Page: Obama’s help has limits, even in Chicago

Clarence Page

Four years ago, I was surprised by how early in the evening on election night President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel won the mayoral race in Chicago, a city whose elections are historically famous for long counts.

Four years later, I was just as surprised by how far his approvals had fallen. He won only 45 percent of the vote, well shy of the 50 percent-plus-one-vote he needed to avoid a runoff on April 7 — and way short of the 55 percent with which he sailed to victory in 2011.

But surely, I thought, he’ll be able to avoid a runoff against any of his three opponents. He had many times more dollars in his war chest than all of his three opponents put together. He had President Obama recording an ad and designating the city’s historic Pullman neighborhood to be a national monument a few days before the election.

Yet, no, voters in last Tuesday’s nonpartisan election forced Emanuel into a six-week runoff campaign against his more liberal challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner who took second place with 34 percent of the vote.

Had President Obama lost that much popularity in his hometown? I think it is more likely that, without Obama’s help, Emanuel would have fared even worse.

What went wrong for Hizzoner da Mare? I think he was undone by many of the same issues and personality traits that propelled him to his earlier victory.

The city was broke when he was elected. And now? Late Thursday, Moody’s Investors Service dealt Chicago another downgrade of its debt rating. Moody’s cited a problem familiar to many municipalities: increases in payments to public pensions that were promised in past decades. That leaves any incumbent with little but unpopular choices to make: Raise taxes or cut spending.

Emanuel’s “Rahmbo” reputation seemed like an ironic asset to his election. Voters wanted a tough mayor who would make the tough decisions. That was before Emanuel actually made some of those decisions.

His education decisions, including the closure of 50 schools, were particularly problematic. A 2012 teachers strike, among other confrontations, led Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis to form an exploratory committee for mayor last year. After she withdrew for health reasons, she asked Garcia, a former state senator, alderman and labor activist, to run instead.

Does he have a chance? The thousands of dollars he raised look like a joke next to the millions raised by Rahm. Yet, despite his soft-spoken nature, he turned that joke into a decisive blow against Emanuel’s sense of inevitability.

But he also gained significant momentum and national attention by appealing to the same liberal populist elements that butted heads with Emanuel in his days as Obama’s chief of staff. Garcia accused Emanuel of being too cozy with corporate interests at the expense of Chicago’s neighborhood folks, an issue that still carries a lot of weight in the Windy City’s bungalow belt.

That populist appeal also reminds me of the first time I met Garcia. I was covering Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign. Washington, then a U. S. congressman, enlisted Garcia’s help in building the coalition of black, Hispanic, labor and liberal lakefront voters that enabled Washington to become the city’s first black mayor.

Emanuel is still the frontrunner, but his being forced into a runoff adds an element of drama to this race that could boost turnout in unpredictable ways. If anything, now is the time for Emanuel to do what he has been reluctant to do in the past: Talk to the voters, not just at them, and speak candidly about tough choices that have to be made to restore fiscal solvency. Otherwise, Garcia is likely to give this mayor, quite literally, a run for his money.

Clarence Page writes for The Chicago Tribune.