A newly confident progressive movement delivered a body blow to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday night—and is now gearing up for another knockout punch to what it derisively calls the Corporate Wing of the Democratic Party.
This defeat was one for the record books.
Emanuel became the first incumbent mayor on Tuesday to fail to get 50 percent of the primary vote since Chicago adopted nonpartisan elections in 1983.
The hard-charging former congressman and chief of staff in the Obama White House angered many liberal Chicagoans, especially minorities and members of labor unions, by embarking on an aggressive education reform agenda that included the closing of 50 schools. Emanuel, who cruised to victory in 2011 by 30 percentage points, has also been knocked for implementing red light cameras, which some Chicagoans say disproportionately target minorities, and for focusing on bringing business downtown at the expense of neighborhoods.
Chicago teachers union head Karen Lewis described the move as favoring his “hedge fund homies” over the rest of the city.
Rahm defeated Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County Commissioner 45-34—that’s five points short of what the polls showed he had just a few days ago.
“This is the happiest day of my life—Rahm Emanuel is in a runoff,” said Delmarie Cobb, a longtime Chicago progressive political consultant. “He is everything the city cannot continue to have in terms of its survival. The African American is holding on by a thread from decades of benign neglect. It didn’t start with him. But he exacerbated it.”
Emanuel became mayor when six-term incumbent Richard Daley decided not to seek a seventh term.
He was supposed to have an easy first re-election when Lewis, who had been laying the groundwork for a run, dropped out after developing a brain tumor.
That Garcia, a little known official, was able to get that close to the mayor is a testament to Rahm’s unpopularity.
After all, his $15 million war chest was four times what the entire rest of the field had on hand and should have swamped even the most ambitious challenger.
But many liberals say the credit goes to a resurgent progressive movement that has left a string of centrist Democrats in its wake, and point to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as their success stories.
In New York, de Blasio’s landslide win in 2013 was largely a result of a decade of organizing by labor and progressive groups under the guise of the Working Families Party, a quasi third party that the new mayor helped found.
In 2009, Democratic city treasurer Bill Thompson nearly pulled an unforeseen upset against incumbent Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and a handful of liberals formed a new bloc in the City Council, presaging de Blasio’s win four years later.
In Chicago, the progressive movement has been slower to coalesce after decades of Daley, but the city did see a handful of progressives elected to the Council in the Rahm-era, and most look set to survive re-election despite efforts by Emanuel and the business community to take them out.
Last summer, a Chicago offshoot of the WFP, United Working Families, formed to lend sophistication to progressives campaign efforts.
For Chicago-area liberals, this year was supposed to be like 2009 in New York—a chance to scare the establishment and lay the groundwork for the next go around. Now though progressives are salivating at the prospect of ending the Emanuel-era in Chicago prematurely.
“The next six weeks will be the defining electoral contest of 2015, between the power of the people on one hand and the power of big money on the other,” said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, which has joined other liberal groups in trying to draft Elizabeth Warren into the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. “Pro-corporate Democrats want to go one way, and progressive and working families Democrats want to go another, and this election will be the biggest fight in the nation on that topic.”
Thom Serafin, a longtime Democratic consultant in Chicago, said that Garcia’s showing was more a testament to a low turnout primary on a cold February day (although the 34 percent who did show up to vote dwarfed the showing in big city primaries in New York and Los Angeles), and to the fact that many political players in Chicago just wanted to see Emanuel sweat one out a bit.
“Aldermen wanted a runoff just so that Rahm would spend a little more time with them,” Serafin said. “There was a genuine enthusiasm for not going over 50 percent so that we could now have a real debate.”
In order to erase the 10-point (and tens of millions of dollars) Emanuel advantage, Serafin said that Garcia will have to show that he is capable of running the nation’s third-largest city.
“Rahm is never going to be the guy you want to have a shot and a beer with down at the corner bar, but he is the guy you want flying the aircraft when you are not sure you are going to make the landing,” he said. “For Chuy, the question is going to be one of competence. Rahm is going to push him up against a wall and make him answer some questions.”
Garcia, who was born in Mexico, has to goose turnout among Latinos excited about the possibility of electing the city’s first Latino mayor. He also must continue to drive anger toward Emanuel in the city’s African-American community, and try to peel away a few wealthy liberals on the grounds that Emanuel is too conservative for their taste.
It is a daunting task, but it is made easier by two facts: that the Chicago schools will be on spring break during the April runoff, allowing union members to criss-cross city streets to drive their voters to the polls, and that progressives across America are determined to score another victory as the presidential race gets under way in earnest.
“This is real,” said Kristen Crowell, executive director of United Working Families. “It will be a national marker for the progressive movement against these bad Democrats that align themselves with the corporate wing of the party. This will be ground zero. It will define the national landscape in 2016.”