In Chicago, the democracy equation is “50-plus-1.”
If Rahm Emanuel wins the majority of the vote in a five-way mayoral contest on February 24, the Democrat who always seems to be at odds with his party’s base will secure a second term as mayor of the nation’s third-most-populous city. That, in turn, would position the corporate-friendly Emanuel—“Mayor 1%”—an even more influential figure in the “Not Elizabeth Warren Wing of the Democratic Party.”
To avoid an April 7 general election race with the second-place finisher in the multi-candidate field, Emanuel needs his “50-plus-one”: a total vote that is at least one above the 50 percent line. The same goes for city council races, where labor unions and progressive groups are challenging Emanuel’s allies.
It is expected that a number of council races will go to April 7 runoffs—and the competition could be intense, as Emanuel and his allies seek to knock off members of the council’s Progressive Caucus, while labor groups such as the Chicago Teachers Union and National Nurses United make the case for electing more progressives. National groups such as Democracy for America have weighed in on behalf of progressive alders such as John Arena, with DFA national chair Jim Dean declaring, “Each successfully re-elected progressive Alderman will send a strong message to Rahm Emanuel and leaders across America that progressives reject the agenda of privatization, public school closings, and stagnant wages for working families. We will demonstrate that progressives are ready to fight for an economy that works for everyone—and that we will defend those elected officials who stand with us.”
The unsettled question is whether the mayoral race will go to a runoff, and in so doing provide a marquee contest that frames the debate and drives turnout up and down the ballot on April 7.
Emanuel is doing everything in his power to avert that prospect. And he has a lot in his power. The mayor has millions in the bank—the Chicago Sun Times recently reported on “the nearly $30 million amassed (in recent years) by: the mayor’s campaign committee; a second campaign fund he controls; and a super PAC that supports Emanuel and aldermanic candidates he backs.” His financial advantage is so enormous that it easily trumps the combined resources of his many rivals and their allies. All that money from financial interests, law firms and developers has paid for Emanuel’s omnipresent campaign commercials, which cost a fortune in one of the nation’s most expensive media markets, and are, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “dominating the TV airwaves.”
Emanuel also has a muscular electoral operation and a reputation for bare-knuckles political brawling that frightens foes into submission. He has close ties with national Democratic leaders, including President Obama, who was set to appear at Emanuel’s side in Chicago just days before the election.
As the current campaign took shape, Emanuel’s poll numbers were weak. But all that spending and all those connections count for something. A new Tribune poll puts the incumbent at 45 percent “just shy of the 50 percent-plus-one-vote benchmark.”
In second-place is Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who seems to be emerging as the candidate best positioned to face the mayor in an April runoff. With enthusiastic backing from the Chicago Teachers Union and a number of other labor and progressive groups, Garcia has moved ahead of Emanuel’s other challengers to position at 20 percent. Businessman Willie Wilson is at 7 percent in the poll, as is Chicago Alderman Robert Fioretti. William “Dock” Walls III, a former aide to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, trails with 2 percent. Eighteen percent of prospective voters were undecided.
The mayor just needs a small portion of the undecided to get above 50 percent.
As for Garcia, he needs to finish second. But he also needs the rest of the pack to get enough votes so that Emanuel doesn’t get his “50-plus-1.” Chicago Reader writer Ben Joravsky summed things up well in a pre-election piece—“An editorial endorsement for… anyone but Rahm!”—in which he explained: “Think about this, people. Every vote against Mayor Rahm increases the number of votes he needs to get more than 50 percent.”
For months, Garcia and Fioretti have pitched themselves as the strongest potential challengers to Emanuel. Both have records as allies of organized labor—siding with unions that have frequently battled the mayor on behalf of public education, public services and protections for workers. Fioretti, a lawyer, has been among the loudest progressive critics of Emanuel on the council; and his current campaign has highlighted support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and impressive proposals for promoting worker-owned cooperatives as a tool for urban revitalization.
But Garcia has secured key endorsements from prominent progressives in a city where activists are always on the watch for candidates who can pull together diverse coalitions to take on entrenched political and economic interests.
Cook County Clerk David Orr, a key ally of former Mayor Washington in the great political struggles of the 1980s between reformers and the old Democratic political machine, was an early and ardent Garcia backer. “If you’re going to have a real democracy, or at least a representative form of government, you’ve got to bring the stakeholders in.… [Garcia] believes in that,” says Orr. “No offense to Rahm, but Rahm doesn’t believe in that. Rahm believes in telling everyone what to do and [yelling] at them when they don’t do it.”
Garcia also has the backing of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, a high-profile critic of the mayor who has earned broad recognition and support as she and the CTU have battled school cuts and closures. Lewis explored a mayoral bid last year, before she was hospitalized with a brain tumor. That took her out of the running last fall and she quickly endorsed Garcia. Now, after surgery and chemotherapy, Lewis has returned to the fray as an outspoken backer of the challenger.
“We need a change, and it couldn’t be me, so I talked to Chuy and I had to twist his arm a little bit but he was ready for it,” says the union leader, who refers to Garcia as “a consensus builder and a man of the people [who] will work for all of our citizens—not just the corporate elites and special interests who seek to privatize our public assets.”
Garcia is running on a broadly progressive program—as are several of the other challengers. For his part, the county commissioner is ready to pick a fight with Emanuel on education and democracy issues.
“We are the only school district in the state with an appointed, not an elected, school board, thanks to state legislation passed in 1995—which I voted against as state legislator,” says Garcia, a former state senator. “It is that same appointed board that closed our schools and cut the education budget, following Mayor Emanuel’s orders. Would this have happened with an elected board, responsible to the citizens?”
Garcia frames the issue as “a question of constitutional rights and civil liberties: the right to elect those who govern an institution so vital to our city. School systems are perhaps the main governmental bodies touching the lives of a majority of our citizens. That’s why I believe an elected school board is a constitutional right.”
As one of his first acts as mayor, Garcia says he would ask the legislature to revoke mayoral control and allow for an elected school board. “Lacking action in the legislature,” he adds, “I will file a federal voting-rights lawsuit based on the Constitution and civil rights laws.”
Those are bold promises that excite CTU members and community activists, and that would instantly make Garcia a leader in the struggle to renew urban schools after years of assaults by Emanuel and others—including wealthy backers of cuts, closures, rigid standardized-testing schemes, vouchers, so-called “choice” initiatives and privatization.
Simply to have the debate would be dramatic for Chicago, which has not seen a mayoral runoff since it shifted to the nonpartisan system in the 1990s. Emanuel won it all in February, 2011. He’s spending heavily—nearly $1 million for TV ads in the last week of the campaign—to win it all once more in February, 2015. That would shut the debate down at the mayoral level and free Emanuel up to steer his considerable energies and considerable resources into securing a City Council super-majority that would rubber-stamp his every demand.