought development and labor peace by borrowing against the future. Now that future is here. Any mayor has to cut costs while increasing revenue. The problem is how to cut costs without eroding the city’s global status, on which its economic future depends, while increasing revenue without pricing the working and middle classes out of the city.

Emanuel tried to do this partly by closing those 50 schools. He may have had the facts on his side: the schools were in depopulating neighborhoods. But the closings resulted in a needlessly ham-handed, profanity-laced battle with the city’s teachers’ union, which is now leading the battle to deny him a second term. Those who know him say he cares desperately about the city’s schools. But he has failed to convince not only teachers but parents that he cares.

Chicago ranks regularly among the worlds’ mightiest cities. It also is filled with people who are not sharing in this global vitality. Any mayor’s job is to close the widening gap between these two Chicagos.
Too few people believe that Emanuel wants to do this, and too few people believe that Garcia knows how. But come April 7, one of them will be mayor. 


Richard Longworth is nonresident senior fellow on global cities at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of On Global Cities and Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism, on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest. He also was a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University and adjunct professor of international relations at Northwestern University, and is a mentor at the Harris School at the University of Chicago.


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