A city divided: Why Rahm Emanuel is fighting for his political life

From an antique mall on the far North Side’s Edgewater to Mexican restaurants in the Lower West Side’s Pilsen and homes on the South Side’s Marquette Park, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once marched for housing justice, there are “Chuy” signs. 

In many Chicago neighborhoods, “Chuy” signs outnumber those of incumbent Mayor of Chicago and former Congressman Rahm Emanuel. 

“Chuy,” the nickname of Jesus García, is a former alderman, state senator and current Cook County Commissioner who wants to unseat one of the most powerful men in American politics and former chief of staff to President Obama.  

{mosads}How did Emanuel, who had the president’s endorsement, become so vulnerable? 

He earned an image as “Mayor 1 Percent,” the title of a book about Emanuel by a local writer, while García has led a populist campaign highlighting this contrast. 

Emanuel has the support of big corporate interests and some of the wealthiest in Chicago. García has long fought for the working class. 

Emanuel has a $20 million campaign fund compared to García’s $3 million

Teachers were upset with Emanuel for closing 50 public schools in 2013, the largest school closing in U.S. history, and for his treatment of teachers in the 2012 strike. Latino children make up 45 percent of Chicago public school children and African-American children 39 percent.

Now many children must wade through rival gang territory to get to schools. Emanuel’s portrayed as against the teachers, against an elected school board and in favor of unproven charter schools. 

García says he believes in public education and investing in schools so families don’t have to leave Chicago and move to the suburbs.  

García says he’s for the city’s diverse neighborhoods and Emanuel for building up the business-centered downtown.

Emanuel, known as “Rahmbo” has a likability problem, so he has tried to discredit his opponent, García, as inexperienced in multiple campaign ads. 

But García, elected to the Chicago City Council in 1986, has worked in local and state politics and in Chicago neighborhoods for more than 30 years. He campaigned for and was a protégé of Harold Washington, elected Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983. 

And García has powerful unions, teachers, Hispanic voters and influential African-American leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson on his side, who, just this past weekend, showed a video of García speaking at the funeral of Washington, who died in office in 1987. 

Now African-American and Hispanic voters together could help unseat the powerful and wealthy mayor of Chicago who has the support of GOP donor and billionaire Ken Griffin — and retired L.A. Laker Magic Johnson, who benefits from a lucrative Chicago city contract for which his company does little work. 

The national media fixates on Emanuel’s fate because he’s a name they know and they debate what this means for national politics. 

But this election is really about progressive, union, black and Latino Democratic voters saying they want a mayor who speaks for them and for all of Chicago.

And what the rest of the country doesn’t see is the disparity between the North Side (largely white) and the South and West Sides of the city (largely black and brown).

The city population is now around 33 percent African American and 29 percent Hispanic.  

There are an estimated 18,000 abandoned properties in Chicago, according to The Vacant and Abandoned Building Finder. And this map shows the greatest concentrations on the South and West Sides. 

Since 2011, the year Emanuel took office, there have been 2,462 foreclosure filings in the West Side Austin neighborhood, and 1,205 in West Englewood according to data from the Woodstock Institute. By contrast there were 431 in North Side’s Lincoln Square and 493 in Lincoln Park. 

There also were 425 murders and more than 2,500 shootings in Chicago in 2014. While the murder rate is down, shootings are up. According to an investigation by WBEZ, the homicide clearance rate is at an all time low and the number of detectives has decreased 19 percent under Emanuel. 

Turnout in the April 7 runoff will be key.

Only around 33 percent of registered voters cast their votes in the Feb. 24 election that featured five mayoral candidates. The top two vote getters were Emanuel with almost 46 percent or around 218,000 votes and García had around 34 percent or around 160,000 votes, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. 

All his millions and an endorsement by the president himself didn’t earn Emanuel enough votes, 50 percent plus one, to avoid a runoff.

There are more than 240,000 Latino voters in Chicago, an increase of 25 percent since 2008. If they turn out in high numbers it could make all the difference. 

And if enough of the almost 51,000 voters who supported third place finisher and African-American businessman Willie Wilson switch their vote to García it also would have a great impact. Wilson has endorsed García.

García is behind in the polls. But many polls historically overlook black and Latino voters.

García entered the mayoral race after Chicago Teacher’s Union president Karen Lewis decided not to run for health reasons and she called on García to run. 

He is uniting a diverse coalition of voters in a way reminiscent of the energy created by Obama when he ran for president in 2008.

If García wins, Latinos in Chicago could have their own moment. 

All he needs to do is adopt the farm worker slogan co-opted by Obama in 2008: “Sí se puede,” or “Yes we can.” 

Puente, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project, writes the Chicanísima blog.


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