Chicago Mayor Emmanuel Forced Into Historic Runoff

Author and journalist Kari Lydersen explains what’s behind Rahm being forced into a runoff even though he outspent his opponents by a wide margin

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is headed to a runoff after he failed to gain 50 percent of Tuesday’s votes in the city’s mayoral election. The former Obama administration chief of staff will face his closest challenger, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, who got 35 percent in an April runoff. Emanuel has been a lightning rod for controversy during his first four years, as he’s pushed austerity, faced a historic strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, closed 50 public schools and mental health clinics, while the city has maintained one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Well, now joining us to discuss all this from Chicago is Kari Lydersen. Kari is a long-time Chicago journalist, the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Thanks so much for joining us again.

KARI LYDERSEN, AUTHOR OF MAYOR 1%: Hi. Thank you.

NOOR: So despite Rahm–or as you referred to, Mayor 1%–spending an overwhelming amount of money against his much lesser-known opponents and getting none other than President Obama to campaign for him, Emanuel has been forced into this unlikely runoff. What’s your reaction? And what’s the mood a lot of these the communities in Chicago that–where a lot of the resentment over his policies has really come from?

LYDERSEN: Yeah. I think the mood among a lot of people is pretty buoyant, kind of surprised. I think even though recent polls had shown a runoff was likely, there did seem to just be a sense, both from a national pundits and from regular people, that just with all this money, Rahm would have it locked down. So I think there is, among the many opponents of Rahm, a lot of surprise, relief, excitement–definitely excitement–and the idea that this is literally the first time in history that there’ll be a runoff in the [incompr.] elections since they’ve had this nonpartisan structure. So not only is it runoff, but it’s a runoff between two people who represent really different political personalities and visions for the city. So it’s pretty exciting. It’s a pretty big deal.

NOOR: So talk about what the key issues were in this election and why, even as an incumbent, Emanuel couldn’t get that 50 percent plus one vote he needed.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. He has just really from day one, or even before he actually took office four years ago, alienated really a lot of people and really important constituencies in Chicago. He’s–you mentioned the teachers union. He’s at sort of this war with the teachers union the whole time that he’s been in office. He alienated the thousands, tens of thousands of members of that union and the Chicago parents during the teachers strike. He really has just made it clear in so many ways that I could talk more about that he doesn’t value or want the input of regular Chicagoans or of different groups that throughout the history of the city have actually gotten respect from past mayors. He doesn’t want to have to deal with them. He’s made decisions in a really autocratic way. It’s really been both the things that he’s done and the way that he’s gone about doing those things that has caused so much discontent. And then the actual impacts, the way that a lot of neighborhoods, people in the South and West sides of the city in particular have felt like they’re just really–their living situation, their neighborhoods, their infrastructure, their well-being has gotten worse since he’s been in office, even as he’s made downtown and parts of the north side as more attractive, shinier, better.

NOOR: And so these are key issues that his opponents seized on. Talk more about what his opponents kind of ran on and why that message was so effective.

LYDERSEN: Well, the closing of the almost 50 public schools was a big deal that affected many, many tens of thousands of parents and kids and affected them on a day-to-day level, because they lost the schools they’d felt really connected to. And it also was the perfect symbol of what I mentioned earlier, his really autocratic way of running the city and this sort of austerity and privatization approach. And a decision was made with very little transparency in a very kind of bullying attitude toward the public. So that was a big issue.

Crime was also a big issue. I don’t know that–that is a little bit more complicated in terms of what Rahm had to do with it, but people definitely feel like they’re not–you know, they’re living in dangerous situations and the city’s not reaching out to them. The mental health clinics actually was an issue in the campaign. This was something where Rahm Emanuel had closed six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics in his first budget, his first year in office. And that has continued to be a huge issue, both because it resulted in layoffs and in a lot of people with mental health problems losing access to their care, and again also symbolized the idea that if people’s needs and vulnerabilities are an economic drag on the city, then they’re just out of luck and out in the cold. So these were the kinds of messages that his opponents were pushing.

NOOR: And tell us about “Chuy” García, the man that Rahm Emanuel will be facing off in April.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. So “Chuy” García got into the race not until October, late in the game, because Karen Lewis, the president of the Teachers Union, had generated this really burst and groundswell of excitement. She had been squaring off with Rahm during the teachers strike and the school closings battle, and was actually [incompr.] ahead of Rahm in the summer. And she’s African-American. And she represented the African-American community and the whole concept of organized labor and of the 99 percent that has been [incompr.] throughout Rahm’s tenure. So she was looking like she had a chance to beat him.

And then, in one of those just shocking stories, she was diagnosed with brain cancer in the fall and had to withdraw from the race. And that’s when Karen, herself, and other supporters basically enlisted “Chuy” García to run. So “Chuy” García’s someone that was the first Latino state legislator in Illinois, and he had been a city councilman and alderman during Harold Washington’s administration, the first black mayor of Chicago, a Mexican-American immigrant himself ho grew up and still lives in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, someone who really represents–he’s currently a Cook County commissioner, someone who basically represents the almost polar opposite of the things that Mayor Emanuel represents, someone that has a really deep history in Chicago politics and state politics in a number of different levels, but has been known as someone who is a champion for progressive issues and for the underdog and who operates in a community-oriented, democratic way, you know, very different from the way people see Mayor Emanuel.

NOOR: And it wasn’t just the Mayor’s race headed to a runoff. Several members of the City Council will also be facing runoffs in April, and I think it’s 18, which is a third of the total, and 12 of them are actually–were backed by Rahm. So it’s not just a referendum on Rahm, really. It seems like a referendum on his allies as well.

LYDERSEN: Right. It’s a referendum on a whole system. I mean, Chicago’s been known for decades as having a rubberstamp city council, where the alderman, even the so-called progressive or independent alderman–it’s very rare that they ever vote against the mayor’s wishes. And this rubberstamp tendency had gotten even stronger during Rahm’s time in office. So it was just a given. The mayor has always been so powerful in Chicago that those 50 aldermen and they’re pretty much terrified of opposing him and the money and the power that he has to hurt them and to prevent them from getting reelected. So this is a pretty big deal, to have this much turmoil in the aldermenic races.

A few of these major coalitions in Chicago that are bringing together unions and community groups and faith-based groups had actually sort of shifted their focus away from the mayor’s race and worked really hard on a number of these different City Council races, with the idea that that would be the more realistic way to build a new movement and to leverage power in the city. And it’s pretty–I think people are also pretty pleasantly surprised and excited about how those races went. The individual races are important in their own right, because the aldermen could have, if they chose to, theoretically, power to change things in City Council, and also in their own words. And then it’s also a referendum on Rahm himself and on the system and the way of governing that Rahm represents, and also, even going back before Rahm, just this idea that the whole concept of political machine and the idea that aldermen have to be rubberstamped, I mean, it would be premature to say it’s being dismantled or seriously challenged, but it’s definitely–it’s more of a shakeup than we’ve seen in a long time.

NOOR: Well, I wanted to end on this point. Certainly Rahm will be regrouping and pouring a ton of more money into this race. I think he raised something like $16 million so far. What is–so what is the mood in Rahm’s camp, from what you understand, and what is the plan for the opposition? ‘Cause they’re certainly going to have to take to the streets, because they won’t be able to counter just the money that Rahm will be able to pour in over the next few weeks.

LYDERSEN: Yeah. And one thing that’s important to note is that the voter turnout was extremely low yesterday, so it’ll be a whole different story in six weeks when, presumably, the voter turnout will be higher and both sides will have the chance to work on that voter turnout. And a key issue: the third-place candidate was Willie Wilson, an African-American multimillionaire businessman who definitely got a lot of the African-American vote, people who are really disenfranchised and angry at Rahm. But in some ways Wilson’s sort of politics or views on certain issues are somewhat in line with Rahm, or even to the right of Rahm. So it’ll be a big wildcard where that 10 percent–he got 10 percent plus where those voters go.

So both camps–I think Rahm and Chuy’s camp, probably their number-one priority right now is going after those chunk of voters as well who had voted for Wilson, along with just all the people who did not go out to vote. And, yeah, Rahm has a ton of money. He had a ton of money before yesterday’s election too, though, and he ran a lot of ads, and he spent a lot of that money, and it didn’t get him the results he wanted. So I don’t think–I think it’s been proven that money alone can’t do it. It’ll be really interesting to see the challenges, probably, more on Chuy García’s campaign to tap the groundswell of both disenchantment with Rahm and excitement that’s out there and see what they can do in six weeks.

NOOR: And we’ll link to your interviews about Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99% at the bottom of the story.

Thank you so much for joining us.

LYDERSEN: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

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