When Rahm Emanuel became mayor of Chicago in 2011, he seemed a natural heir to the House of Daley, the right fit for a city used to a certain style of administration. Prone to the same temperament, he was taken to differ from the old boss only in those ways a different time required. Emanuel was more national than local, sure, but no less loyal to his party. He was more consultant class than working stiff, but no less decorated with populist aesthetics. He was the right kind of Chicago Tough, the very model of a new boss well-suited to a new century, the right man to command a machine that these days needs corporations more than precinct captains.
"If you look at the first election rhetoric," one Chicago teacher who voted for Emanuel in 2011 told me, "it made Rahm look like he was the best man to keep the machine nicely oiled. He would play nice with labor, prioritize public education, juggle the traditional coalition. That's what people were used to, and it worked well enough."
It was what we wanted. It was what, until last month, the city and the nation — vaguely aware that a Washington grownup had come to govern us — believed we wanted still. Rahm's reelection was considered certain; even the advocates and organizers of his opponents woke up on election day with their money on the mayor. We would have four more years of Rahm, or at least however many years he deigned to serve before moving back to Washington. The persistent rumor is that he's got his eye on Foggy Bottom in a Hillary Clinton administration.
But then something strange happened. Falling five points short of a majority in last month's election, Rahm Emanuel became the first mayor in the history of Chicago forced into a runoff.
The next day he apologized. In the soft lighting of a simple office, wearing a sweater, not a suit, the man who President Obama joked was rendered "practically mute" by the loss of his middle finger looked into the camera and told voters that his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness. "Sometimes I talk when I should be listening," he said. "I won't always get it right." It sounded like the apology of an activist, taken to task by Twitter for a crime against social justice, not the pitch of an incumbent hoping for a second term.
It's difficult to imagine Mayor Daley kicking off his reelection campaign with an apology. It's difficult to imagine any of the old bosses, who between them ruled Chicago for 50 of the past 60 years, apologizing for anything at all. "I'm the mayor, and don't you forget it!" That's how it was with them.
When Richard M. Daley announced his retirement four years ago, Chicago could have tried something new. But for all the sense that citizens were simply powerless to stand up to this city's signature style of political iconoclasm, that style is what the city — a working majority, at least — still wanted. Maybe it's a case of municipal Stockholm Syndrome, but Chicago bought itself a new Daley in everything but name. Rahm Emanuel: a blustery taskmaster with the will to make his word become law, and who knew we'd all thank him for it some day. On February 22, 2011, Emanuel won 40 of the city's 50 wards (including every majority African-American ward in the city) and 55 percent of the popular vote, and brought a rubber stamp city council riding on his coattails. Of his four major opponents, only one — Gary Chico — even cleared 10 percent.
What went wrong these last four years? A mandate can be deceptive. Despite the numbers, Chicago never truly fell in love with Rahm Emanuel. His 2011 landslide was an exercise in arranged marriage, a forgone conclusion by a citizenry dutifully grateful that the yenta found them a handsome-enough husband. We asked the matchmaker for someone rough-and-tumble, and it seemed like she delivered.
But there was never any honeymoon. Say what you will about the Daleys, but there were always working men in Irish bars, cheering at the TV and thinking, "You go, Dick. You give ‘em one for Bridgeport!" Four years in, nobody has ever felt that way about Emanuel. Even his fans predicate qualified endorsements with mumbling about "tough choices" and "all other things being equal."
The long divorce began during the first year of Emanuel's term. The city finally served papers on February 28 of this year; on April 9 we'll find out if it signs them. The numbers point toward reconciliation. But the city remains suspicious. The numbers fooled it once five weeks ago; it'll wait for the returns before it's fooled a second time. And so tomorrow we'll find out if Rahm Emanuel, humbled and bloody, can hold on to City Hall — or whether Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, the unassuming county commissioner leading a coalition of liberals, activists, Latinos, and labor unions in revolt, will become Chicago's first reform mayor in a century.
The coalition that denied Rahm a majority last month is cobbled together from groups unaccustomed to electoral victory. The city's working class, especially Latino voters, turned out against Emanuel. Joining them were mental health advocates, unions, and young, college-educated white liberals. United Working Families, a progressive advocacy group founded only last year, led organizing efforts against Emanuel and his allies on the city council. For some of these groups, the election is about the city, from issues as personal as unfilled potholes to those as abstract as a city budget crisis and the misappropriation of federal aid money. For others, like UWF, the election is about national issues and a civil war between the center and the left within the Democratic Party: part of the same progressive trend that elected de Blasio in New York and Garcetti in Los Angeles to represent not just a party, but the interests of the least among its constituency. These are groups accustomed to the abstract. To battles won on op-ed pages and nonbinding resolutions. Now, over four years of disenchantment, they have come to the threshold of real electoral victory.
Each part of the coalition shared two traits. Four years ago, they were all positive or indifferent toward Emanuel. And nearly all of them, whether you ask an organizer or activist or artist or just a voter, will tell you that any faith they had in the mayor broke on September 9, 2012.
That was the day negotiations broke down and Chicago's first teachers strike in 25 years began. Rahm was less than a year into his term. The strike's causes were complicated, and which demands any given storyteller chooses to emphasize reveals more about the speaker's choice of side than it does the finer points of negotiation. Pay raises were at play, but so were classrooms sizes and standardized tests and school closures in a city — the only in Illinois and one of the last in the nation — where the school board is chosen by the mayor, not the voters. Loyalties followed the usual lines: either a valiant union was resisting a draconian mayor, or a loudmouth, needy, and underperforming union was bullying a results-oriented mayor. There's a case to be made for both stories, but only one made a lasting impression.
At the time, Rahm insisted that the voters "not worry about the test of my leadership" represented by the strike. But now, with the details of the dispute long forgotten to most voters, it is the results of that test that remains. In 2012, Emanuel confirmed his status as a bruiser. To his supporters, the strike was when he showed himself willing to take on some of the city's most powerful interests. But to others — to the 56 percent of Chicagoans who voted for somebody else last month — it confirmed that the interests he intended to take on were the interests of the city's poor and working class, the causes dearest to the left, and that when he picked a fight he was as likely to come out fumbling and bruised as he was triumphant. It began the spiral of decaying impressions from Rahm the taskmaster to Rahm the ineffective bully.
Will Guzzardi, a member of the Illinois House who has endorsed Garcia in this year's race, remembers it like this: "Rahm was supposed to just waltz in there and fix everything. Right? He was supposed to be the golden boy. And I think in some ways that's why he bullied through things like the teachers strike: he had to be seen as tackling these tough issues. He wanted to take on these big sweeping issues early in his tenure that might be controversial, but which he thought would have positive outcomes. That way he could say, 'I took on the tough fights and won.' But it just didn't pan out that way for him."
Or as Kristen Cromwell, the executive director of United Working Families (a group that has played a major role in the logistics and organization of anti-Rahm forces this year), puts it: "It wasn't just bad policy with the teachers strike, even if [Rahm's] policy was also bad. It's that he decided to go to war and make things very personal with the teachers union. He went after [Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis] personally, and that's an example of where the public might have supported — or at least been short of outraged about — the way things were handled. But the way he did it, it backfired completely."
The trouble was as much in style as in substance.
One organizer associated with a number of Chicago-area union groups put the matter less delicately: "The teachers strike was when I knew I couldn't get behind Rahm's policies. But it's also when I knew he was personally a bully and an asshole."
The 2012 CTU strike stands out most in voters' memories, but it is hardly first among Emanuel's sins. Rather, it is the most prominent example of a pattern of behavior, one that forms the impression central to his vulnerabilities. The mayor followed up the teachers strike by shutting down 49 Chicago public schools in a single day, second only to Hurricane Katrina as a 24-hour cause of permanent closures. The schools were "underperforming and underutilized," he said, although the case has since come under serious scrutiny.
Citing dangerous road conditions, the mayor continued a program of expanding red-light cameras. It had little impact on accidents but generated more than $500 million in fine revenue for the city, disproportionately taken from the poorer south and west sides of the city. (Rahm removed 50 cameras from poor neighborhoods in the first week of the runoff as an apparent bid to win back progressive support.)
In the service of fiscal responsibility, Rahm closed mental health clinics across the city (resulting in the death of at least one patient, whose friends and advocates were later treated to a performance of the rage Rahm is known for). He changed the rules for public debt payment, requiring bankrupt workers to put down 50 percent of their due before reclaiming the very cars that allowed them to meet their subsequent repayment plans.
Continuing Daley's legacy of privatized public services, Emanuel allowed Ventra, a private fare service, to take control of the Chicago Transit Authority — a lucrative deal, no doubt, between the city and private interests, but one that has seen transit rates go up for those reliant on public transportation; meanwhile, bus routes — especially those traveling between poor neighborhoods and the commercial districts where poor citizens work — continue to be abridged and canceled.
This belt-tightening has not gotten in the way of some of the mayor's more glamorous ambitions. A $55 million stadium construction plan was proposed early in the mayor's term; an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Olympics justified spending on a slew of beautification and Olympic Village prep projects. The mayor has promised public land and public funds for a Barack Obama Presidential Library without seeking the approval of the city council. Despite the school budget crisis, an elite public high school servicing predominately white middle- and upper-class students opened in 2014. It was originally announced as Barack Obama College Preparatory High School, a name the mayor backed off of only after public outcry at the irony.
Since the beginning of the runoff, Rahm has eschewed the traditional Democratic Coalition, evaded charges of misappropriated city cash, and taken donations from men unaccustomed to supporting Democrats.
The pattern is one of appearances. The appearance of fiscal responsibility. The appearance of populism. The appearance of the public good, but one that favors those best suited to survive a storm, paid for on the backs of the city's weakest. "Take the mayor's police policy," Guzzardi told me. "I think he felt like he had to be seen as tackling that issue. But it was straight out of The Wire. Rahm dismantled all of the special tactical forces that were deployed in different high-volume gang areas around the city and put them back on regular beats, for the sake of saying he'd put more cops on the beat."
Murder is down, everywhere in the city. But the shooting rate keeps climbing.
The average voter cannot recite the nuances of each issue from memory, but each can cite at least one. Each has tapped into the sense that Rahm Emanuel is not the man we believed we'd bought four years ago.
"There's something we talk about in campaigns all the time," Guzzardi says. "Your negative ads — your attack ads — they're not just about being a good attack on some issue. Its not just about some really bad thing your opponent did. The attack has to resonate with people's gut understanding of who that person is. You attack for something that makes people think, 'Well, that fits with my pattern of this guy.'"
The sense of Emanuel that his critics have exploited is one that oscillates between the heavy hand and the inept one. The one that at once attempts to tighten the city's belt on the backs of the poor and finds that for all the pull, the city's barely lost an inch of waistline. The one that above all else, as far back as his time putting school uniforms in the State of the Union with President Clinton, has believed in getting points on the board, only to discover they are points in a game that doesn't count.
A mayor of cruel solutions is one thing; the people can accept the cost of doing business. A mayor of well-intentioned failure can be swallowed, too. But a man who embodies both, one who in every decision seems to punish those who have the least power to resist and who does so without apparent end or benefit, is a mayor primed for defeat.
Chicago understood its deal with the old machine. So long as the citizens did their duty and voted like their precinct captains said, the precinct captains would do their duty and look after loyal citizens. Middle-class jobs would remain in the city limits. The trains would run on time. Potholes would be filled, streetlights erected, trees planted — even taxes, fees, and tickets could be fixed for your trouble. Under Daley, the machine would take care of your business, so long as you took care not to get too curious about the business of the machine.
Rahm has different terms. He has no problem with what you see — he won't be seeing you either way. His machine is not for the city; rather, it is a device with a singular purpose, designed to guarantee that whatever is yours will soon become his; that if you can't cut a million-dollar check, if you can't send your kids to private school, if you can't even bring one lousy business to a skyscraper in the Loop — well, then, you ain't got the muscle to operate such heavy machinery. Better luck next time.
The city was still shocked when the returns came in. The elements that denied Emanuel a clean win in February are easy enough to identify in hindsight, but just-so stories require their outcomes in advance, and on election day last month even the mayor's critics might've put their money on Rahm with a gun to their heads.
"We were working our butts off," Cromwell told me. "We were watching undecideds change. But is that enough to overcome huge name ID, huge money, and incumbency? It's hard to fire incumbents. I woke up expecting Rahm to eke one out."
As surprising, they say, was the lopsided support for one challenger.
"I was surprised by how much support there was for Chuy," Guzzardi says. "I thought if there was going to be a runoff, it would be 48–25–20 or something. The fact that it was 45–36 helped us a lot. If Chuy had gone in down 25 points, people wouldn't be taking this runoff as seriously."
Garcia wasn't the first choice of progressives looking to deny Emanuel a second term. A year ago, Toni Preckwinkle — the chair of the Cook County Board on which Garcia serves — was seen as the most viable contender. After she declined to run, Karen Lewis became the hope of Chicago's left. But after being diagnosed with brain cancer in the fall of 2014, she too was forced to sit out.
Even among the eventual challengers, Garcia was not the unity candidate of the left. Bob Fioretti, a progressive alderman whose ward was destroyed by a 2012 redistricting push by Rahm's city council, was taken to be a serious challenger. William "Doc" Walls, a former aide to Mayor Harold Washington, made a serious run himself, ultimately beating out Fioretti for third place in the February election. Before the runoff, when even having a runoff was a reach goal for progressives, the particular challenger was a second order of business. The election was about Emanuel: either you voted for him or you voted against him. The only question was whether the mayor would clear 50 percent. Chuy was an admirable candidate, but he wasn't the point back then; the point was that he wasn't Rahm.
Indeed, before election day, most Chicagoans had never heard of the longtime county commissioner and former alderman, except, perhaps, via the signs that had begun appearing in their neighborhoods, or the pins featuring a thick, disembodied mustache on the lapels of passersby. They did not know that he had served with Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor and the last man to assemble the coalition now driving the Garcia campaign. They did not know that he had more than once defeated the machine, advancing the cause of the city's poor and underserviced. If Emanuel's image is that of a man brought to us by a word from his sponsors, then the image of Chuy Garcia — at least until these last few weeks — was one made entirely in negative space. He wasn't Rahm. He was progressive. All of the things Rahm did? Chuy wouldn't do those things.
Of course, this wasn't the case for those behind Garcia's rise. Without the support of organizations like United Working Families — who engineered for Chuy the most sophisticated GOTV effort ever seen in a municipal election —he might've come in a far more distant second in February.
"We centered on Chuy really early," says Cromwell, "even prior to him being on the ballot. We collected about 25,000 of the signatures that put him there on the first place. We were all in for Chuy pretty much out of the gate. He was just the much better leader to unite a black and brown coalition that would deliver the voters. And for the folks who lost Karen, there wasn't a big clamoring to say, for example, 'Bob Fioretti is now our guy.' The base that makes up United Working Families — SEIU Health Care, the CTU, Grassroots Illinois Action, Action Now — they never felt Bob was their guy. So we had conversations with Chuy where we said, 'We need you to step up and run.'"
The reasons were as symbolic as they were policy-oriented, according to Cromwell. "I think that who Chuy is — what he's thinking about when he's writing policy or calling a vote — is critically important. That's what you vote for with somebody who hasn't been the mayor yet: who they're going to listen to, who they care about, how they think. Chuy is focused on neighborhoods. He's focused on and has fought for people who usually don't count. And for some people, it's nostalgic to think about the Harold Washington Days, the Broad coalition. I don't think that's the most compelling reason to vote for Chuy now, but it harks to a time when people felt good about their leadership, and felt like they had effected change. It's difficult to imagine Chuy doing a worse job than Rahm with schools, with mental health care, with bringing jobs back into disinvested parts of the community."
So it was with Emanuel's decline, so it is with Garcia's rise. The election is not about policy particulars. It is about impressions; about who listens to whom, about the style of leader Chicago wants. One Democratic operative who worked for President Obama's 2012 campaign and has spent the past several months with United Working Families' Garcia operation put it like this: "You've got two Democrats. One is supported by the poor, by minorities, by liberals. The other has a lot of money. If I'm choosing between them, before anything else, you're going to have to give me a really good reason to vote for the guy with the money."
The voters — enough voters, at least — agreed. Chuy outpolled his own name recognition, taking 75 percent of the remaining undecided voters on election day. "I think people voted for him out of a vote for progressive ideology in round one," Cromwell told me. "That was a symbolic rejection of the current administration. And so they ask, 'Who is most likely to win? Chuy? Okay. I don't know him yet, but I'll vote for him.' But now, I think, his ultimate job is to go out and introduce himself to the city."
Emanuel lost the first round to the mere idea of his opposite. But if he is going to be defeated for good, then Garcia must win April 7 in his own right. Thus far, Chuy has run with the strategy that handed him his first victory: speak broadly about community investment. Point to his record as a true progressive. Don't get too specific; try to stay Not-Rahm. But as the mayor himself pointed out, a great strength can also become a great weakness. Throughout the election, the mayor has brought his enormous fundraising advantage to bear against Garcia's vagaries. He has suggested in television and radio advertisements — impossible to miss if you turn on a radio or TV in Chicago — that Chuy has no plan for Chicago, that a looming fiscal crisis will sabotage his pie-in-the-sky promises. Despite promising to listen more, Rahm has evidently accepted that if he cannot make himself likable, he can at least use his famous rough edge to pummel his opponent.
In the first mayoral debate, Emanuel continued on that theme: accusing Garcia of being ill-prepared for the office, a charge Garcia played into when his first response to a question about his plans to avert fiscal disaster included the reasonable but eminently bad sound bite that he'd need to "open up the books and figure out what the situation is." Even during a conference call with progressive organizers, Chuy remained vague. Asked what specifically he would do about the schools crisis, he listed endorsements from organizations affiliated with the left. After quickly promising to enact an elected school board (a measure already passed with the support of 90 percent of voters), he said only, "Under my administration, we'll strengthen our neighborhood schools rather than disinvesting from our communities."
It isn't that Garcia does not have a story to tell or specifics to offer. He came to Chicago from Mexico at nine years old, the child of working-class parents in a neglected neighborhood. He began organizing in high school. The same year Harold Washington was elected mayor, Chuy became alderman of the 22nd Ward. He went on to become the first Latino elected to the Illinois state Senate, where — for lack of an official Latino caucus — he joined the Senate Black Caucus. In 1999, he founded Enlace, a community organization on Chicago's Southwest Side that at its height employed 27 full-time staff and 120 volunteers and commanded a $5 million operating budget. In 2001, he organized a 19-day hunger strike to force the city to build Little Village–Lawndale High School, a long-promised but never funded campus for Latino and African-American communities. In 2009, he was elected to the Cook County Board, where he was instrumental in balancing a long-troubled budget while repealing an unpopular, regressive sales tax increase. He personally led the effort to end police reporting of undocumented immigrants to INS for infractions as minor as speeding tickets. Chuy mentions these accomplishments sometimes, and yet his campaign remains about Rahm Emanuel: the Man Chuy Isn't. It helps not alienate the opposition, but as the election wears on and the polls become more dire, it's also begun to hurt.
For some, there seems to be little other option. Despite saying that Chuy must articulate a clear agenda to voters, Cromwell told me the choice between the two candidates comes down to one between "someone we know and someone whose agenda has hurt us" versus "somebody who represents this hope that our city can be better than it is, and that Rahm isn't going to take us there."
She continues: "Can Chuy deliver on that? Can he be the one that, you know, takes care of the whole city? And there is a hope and a — not just a hope, but a desperate need in some of our neighborhoods where it's like, somebody's gotta do something. People aren't going to work; they don't have infrastructure, they don't have jobs, they don't have food. This is a crisis in a lot of neighborhoods."
The election is tomorrow. Despite everything, Emanuel is expected to hold on. Each poll released shows him widening his lead to as much as 28 points. Even Bob Fioretti has endorsed the mayor. To Rahm supporters, victory was always inevitable — the first round was just a hiccup on the way to triumph. To his detractors, it is a reminder of how powerful incumbency and cash can be, especially in a race with no fundraising limits; a reminder that even having a runoff was an unlikely upset and getting ahead of yourself leads, typically, to heartbreak.
But the race isn't quite ready for a ribbon. The race remains under-polled, especially for the Chuy-leaning groups typically under-sampled in these races. We're in that section of Chicago spring when the temperature swings 20 degrees daily, and election day has an even-money chance of rain. Garcia hasn't accepted defeat. In this final week of the campaign, he has at last launched a campaign of particulars, attacking Emanuel on policy and easily winning the second debate. The haymaker in the headlines was "You aren't the King of the City". Emanuel is still vulnerable — had Garcia said that to Daley, even his supporters might've wondered if he knew whom he was talking to.
"I think it's going to be a turnout question," Guzzardi says. "Everyone says that about every fucking election all of the time, but in this case it's true. So I can see one of two things happening. Either people get turned off, the negative advertising depresses people, the electorate is more traditional, and Rahm wins. Or, and I think this is a real possibility, people who didn't even come out on the 24th will, because the first election showed them that there's real hope for a better mayor."
There are still two men in this race. There are still many futures for Chicago.
If Rahm Emanuel wins a second term, it remains to be seen which mayor we will have for these next four years.
For some, the runoff really was the point — they'll come home for Emanuel this week because they believe that he can be humbled, that the whole ordeal will produce a mayor both competent and empathetic. "I trust Rahm more than Chuy to actually run the city," one former OFA staffer and current Illinois Democrat told me. "I voted for Chuy in February because I wanted to scare Rahm. And I think he's scared. So I think he'll be better this time."
For others, a Rahm reelection will produce a mayor more terrible than the first, a man not only still committed to the interests that enable him but also looking to settle scores with those who didn't. "He doesn't like to be in a fight," says Cromwell, "And when he's caved, he's caved because we've somehow gotten under his skin. If he wins — well, there's a new contract negotiation with the teachers union coming up, and I don't think he'll be humbled at that table. I think Rahm is looking for who was with him and who wasn't, and the people who weren't are going to pay a political price."
And if Garcia manages another upset? The ramifications will go beyond Chicago. The three largest cities in the nation will all have first-term mayors for the first time in generations — first-term mayors elected by populist, left-wing constituencies. And Rahm Emanuel, whose time here has long been seen as a stepping stone to more national ambitions, will be finished.
These national consequences are key, says Dan Cantor, national director of the progressive Working Families Party: "The wave that elected de Blasio in New York and Walsh in Boston and Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis and Peduto in Pittsburgh and Garcetti in LA — we'd see that wave cresting in Chicago. And this will be a bigger deal than New York or LA, because it's the heartland." It's also due to Emanuel being an incumbent, says Cantor. "He's a symbol of a certain kind of Democrat, the kind who has decided that the goal of the party is to be one millimeter to the left of the Republicans. The kind who says all we need to do is keep rich people happy and good things will happen. So this is a big deal. This is one of those fault-line races. All eyes are on Chicago because if Chuy wins, it'll prove that it's not enough to be a trickle-down Democrat. That's not good enough. You need to be in the Warren/de Blasio/Sherrod Brown/Keith Ellison wing of the party. That's what this will mean. It's going to take a while for this stuff to get big enough so that we can win statewide, and eventually win nationally, but its an important step in rebuking people who have too narrow a view of who matters."
But the people of Chicago will have to live under the particulars of a Chuy administration, not its ramifications for the republic. "I don't think regular voters go and cast their ballot for Chuy and say, 'I'm making a symbolic difference for the country,'" Cromwell told me. Guzzardi harbors even stronger fears. "Maybe we're setting ourselves up for an Obama moment here," he says, "Maybe we're projecting all of our hopes and dreams for a new brave future onto someone who ends up disappointing us. But I'd rather take that than four more years of Rahm."
I put that possibility to Cromwell.
"If Chuy wins, we can't just celebrate and move on," she says. "Because if we believe that electoral politics are the only way we get policy, we're kidding ourselves. Activists have to stay engaged. I don't know if an Obama moment is unique. I'm a 40-year-old who's been doing this a long time: They always disappoint you. No matter where they start, the system is set up against our ideals. And it's human nature to fail. So we'll have to put pressure on Chuy. But he'll listen. Rahm won't. And we've got to get that mandate to keep fighting."
Throughout Richard J. Daley's two decades as mayor of Chicago, his reform-minded critics labored under the delusion that the people wanted to be saved. That if they could expose enough corruption, if they could catch enough aldermen red-handed, if they could just indict enough precinct captains and patronage flunkies and prove their good intentions, then the voters would join them in revolt.
They were wrong. The rebuke was always the same. Mathias "Paddy" Bauler, a ‘50s machine flunky once described by the Sun-Times as "the 43rd Ward's roly-poly beer-guzzling pig bladder of an alderman" coined the famous phrasing: Chicago ain't ready for reform.
He was right then. He was right for the next half-century. We'll find out tomorrow if his wisdom endures still.