For the first time since the city switched to non-partisan elections in 1999, there will be a city-wide runoff in Chicago. On April 7, Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (7th).
Despite raising more than $15 million, about half of which went toward a barrage of television commercials, many of which aired in the final weeks of the campaign, Mayor Emanuel failed to capture the requisite 50 percent plus one majority necessary to avoid a runoff. Emanuel garnered 45.4 percent of the vote, while Commissioner Garcia, who spent about $1.2 million, captured a surprising 33.8 percent.
Businessman Willie Wilson garnered 10.6 percent, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), 7.4 percent and activist William “Dock” Walls received 2.8 percent of the vote during an election in which only 32.7 percent of those registered to vote did.
Before the Feb. 24 contest was over, and as returns from various wards were still trickling in, the rhetorical jockeying by each campaign to frame the narrative for the April 7 contest had already begun.
“Campaigns are about the future and in this campaign, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has laid out an agenda for Chicago’s future that makes room for everyone in the City of Chicago,” said U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (4th), the co-chair of Mayor Emanuel’s campaign committee, at the Mayor’s election night headquarters
In 2011, Gutierrez fought hard to keep Emanuel from becoming elected, but that night the prominent Latino congressman was Emanuel’s best line of defense. Gutierrez, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a former 26th Ward alderman who won election in 1986 with the backing of Mayor Harold Washington, can boast progressive bona fides that may be every bit as strong as Garcia’s.
Gutierrez’s presence may have also been reflective of a strategy by Emanuel’s campaign to cut into the ostensible advantage that Garcia, a native of Durango, Mexico, has with immigrants and their children. Gutierrez is widely considered a respected authority on comprehensive immigration reform.
“The city of Chicago has been built by newcomers upon newcomers upon newcomers and we will continue to build upon that tradition,” Gutierrez said. “I can say without equivocation here tonight that the one place where young immigrants who arrive as children to this nation can go to school, graduate and are guaranteed [college], regardless, of their immigration status, is the City of Chicago.
Gutierrez also directly confronted the characterization of Emanuel’s policies, consistently reinforced by the mayor’s challengers during the regular campaign, as being solely for the interests of elites.
“Regardless of your social status and your economic means, you not only get kindergarten half-a-day, you get it all day,” Gutierrez said.
“I think of the City of Chicago four years ago and the kids were getting shortchanged. Kids not just from downtown, but from every neighborhood in Chicago were getting shortchanged. They’re not…now they’re staying in school longer, they’re getting better grades, they’re graduating at greater effort because we have made changes to our educational system.”
While the fiery Gutierrez channeled the Emanuel most in the city have come to both respect and revile, Emanuel himself was much more muted and in much less of a fighting mood—a posture that he managed to sustain throughout the campaign.
“I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come,” he said. “The truth is, while we’re a city of different ideas and opinions, we all share a common value…to build a city where every resident in every neighborhood has a fierce shot at success for themselves and their children and [where] the American dream is alive…”
Across town, the mood at Garcia’s election night headquarters was raucous compared to that of Emanuel’s. As with Gutierrez, Garcia supporters worked to frame the narrative for the next six weeks, characterizing their candidate as the true heir to the late Harold Washington and the viable progressive alternative to Emanuel’s hard-charging liberalism.
“He’s a protégé of Harold Washington, his platform includes everyone, no matter what race or sexual orientation,” said campaign volunteer Oscar Ortiz, of Humboldt Park.
“Washington’s words made us feel good and brought us hope, that’s what we see in Chuy. Rahm was the worst thing that happened to Chicago since the great fire—he’s arrogant, closing 50 schools, kids have to cross gang lines and walk a mile to school, his commercials were half-truths, he mandated kindergarten but didn’t fund it,” Ortiz said. “Look at what he did to pensions.”
As with Emanuel, Garcia also played against character. He was much more aggressive than the reserved, quietly cheery personality he’s maintained throughout the campaign.
“Today we the people have spoken….not the people with the money and the power and the connections,” he said. “Not the giant corporations…the big money special interest…the hedge funds and Hollywood celebrities who’ve poured tens of millions into the Mayor’s campaign.”
While Mayor Emanuel didn’t poll as well as his campaign may have hoped, they may seek consolation in the fact that in many African American wards throughout the city, the Mayor beat out Garcia by significant margins.
In Austin’s 28th and 37th Wards, Emanuel’s closest challenger wasn’t Garcia, but black businessman Willie Wilson, whose 25.9 percent and 28.2 percent of the vote were second to Emanuel’s 39.8 percent and 41.2 percent in those wards, respectively. Garcia received 22.2 percent and 21.2 percent of the vote in those wards. In the 29th Ward, Emanuel received 42 percent, Garcia 25.1 percent and Wilson 21.9 percent of the vote.
In Austin, Wilson was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th) and prominent pastors Rev. Ira Acree and Rev. Marshall Hatch, both of whom served as advisors to Wilson’s campaign. The Austin leaders are now part of Wilson’s largely African American base of support that both Emanuel and Garcia will try their hardest to tap into in the six weeks leading to April 7.
In the weeks ahead, however, Wilson or no Wilson, both Emanuel and Garcia will have their work cut out if they’re to gain the confidence of West Siders such as Rennay Thomas and Linda Barker, two longtime Austin residents who are members of Sistas in the Hood Outreach Ministries, an organization that helps ex-offenders reenter society.
“We have 50 schools that are closed,” said Thomas. You have kids that have to cross territories that are unsafe even though outside says ‘Safe Passage.’ Referencing Garcia, Thomas said that, while “he may be good at what he does,” she has been disappointed by the times she’s seen him in person.
“When you’re in certain areas and you’re late and then you leave early—that speaks volumes to me. That’s an unspoken message…Let’s face it, we’re a race of people that you need. You’re going to have to work for our vote. It’s not just about smiling and grinning and saying sorry. People do a lot of talk. 1985 is 1985. We’re in a totally different place and time and our needs are greater. The issues are stronger and nobody is addressing them. They’re dressing them up, but they don’t address them.”