Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Forced Into Historic Runoff

This Real News Network interview describes why the coming mayoral runoff in Chicago is in many ways a referendum on Rahm Emanuel’s failed neoliberal policies, such as privatizing schools (of course, the definition of failure depends on your perspective on whose interests are being served). The very fact that this race is taking place at all reveals an unexpectedly large degree of popular discontent with misrule by what passes for our elites. Even if Rahm wins, his luster will have been dented by this challenge, just as Andrew Cuomo’s was by the novice, greatly underfunded Zephyr Teachout making 34% showing in the Democratic party primary.

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is headed to a runoff after he failed to gain 50 percent of Tuesday’s votes in the city’s mayoral election. The former Obama administration chief of staff will face his closest challenger, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who got 35 percent in an April runoff. Emanuel has been a lightning rod for controversy during his first four years, as he’s pushed austerity, faced a historic strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, closed 50 public schools and mental health clinics, while the city has maintained one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Well, now joining us to discuss all this from Chicago is Kari Lydersen. Kari is a long-time Chicago journalist, the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Thanks so much for joining us again.

KARI LYDERSEN, AUTHOR OF MAYOR 1%: Hi. Thank you.

NOOR: So despite Rahm–or as you referred to, Mayor 1%–spending an overwhelming amount of money against his much lesser-known opponents and getting none other than President Obama to campaign for him, Emanuel has been forced into this unlikely runoff. What’s your reaction? And what’s the mood a lot of these the communities in Chicago that–where a lot of the resentment over his policies has really come from?

LYDERSEN: Yeah. I think the mood among a lot of people is pretty buoyant, kind of surprised. I think even though recent polls had shown a runoff was likely, there did seem to just be a sense, both from a national pundits and from regular people, that just with all this money, Rahm would have it locked down. So I think there is, among the many opponents of Rahm, a lot of surprise, relief, excitement–definitely excitement–and the idea that this is literally the first time in history that there’ll be a runoff in the [incompr.] elections since they’ve had this nonpartisan structure. So not only is it runoff, but it’s a runoff between two people who represent really different political personalities and visions for the city. So it’s pretty exciting. It’s a pretty big deal.

NOOR: So talk about what the key issues were in this election and why, even as an incumbent, Emanuel couldn’t get that 50 percent one vote he needed.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. He has just really from day one, or even before he actually took office four years ago, alienated really a lot of people and really important constituencies in Chicago. He’s–you mentioned the teachers union. He’s at sort of this war with the teachers union the whole time that he’s been in office. He alienated the thousands, tens of thousands of members of that union and the Chicago parents during the teachers strike. He really has just made it clear in so many ways that I could talk more about that he doesn’t value or want the input of regular Chicagoans or of different groups that throughout the history of the city have actually gotten respect from past mayors. He doesn’t want to have to deal with them. He’s made decisions in a really autocratic way. It’s really been both the things that he’s done and the way that he’s gone about doing those things that has caused so much discontent. And then the actual impacts, the way that a lot of neighborhoods, people in the South and West sides of the city in particular have felt like they’re just really–their living situation, their neighborhoods, their infrastructure, their well-being has gotten worse since he’s been in office, even as he’s made downtown and parts of the north side as more attractive, shinier, better.

NOOR: And so these are key issues that his opponents seized on. Talk more about what his opponents kind of ran on and why that message was so effective.

LYDERSEN: Well, the closing of the almost 50 public schools was a big deal that affected many, many tens of thousands of parents and kids and affected them on a day-to-day level, because they lost the schools they’d felt really connected to. And it also was the perfect symbol of what I mentioned earlier, his really autocratic way of running the city and this sort of austerity and privatization approach. And a decision was made with very little transparency in a very kind of bullying attitude toward the public. So that was a big issue.

Crime was also a big issue. I don’t know that–that is a little bit more complicated in terms of what Rahm had to do with it, but people definitely feel like they’re not–you know, they’re living in dangerous situations and the city’s not reaching out to them. The mental health clinics actually was an issue in the campaign. This was something where Rahm Emanuel had closed six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics in his first budget, his first year in office. And that has continued to be a huge issue, both because it resulted in layoffs and in a lot of people with mental health problems losing access to their care, and again also symbolized the idea that if people’s needs and vulnerabilities are an economic drag on the city, then they’re just out of luck and out in the cold. So these were the kinds of messages that his opponents were pushing.

NOOR: And tell us about “Chuy” García, the man that Rahm Emanuel will be facing off in April.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. So “Chuy” García got into the race not until October, late in the game, because Karen Lewis, the president of the Teachers Union, had generated this really burst and groundswell of excitement. She had been squaring off with Rahm during the teachers strike and the school closings battle, and was actually [incompr.] ahead of Rahm in the summer. And she’s African-American. And she represented the African-American community and the whole concept of organized labor and of the 99 percent that has been [incompr.] throughout Rahm’s tenure. So she was looking like she had a chance to beat him.

And then, in one of those just shocking stories, she was diagnosed with brain cancer in the fall and had to withdraw from the race. And that’s when Karen, herself, and other supporters basically enlisted “Chuy” García to run. So “Chuy” García’s someone that was the first Latino state legislator in Illinois, and he had been a city councilman and alderman during Harold Washington’s administration, the first black mayor of Chicago, a Mexican-American immigrant himself ho grew up and still lives in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, someone who really represents–he’s currently a Cook County commissioner, someone who basically represents the almost polar opposite of the things that Mayor Emanuel represents, someone that has a really deep history in Chicago politics and state politics in a number of different levels, but has been known as someone who is a champion for progressive issues and for the underdog and who operates in a community-oriented, democratic way, you know, very different from the way people see Mayor Emanuel.

NOOR: And it wasn’t just the Mayor’s race headed to a runoff. Several members of the City Council will also be facing runoffs in April, and I think it’s 18, which is a third of the total, and 12 of them are actually–were backed by Rahm. So it’s not just a referendum on Rahm, really. It seems like a referendum on his allies as well.

LYDERSEN: Right. It’s a referendum on a whole system. I mean, Chicago’s been known for decades as having a rubberstamp city council, where the alderman, even the so-called progressive or independent alderman–it’s very rare that they ever vote against the mayor’s wishes. And this rubberstamp tendency had gotten even stronger during Rahm’s time in office. So it was just a given. The mayor has always been so powerful in Chicago that those 50 aldermen and they’re pretty much terrified of opposing him and the money and the power that he has to hurt them and to prevent them from getting reelected. So this is a pretty big deal, to have this much turmoil in the aldermenic races.

A few of these major coalitions in Chicago that are bringing together unions and community groups and faith-based groups had actually sort of shifted their focus away from the mayor’s race and worked really hard on a number of these different City Council races, with the idea that that would be the more realistic way to build a new movement and to leverage power in the city. And it’s pretty–I think people are also pretty pleasantly surprised and excited about how those races went. The individual races are important in their own right, because the aldermen could have, if they chose to, theoretically, power to change things in City Council, and also in their own words. And then it’s also a referendum on Rahm himself and on the system and the way of governing that Rahm represents, and also, even going back before Rahm, just this idea that the whole concept of political machine and the idea that aldermen have to be rubberstamped, I mean, it would be premature to say it’s being dismantled or seriously challenged, but it’s definitely–it’s more of a shakeup than we’ve seen in a long time.

NOOR: Well, I wanted to end on this point. Certainly Rahm will be regrouping and pouring a ton of more money into this race. I think he raised something like $16 million so far. What is–so what is the mood in Rahm’s camp, from what you understand, and what is the plan for the opposition? ‘Cause they’re certainly going to have to take to the streets, because they won’t be able to counter just the money that Rahm will be able to pour in over the next few weeks.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. And one thing that’s important to note is that the voter turnout was extremely low yesterday, so it’ll be a whole different story in six weeks when, presumably, the voter turnout will be higher and both sides will have the chance to work on that voter turnout. And a key issue: the third-place candidate was Willie Wilson, an African-American multimillionaire businessman who definitely got a lot of the African-American vote, people who are really disenfranchised and angry at Rahm. But in some ways Wilson’s sort of politics or views on certain issues are somewhat in line with Rahm, or even to the right of Rahm. So it’ll be a big wildcard where that 10 percent–he got 10 percent where those voters go.

So both camps–I think Rahm and Chuy’s camp, probably their number-one priority right now is going after those chunk of voters as well who had voted for Wilson, along with just all the people who did not go out to vote. And, yeah, Rahm has a ton of money. He had a ton of money before yesterday’s election too, though, and he ran a lot of ads, and he spent a lot of that money, and it didn’t get him the results he wanted. So I don’t think–I think it’s been proven that money alone can’t do it. It’ll be really interesting to see the challenges, probably, more on Chuy García’s campaign to tap the groundswell of both disenchantment with Rahm and excitement that’s out there and see what they can do in six weeks.

NOOR: And we’ll link to your interviews about Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99% at the bottom of the story.

Thank you so much for joining us.

LYDERSEN: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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23 comments

  1. DJG

    Good summary, although a bit too focused on Rahm (which serves his purposes). Something not mentioned is the support for an elected school board in ballot initiatives ward by ward–it consistently got 85 percent or more of the votes. Those results push the problem of acting on the wishes of the electorate right back at Rahm and city council.
    –Karen Lewis also is Jewish, an interesting fact.
    –The Homan Square scandal is part of the continuing scandal of police misbehavior and torture. It is worth keeping this story alive. It will be a factor. (It is also a symptom of Chicago’s problem of being somewhat second rate.)
    –Never underestimate the value of Chicago blowhardism, and the mayoral race may turn on how much each candidate can talk about the city’s general wonderfulness. Sheesh, more second-rate-ness.
    –Rahm’s base is a bunch of upper-middle neighborhoods segregated by class and race. This does not bode well for him. We’re talking about 25 percent of the population of the city.
    –Willie Wilson appears to be a jerk. Watch for more jerkiness.

  2. timbers

    IMO one of the reasons Obama has been so effective in advancing the pro-corporate, neoliberal agenda is because he is black and has a lock on the black vote, which probably would have rebelled to greater extent by now if where not Obama at the top. So Obama has neutralized a big part of what usually can be rallied to progressive causes.

    While some black commentators saw Obama for what he is and said so before many others even before he was elected President – one wonders how long – or if – blacks will realize in large numbers that Obama is working so hard and effectively against their interests.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      White guilt is important, but I disagree with your assessment of the black vote. Much of the machinery of black media is captured by Team Blue. African Americans loved Clinton when they would have normally revolted, but black “leadership” has been devoted to Team Blue propaganda.

    2. Ziontrain

      MO one of the reasons Obama has been so effective in advancing the pro-corporate, neoliberal agenda is because he is black and has a lock on the black vote, which probably would have rebelled to greater extent by now if where not Obama at the top.

      I disagree on this comment.

      1) Democratic party in general has a lock on the vote of African Americans. Obama gets a bit more. But not that much more – and for sure not if he ran for office again! Whatever the case, the key thing is the democrats get usually at least 80% of that vote. But then again African American are a declining percentage of US population -only 9% and falling if I recall – and in addition are being systematically forced out of northern cities and sent back south. So this vote will mean less and less as we go alon

      2) On the lack of “rebellion”: the reason the democrats get the African American vote is because Republican party generally puts its ugliest face forward. That’s why no shift to the other party at least when seen via the lens of the two-party system. But what you’d get is more people staying home on election day, and more voting for alternative parties eg Green Party or independent candidates. Especially after Ferguson incident and Black Lives Matter campaigns, I think you can expect to see this trend growing more among the younger portion of black voters. They understand very well now that a vote for their local establishment Dems is a vote thrown away.

  3. M

    For what it’s worth I was in Chicago last weekend (before the election) and Chuy Garcia signs were EVERYWHERE; I don’t recall seeing a single Emanual sign. My friends didn’t think Garcia could win, but were just happy with the idea that Emanual was being given a run for his money. Chicago has a lot of big problems right now, and I don’t get the sense that anybody there thinks the problems are being addressed.

    So good luck to Chuy!

  4. Vince in MN

    The Emanuel campaign may have to do a last minute get out the vote drive in all the local cemeteries.

  5. katenka

    I was volunteering in one of the Chicago progressive alderman races that lost (although we are still getting congratulations for how unexpectedly well we did!), and at our election night party, the entire room committed to throwing our weight behind Chuy. The mood was positively jubilant, and it still is! (I know our volunteers here are determined — we were dealing with routine intimidation from the people on the other side of the alderman race, including pretty unambiguous-in-intent statements from some of them such as, for one example, “We know who you are, where you live, and where your kids go to school.” We didn’t back down from that, we won’t back down from the weather, and if we go down, we’ll go down fighting!)

  6. McWatt

    It’s no secret that the Mayor has been carrying the water for the people who first put him in the House,
    then orchestrated the Chief of Staff appointment, then gave him a banking job for which he had no experience
    or qualifications that earned him an alleged 18 million and finally ran him for mayor.

    1. optimader

      then gave him a banking job for which he had no experience or qualifications

      What do you mean McWatt??
      Rahm did an undergraduate degree in dancing, what better CV to enter the finance industry?
      Then he apparently worked his way up from the mailroom, and w/ relentless persistence was able to sock away his ~$16.5MM nestegg over a long and diligent 2.5yr career!

      No less Rahm earned a Wasters Degree from Northwestern (sorry, meant Masters Degree, my bad) w/a focus on speaking English! No doubt this is where he learned his lexicon of colorful vernacular to spice up his professional interactions?

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    If it’s possible to corrupt the vote counting in Chicago, or to throw sand into his opponents face then you can be sure Rahm is looking into it. That is one dirty player who should be an Obama cell mate but is at the very least an Obama soul mate.

    1. MLS

      Possible to corrupt the vote counting? Corrupt elections are a staple of Chicago politics and have been for years; it’s one of the dirtiest cities around in that regard.

      1. DJG

        Chicago elections are generally clean. What you are writing about is from before about 1970, when a huge effort began, which included monitoring precinct by precinct. I recall voting in one election when two election observers were monitoring the four or five election judges as well as the voters’ list. I had to call out my name loud enough for all involved to check their lists. The current city clerk is David Orr, who came out of that reform effort. The folklore of dead people voting is still around, although little attested. Having been (a small) part of that effort to protect the vote, what makes me wonder now is how little monitoring goes on in the rest of the country. (Ohio? John Kerry’s race?)

  8. Jeff N

    Even Father Pfleger (a prominent Catholic priest in an all-black area here) shilled for Emanuel. Probably afraid of losing money for whatever neighborhood/young-people programs he gets, if Emanuel eventually wins.

    A lot of people calling out Pfleger on this, even while Pfleger invited the great Cornel West to speak last week.

  9. Verifyfirst

    Pharaoh Emanuel, let my people go! (i.e., go about Chicago without getting $100 bricks thrown through their windows by your red light cameras).

    Anybody know how to start an internet meme? I’m picturing billboards with huge pictures of Rahm dressed as Pharaoh, ala the Mike Royko book cover from the 1970’s, of the first Mayor Daley dressed as a centurion.

  10. McWatt

    To begin to end corruption in Chicago you must first end the TIF’s. With the dramatic fall in Chicago’s
    bond rating yesterday this may finally be possible.

    “They can do anything we can’t stop them from doing.” Catch-22 Heller

  11. urban legend

    The big question is whether the elites are going to learn from this how weak the neo-liberal agenda is — how weak in substance, and how extraordinarily weak politically. The elites will not go away, and they have control of the money. Accordingly, they must be converted into seeing that progressive policies — full employment, higher incomes, stronger unions for stronger worker bargaining power, no cuts to Social Security, even surreptitious ones, revival of discussion of a public option, strong regulation of Wall Street against fraudulent practices, putting the deficit and national debt on the back burner until we have (real) full employment — have nothing whatsoever to do with “class warfare” and will be good for the country.

    They need to realize that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are their friends. At the very least, they need to understand that the Democratic base who do all the work of pounding the pavement and cold calling generally love Elizabeth Warren, and that treating her like a pariah will only turn-off many of those workers they need. They need to learn how to channel Nick Hanauer, the wealthy entrepreneur from Seattle who gets it.

  12. ogee

    I am interested in the veracity of the story by the guardian about the “blacksite” the Chicago police have been using.
    There ought to be a national outrage about a police force thinking they are so above the law and beyond the reach of any accountability, in such a blatantly illegal and unconstitutional action. To have something like this set up is right out of the Hollywood screenwriters imagination.
    While Chicago and the “daly” family dynasty, are egregious enough to stain that whole town, since the days of fixing the election for john f kennedy, nevermind the partnership with organized crime through the decades. While we now have the “Chicago” set; Hillary Clinton, Obama,rahm, etc….. and the Chicago council on global affairs , and the rest of the scum in that city….. acting like they want to be a dark and dirty as the new York crowd of scumbags who run things there and in DC… This little over reach of a “blacksite ought to be enough to take everyone with any connection to allowing such a stark abuse aginst the citizenry and the constitution, should be thrown in jail. And not in a “safe” isolated prison complex for white collar scoundrels, rahm and the police chief ought to be in with the general population for the rest of his miserable life.
    I’m sure the skills he has for getting along in political circles will be a joy to someone in there looking for a little man who can dance.

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