Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Faces April Runoff

By Denisa R. Superville — February 25, 2015 4 min read
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Teachers’ union-backed candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia mounted a formidable showing in Chicago’s mayoral elections on Tuesday, forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff in April.

Emanuel, who raised more money than his four challengers and outspent them all in the run-up to Tuesday’s contest, failed to get more than 50 percent of the vote needed to clinch a second term.

With 98 percent of the precincts reporting late Tuesday night, Emanuel had garnered 45.4 percent of the votes cast, according to the Chicago Tribune. Garcia, a former alderman and a Cook County commissioner, who was encouraged to run by Chicago Teachers’ Union president, Karen Lewis, had received 33.9 percent of the vote.

Among the other candidates, Willie Wilson, a businessman, finished with 10.6 percent of the vote; Bob Fioretti, a former alderman, with 7.4 percent; and William “Dock” Walls with 2.8 percent.

It was the first time in the 16 years since the city adopted non-partisan elections that the mayoral contest was forced into a runoff, according to The New York Times.

“Nobody thought we’d be here tonight. They wrote us off,” Garcia told his supporters Tuesday night, according to the Chicago Tribune. “They said we didn’t have a chance. They said we didn’t have any money while they spent millions attacking us. Well, well, we’re still standing. We’re still running, and we’re gonna win.”

The Tribune chalked up Emanuel’s troubles to voter dissatisfaction over the mayor’s decision in 2013 to close nearly 50 schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods, the teacher’s strike of 2012, and an increase in violent crime at various points during his tenure.

Voter turnout was also particularly low, at about 34 percent, according to the paper.

Addressing supporters on Tuesday night, Emanuel told them that the journey would continue over the next few weeks as they work toward the April 7 runoff.

“For those who voted for someone else, I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come,” he said.

Education loomed large in the race: Chicago is the third largest school district in the nation, and the mayor appoints all seven members of the school board.

Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, was expected to take on Emanuel in the race and was mounting a campaign against him when she was diagnosed with cancer last year and stepped aside.

Recruited by the union, Garcia largely stuck to an education theme—but also criticized the mayor on the perception that he was favored by the wealthy.

Garcia has called for an end to new school closings, a moratorium on new charter schools, class size reductions, and more school nurses, counselors and social workers. He also opposes the “overuse” of standardized testing.

Under Emanuel’s watch, Chicago’s schools have improved—though critics have said that the system has become less responsive to parents, teachers, and communities.

Graduation, attendance, and college enrollment rates have increased. Emanuel plans to add more STEM teachers and triple the number of STEM certified graduates by 2018. He’s also lengthened the school day, expanded full-day kindergarten, and has committed to providing free pre-k to all low-income 4-year-olds by the 2015-16 school year.

Still, Pauline Lipman, a professor of educational policy studies and director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, said before the election that the fact that all polls indicated Emanuel was failing to get 50 percent of the votes—even with a war chest of more than $13 million, the advantage of incumbency and endorsement from high-powered friends like his former boss, President Barack Obama—showed that there was residual opposition to Emanuel’s education agenda, particularly in African-American and Latino communities.

Timothy Knowles, the director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, said Emanuel’s challenges stemmed from a number of tough decisions he had to make during his tenure—including the school closures—during a difficult fiscal climate in the city and the state of Illinois.

In an interview Tuesday while voting was underway, Knowles said that even if Emanuel was forced into a runoff, it was likely that he would emerge victorious in April.

“I think there will be lots of people who’ll say ‘look he’s vulnerable and we told you his reforms were all wrong’ ...until the runoff, at which point he’ll win without any question, and people would move on,” Knowles said. “I think it’s very, very questionable whether that narrative will build momentum and lead to some legitimate threat to his mayoralty.”

Knowles said he also does not think that a runoff will chasten the famously hard-charging mayor.

“Rahm is driven and focused... he won’t blink publicly,” Knowles said. “He is willing to make hard calls. He is willing to make people angry in order to make those hard calls, so I don’t think it will change his orientation or approach to leading Chicago. I think it’ll amplify the narrative of critics briefly, but I think Chicago will get back to work.”

Caption: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pauses as he talks to supporters on Tuesday night in Chicago after he was unable to get a 50 percent of the votes in the Chicago mayoral election, forcing a runoff election in April against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.