Rahm Emanuel rallies in Chicago mayoral

Rahm Emanuel rallies in Chicago mayoral

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) has rebounded from a rocky tenure and now looks likely to win outright a Democratic primary victory next week. 

The former White House chief of staff has used his Washington and business connections to get major endorsements from across the Democratic Party, raise millions to scare off his toughest would-be foes and bury the others under a deluge of ads. 

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Another term for Emanuel wasn’t always a sure thing after a controversial first few years in office. The mayor alienated African-American and Hispanic voters with crime and education moves and infuriated Chicago’s teachers unions. 

Tensions are still raw with some of the groups, and Emanuel has turned to surrogates like President Obama to argue he’s making tough choices to help a struggling city. His old boss has appeared in Emanuel’s reelection ads, and the president is heading to Chicago on Thursday to bear-hug the mayor at an event in a heavily African-American neighborhood just days before his Feb. 24 primary. 

“President Obama continues to be the most powerful messenger in Chicago, especially in the African-American community,” said Chicago-based Democratic strategist Brooke Anderson. “You can't underestimate the commander in chief coming home to advocate for his former chief of staff with a group that he really needs to mend fences with. It's a big boost.”

The former congressman has also created an air of inevitability around his reelection, after two potentially strong Democratic opponents, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, decided to forego campaigns against him. 

While Emanuel never looked likely to lose the nomination, being forced into a runoff would have been an embarrassment for the powerful politician. But now, that looks less and less likely, as he nears the 50 percent needed to win the Democratic nod outright. 

A Chicago Tribune poll released Tuesday found that he has the support of 45 percent of Chicagoans, up 3 percentage points from late January. About 1 in 5 remain undecided in the race. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, his main challenger, garnered 20 percent support in the poll.

“He has a message: ‘I'm making the tough decisions to move the city in the right direction,’ and from the president on down, he has every surrogate in the city out there using that message and smoothing out his rough edges for him,” said Anderson, who worked for one of Emanuel’s 2011 challengers. “And you can't beat somebody with nobody.”

Still, Emanuel continues to battle criticism over closed schools, the teachers’ strike, unpopular red-light cameras and Chicago’s ongoing violence epidemic, as he looks to close the deal. 

"Rahm really pissed off the teachers. They'd had a 4 percent raise that they had fought for, and he just killed it and earned the ire of every teacher in Chicago. And then, he badly miscalculated by forcing a strike that the teachers unconditionally won. He had to yield unconditionally. And they're still mad,” said one Chicago Democrat who’s not affiliated with Emanuel or his opponents. "Citywide, there's no love for him.”

Emanuel began a multimillion-dollar ad campaign in November focused on touting his accomplishments as mayor to convince African-American and Hispanic voters he has their best interests at heart on education and crime. 

It hasn’t been cheap to do so in the Windy City: Emanuel’s campaign and a pro-Emanuel super-PAC have spent an estimated $30 million. 

He’s supplemented the ads with endorsements from Washington figures and Chicago heavyweights — including Hispanic and African-American kingmakers like Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a leading voice for immigration reform in Congress, and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who represents the predominantly African-American South Side.

“His opponents, while very outstanding citizens of the city of Chicago, have made a clear case, not a convincing one, have clearly made a case about what they don’t like about Rahm Emanuel. But they have yet to propose what they would do differently,” Gutiérrez, who is a former Chicago alderman.

Gutiérrez opposed Emanuel during his first run but said that he thinks Emanuel’s support for measures to help immigrants in the U.S. illegally helped change his mind

“The fact that Gutiérrez is coming forward and saying, ‘This guy is on your side,’ that helps, because his primary opponent is a Mexican-American who also has a good record on this issue,” said Laura Washington, a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

Rush said the coalition that elected Emanuel in 2011 is “willing to give him another chance,” in part because of work he’s done on the city’s public transportation system.

Emanuel has also benefitted from a weak field of opponents. Many of his foes hoped that Preckwinkle would run, believing her strong ties to the city’s liberal and African-American communities could make her a serious threat, but she passed on the race. Lewis, Emanuel’s fiercest antagonist during the teacher’s strike, had to drop a likely bid due to a cancerous brain tumor.

“The best way to win an election is to choose your opponents,” said the unaffiliated Chicago Democrat. “Four years ago, he cleared [Cook County Sheriff] Tom Dart out of the way. This time, he made it uncomfortable for Toni Preckwinkle to run. And while he would have likely beaten Karen Lewis — she would have been tough — but she had her health issues. Chuy and Bob Fioretti are good guys, but they never had a shot."

Emanuel’s opponents argue that the mayor is underestimating the rage people feel toward his administration and that they make up for a relative lack of cash with superior organizing power.

“He thought he would get his way coming from Washington and accustomed to that culture, and he provoked the first teachers strike in 30 years. And he lost that fight having provoked that strike. It’s really when the seeds of this anti-Rahm movement were sowed,” said Garcia, Emanuel’s top opponent. 

A Preckwinkle ally, Garcia has heavy support from the Chicago Teachers Union. He turned in more than 63,000 signatures on his petition to get on the ballot, more than any of the other candidates were able to gather.

The Cook County commissioner dismissed Emanuel’s big-name endorsements.

“I think these guys are spending too much time in D.C. and not Chicago neighborhoods,” said Garcia. 

Emanuel looks likely to avoid the one-term fate many predicted for him one year ago. But if he does end up in a runoff with the second place candidate, it could shift the dynamics of the race.

“There would be blood in the water,” Washington said, “and it would not only make him seem more vulnerable — it would cause his opposition to double down.”