The April 7th  mayoral runoff election saw steady support for Rahm Emmanuel in black communities throughout Chicago, despite his low popularity for much of his first term.

A wide variety of blacks impacted by the Mayor’s actions and policies nevertheless voted for him. Many black parents whose schools were closed or had love ones killed by street violence revealed that they voted for the mayor.  The reason for this was because of what little they knew about his runoff opponent, or what he stood for. This reaction was repeated by colleagues of mine in black communities across the city.  So, how did this happen?

 If the February 24th voting returns were surprising, the April 7th runoff results were not. Going into the campaign, there were waves of speculation of who might challenge and defeat the incumbent mayor. Calls for one potential candidate, Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle, mounted over the preceding winter. 

Rumors of another candidate’s preparations gradually transformed into concrete actions. Then the leading challenger, Chicago teachers union president Karen Lewis, suddenly withdrew as she battled a serious illness. 

Shortly thereafter, Jesús “Chuy” García announced his candidacy. His early announcements signaled a grassroots campaign with a coalition of progressive, black, and Hispanic voters disenchanted with the status quo in general, and actions of the incumbent in particular. 

While observing the Chuy’s campaign for six months, I waited to see the development of a coalition that harkened back to the whirlwind of diverse supporters who swept Harold Washington into office.  Chuy an early and strong supporter of Washington’s campaign knew from that experience the benefits and pitfalls of such a coalition. For many reasons, a budding “movement” never took hold. 

The challenge to the incumbent mayor was billed as a “dethrone Rahm” campaign.  But the mythologized memory of Harold was not enough to resurrect the coalition needed to confront a Mayor favored with deep connections to both local and national political elites. In our post-Citizens United world, wealthy donors, both Republican and Democrat, raised tens of millions of dollars for the incumbent. It would take more than a “movement” to overcome such irresistible force. And the Chuy campaign barely had that. The press often mentioned a progressive coalition — it was little more than an optical illusion.

To understand what happened, we have to review the presumptions on which the Garcia campaign were based. Let’s first start with coalition. The definition of coalition is the alliance or union between groups, factions, or parties for some temporary and specific reason. The problem with Chuy’s coalition is simple: there was never a true union between groups. The millennials running Chuy’s campaign simply could not grasp the true meaning of a coalition. Coalitions are about partnerships. The common concerns of the partners in this election were never clearly and forcefully articulated.

The groups that Chuy needed to come together to win were Puerto Ricans and other minorities on the Northside; Hispanics and blacks on the South and West sides; white working class ethnic groups to the far northwest and southwest; as well as progressive and moderate whites downtown and northward along the lakefront.

There were several reasons for the failure of these groups to coalesce. Perhaps the most important area of failure was the most simple: messaging. There were no common themes that these groups could share and bring these groups together. Being angry with Rahm Emmanuel wasn’t enough. The coalition needed a message that struck the core values, needs and goals of the groups that Chuy needed if he were to be elected mayor. 

Messaging is a crucial element of any election. The failure of messaging in this campaign reflected not only its lack of basic and common themes. The coalition lacked input by its constituent partners as well. A key failure was the lack of knowledgeable and effective African Americans and Puerto Ricans in key roles or positions. 

Chuy’s inner circle or senior leadership was comprised of some experienced progressive political operatives, but they generally lacked recent experience in city-wide elections. 

Others were union members, especially after the February election. Among the union officials were African Americans on loan to the campaign. However, their expertise could not match the experience of a Del Marie Cobb or David Axelrod. The results were predictable. Chuy’s campaign failed to find a message that could rally Blacks while matching the interests of other coalition members. His campaign should have had its own African American insiders from day one. They could have brought the needed information and resources to reach both West Side and South Side black communities. 

Instead, the campaign — guided primarily by millennials — focused on campaign tactics. Their political pedigrees traced back only to Obama’s 2008 campaign. Yet here, they lacked the financial resources and political acumen that were the bases for Obama’s first election operations. Even more serious for a campaign that would be grassroots, they lacked the wellspring of support that buoyed both Harold Washington in 1983 and Barack Obama in 2008.

They tended to dismiss older persons as well as those from the neighborhoods, a glaring failure in the face of an electorate whose participation skewed upwards for voters over 40. Ignoring neighborhood people’s input led directly to the kinds of comments I’ve noted above.

Various interested persons repeatedly told campaign leaders that they were in need of African American input. Listening is key to any successful venture, it ought to be an essential element of any election campaign. And it is urgently needed for a coalition in formation. The campaign’s failures quickly became obvious to even casual observers. Yet there was never a substantial response to these concerns.

Another critical area was understanding how to engage each element of the coalition. There was a presumption that disenchantment with the incumbent in the black community would lead automatically to support for the mayor’s opponent. Attempting to get African American votes on the cheap turned out to be disastrous. The Chuy campaign neglected the West Side, and in return, the West Side voters neglected Chuy on Election Day. To be blunt, Chuy did not win one black ward and often lost ground gained in the first round of voting. He never came close in any of the eighteen black wards. The old adage applied here: you get what you pay for.

Throughout the six month campaign, I heard distinctive progressive issues that the campaign never clearly articulated as part of their debate: violence, jobs, and resources for community development. Further, Garcia was well positioned to address divisions between blacks and Latinos lurking just under the surface of public discourse. His failure to address this last issue was among the most significant failures of the campaign.

My advice to any future progressive campaign trying to win black votes is simple: Connect with the people in the community. So-called leaders of the black community may serve as an introduction. This election demonstrated, however, that the key is providing a practical and comprehensive understanding of the issues people confront in their daily lives.

The endorsement of a “black leader” can never be the primary means of reaching people with a progressive message that serves a broader coalition as well. As with any ballot effort, if there is no clear message; there’s no well-coordinated campaign.

Chuy’s campaign focused on neighborhoods and citizen inclusion in policy-making. But these crucial ideas never caught hold. There are two reasons for this. First, he never used a message about these notions that worked in the black community. It’s not what Chuy said (often quite softly), it’s what people heard. No one heard Chuy, but they heard Rahm. Chuy’s campaign would have been better on messaging if the campaign had follow the ten rules of effective language.

Second, instead of the so-called progressive movement defining Chuy, Rahm defined Chuy. And he let Rahm set the perimeters of campaign topics.

Politics 101 is clear.  Never let your opposition define you and never let a negative attack against your candidate go unchallenged. Chuy’s media team attempted to respond to some of Rahm’s attacks, but what people heard from Chuy’s media team was neither clear for the target audience nor effective when the message did reach them.

For any progressive movement to work, the movement and its candidate must know their core values. They must relate the values to the demographic they are trying to reach. And they must frame the debate by topics and questions.

In this campaign, there was little discussion of issues, values or the performance of the incumbent. Instead, the opposition framed the debate. They asserted that the challenger lacked experience, a plan and a commitment to making “hard decisions”.

In looking back, Chuy and others interested in progressive government now know they needed to run a different campaign. They must have more seasoned staff, knowledgeable about the communities they have to engage. Sadly, progressives lost a great opportunity to put in place a truly people-centered municipal government. 

Although a leading factor, it was not merely the Mayor’s millions that denied Chuy the election. What could have been is just that…what could have been.

Ronald Lawless is an Austin community activist, political strategist and former candidate for Cook County Commissioner, 1st District.


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