History was made Tuesday in Chicago when incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel failed to get more than 50 percent of the vote, and now faces Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, in the city’s first ever runoff election, to be held in six weeks.
In what was a political defeat, even embarrassment, for Emanuel, his challenger, underfunded, and even relatively unknown, gained 33.9 percent of the vote, to Emanuel’s 45.4 percent, resulting in the runoff, as dictated by law, when no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
Observers had predicted that there might be a runoff, and that Garcia was coming in close on the heels of the super-funded Emanuel with his populist message of fighting crime, improving schools, rather than closing them, (as Emanuel did with 50 of them), and funding neighborhoods, rather than subsidizing downtown and its infrastructure, often with funds designed for low-income neighborhoods.
Voter turnout was low at 34 percent of the electorate and critics and observers, alike, felt that despite frigid temps much of the electorate did not vote due to apathy, or that an Emanuel win was a foregone conclusion. Despite cold winds and a blustery breeze, sunshine abounded.
Another factor with the low turnout may have been the option to vote early, in fact 23 percent more votes were cast in this year’s municipal election, than four years ago, according to election officials.
Former alderman, and now political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dick Simpson told the Red Eye, a sister publication of the Chicago Tribune, that campaign workers and candidates also faced the problem of getting to voters, due to recent sub-zero temps and snowstorms.
As many had noted before, a runoff now forces the mayor to articulate a vision for the city, which he did not do in the debates, and a plan to solve its problems instead of being evasive, or using questionable statistics, especially when discussing crime.
Garcia, on the other hand, has to define himself in the public eye, many of whom are unaware of him, especially in the black community, a source that Emanuel hit bottom with when he closed schools in their neighborhoods. While with the help of such black leaders as Rev. James Meeks, he raised his poll numbers, Tuesday’s election showed that it was not enough.
While Emanuel took a victorious tone, he noted, “We have come a long way and we have a little bit further to go,” Garcia,basking in the light of coming closer than he expected, said, “Nobody thought we’d be here tonight. They wrote us off. They said we didn’t have a chance . . . well, well, we’re still standing. We’re still running, and we’re gonna win.”
Of course, this being Chicago, and with such high stakes, bare knuckle fights will undoubtedly be present, and the run to get the votes of those that did not vote on Tuesday will be a fight to the finish.
For some, the results, and Garcia’s surprising showing, parallel the New York mayoral race when Bill De Blasio’s populist appeal was favored over Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who despite a strong record, was seen as favoring Wall Street, rather than Main Street, and indeed Garcia’s support is more grassroots than corporate.
Emanuel lost points with the school closures, his standoff with the teachers during the 2012 strike, and failing to deal with the increasing crime that got banner headlines. And, while he attempted to address these concerns there was more heat than light with his answers; and coupled with what many see as his arrogance, or “it’s my way, or the highway,” attitude the next six weeks are going to be an uphill battle to regain momentum.
Garcia, on the other hand, will probably see a large bump in endorsements, and more cash in the bank, and may see him move towards a coalition that mirrors the administration of the late Harold Washington, which would give momentum to his candidacy, especially among black voters, and many white liberals, who remember this as a time of unprecedented access to those whose voices were contained by the moneyed class.
It is going to be a busy six weeks for both the candidates, but especially the electorate who are going to be deluged with appeals, robo calls, and flyers; all extolling the virtues of Emanuel and Garcia. Let the games begin.