I guess Paddy Bauler was right: "Chicago ain't ready for reform." The legendary alderman said it decades ago, but it sure seems to apply today. Rahm Emanuel (D) won a second term for mayor, but it was not a cakewalk. He had to beat, 56 percent to 44 percent, Cook County Commissioner Jesús Garcia (D) in a runoff election and had to raise $23 million to do it.
Garcia has an affectionate nickname ("Chuy") and tried to run a populist tale-of-two-cities campaign. He lambasted Emanuel for being a pawn and tool of big corporate downtown and out-of-town interests. Garcia was trying to emulate Harold Washington who, in 1983, won a stunning victory over the establishment.
Emanuel successfully painted Garcia as not equipped to run the city and not having enough "specifics" to take on the city's big problems. Hispanic voters were the only ethnic group with a majority supporting Garcia (68 percent to 32 percent). Black voters were the key swing constituency for Emanuel, even though the African-American candidate in the first election in February, Willie Wilson, backed Garcia, as did Jesse Jackson, Rep. Danny Davis (D) and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Emanuel beat Garcia 58 percent to 42 percent amongst this group.
A personal confession: I grew up in Chicago and have strong feelings about where I spent my early years. I have lived in Washington far longer, but Chicago is never out of my mind. Emanuel did serve as a congressman in the city, but I personally can't forget he did not grow up in the city but in suburban, very affluent Wilmette, a North Shore suburb that is insulated and protected from the vagaries and afflictions that affect most of Chicago's 77 neighborhoods.
His political philosophy is decidedly centrist. (He's the guy who, when he was Obama's chief of staff, repeatedly told him to go minimalist on the Affordable Health Care Act. Or worse, not to do it at all.)
This is not a person who, I believe, was drawn to politics or public service to help others or better the world. No, it's a persona of winning and building a resume: Racking up victories, whether it be making millions as an instant investment banker or electing Democrats to Congress (whatever their political philosophy). Emanuel is most interested in keeping score and personal advancement. He is totally deficient in warmth and charm. He surely didn't inherit this quality from his former boss, President Clinton. Clinton wanted you to like him, and in every conversation and encounter sought to, above all, listen and connect with you.
Emanuel has the earned reputation of not listening and not have the slightest desire to connect with you. I had one very brief episode with Emanuel. When he was working in the Clinton White House in the early '90s, I was working for the NPR affiliate in Washington, WAMU-FM. I went up to him — not with microphone or tape recorder — and introduced myself as a former Chicagoan and attempted to ask him a question.
The shared urban affiliation had no affect on him. He never once looked me in the eye. He never uttered an audible sound. He spent the entire time staring downward at his shoes. He obviously had calculated that this meeting was of no use to him and would not participate in any meaningful or human way. Many other people have obviously experienced this same phenomenon. It's too bad that this type of persona is rewarded with victory.
Emanuel on election night said he was "humbled." I find that hard to believe. It would have been good for the city of Chicago to reject this type of person and take a courageous chance with someone who was truly living the American dream and wanted to lead and represent all of Chicago.
Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.