CHICAGO – The mayor is proud to tout his work expanding access to pre-kindergarten programs, raising the minimum wage, and making two years of community college available to everybody. He talks admiringly about his city’s ethnic diversity and stresses his commitment to making it a place where “every resident in every neighborhood has a fair shot at success.”
This is not a preview of the re-election campaign of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a hero to progressives around the country. It’s the actual platform of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. So it’s mildly ironic that the very sorts of left-of-center voters who elected de Blasio and other mayors blocked Emanuel’s re-election on Tuesday and forced him into a runoff campaign that will not be settled until April 7.
The champion of change was Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner who quickly made himself a counter-brand. If everyone here calls their chief executive “Rahm,” everyone now refers to Garcia by his nickname, “Chuy.” The Rahm-Chuy Show promises to be another storied encounter staged by a city that knows how to turn politics into drama – in this case, a production that could draw a class line across Chicago.
Garcia is unabashed in making this contest an ideological struggle. He has cast Emanuel – who received an endorsement from his old boss, President Barack Obama, and vastly outspent his opponent – as a local reincarnation of Mitt Romney, “Mayor 1 percent.”
“Today, we the people have spoken,” Garcia declared on election night after his showing far surpassed his standing in pre-election polls. “Not the people with the money and the power and the connections, not the giant corporations, the big-money special interests, the hedge funds and Hollywood celebrities who poured tens of millions of dollars into the mayor’s campaign. They all had their say. They’ve had their say for too long.”
In this round, Emanuel received 45.4 percent of the vote, well short of the 50 percent plus one that he needed to avoid a runoff, to 33.9 percent for Garcia. Willie Wilson, a self-financed African-American businessman, received 10.6 percent and two other candidates split the rest.
The ideological frame on the race is an important part of the story, and it’s reinforced by the victories of several anti-Emanuel members of the City Council whom the mayor’s supporters tried to oust. Nationally, the race has been characterized as a shadow battle between the Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren wings of the Democratic Party. Garcia is clearly embracing the Warren role.
But this take oversimplifies the dynamics here because politics is also local, and personal. Emanuel is, you might say, unabashedly unabashed. The words “aggressive,” “blunt” and “bullying” attach to him, and he has an urban poet’s affection for expletives.
Some of the Garcia voters I spoke with saw their first-round votes as a chance to force a runoff and thereby bring Emanuel down a peg. Emanuel’s second-round strategy will focus on asking such voters – and the roughly two-thirds of the electorate that didn’t vote on Tuesday: Now that you’ve registered your displeasure, do you want Chuy or Rahm running your city?
There were a lot of accumulated grievances against the mayor that at one point brought his approval rating down to 29 percent: His closing of 50 schools, his protracted fight with Chicago’s teachers union, and the high crime rates in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Like many mayors before him, he was accused of focusing primarily on downtown development, and the taxi drivers sure don’t like his friendly attitude toward Uber.
Wilson, who spent about $2 million of his own money, also hurt Emanuel. The mayor carried most of the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, but as Fran Spielman noted in the Chicago Sun-Times, his share there typically dropped from around 60 percent in his election four years ago to about 40 percent on Tuesday. Wilson, a very religious man whose television ads included scenes in churches, appears from private polling to have done especially well with older African-American women, even as Garcia expanded turnout in Latino areas.
Emanuel is one of the most complicated, and thus most interesting, characters in American politics. An unapologetically pro-business Democrat, his legendary feuds with liberals, often carried out at high decibel levels, created a legion of enemies who cheered his humbling. He also has a fondness for policies – on education, pre-kindergarten and community colleges – that reflect his passion for widespread upward mobility. The denouement of the Rahm-Chuy Show could depend on whether the second Rahm can save the first.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.