One wouldn’t think that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would still have a shot of winning a second term — especially after the hits he has taken since being forced into a runoff against little-known Cook County Commissioner Jesus (Chuy) Garcia.
Last month, on Election Day, Emanuel ran afoul of the Second City’s black residents and criminal justice reform advocates across the nation after the Guardian revealed that police officers were allegedly beating and torturing suspects they arrested at a warehouse on the city’s West Side. The news, coming on the heels of outrage over police misconduct in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio (where a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun was shot by a police officer within seconds of pulling up), likely contributed to Emanuel winning a mere 45 percent of the vote.
Emanuel’s notoriously-testy personality became front-page news after members of a group called the Mental Health Movement confronted him during a meeting over the city’s closure of six community mental care clinics. While Emanuel’s staff say that the mayor remained calm throughout the showdown, allegations that he screamed at them furthered his “Rahmbo” reputation at just the worst possible time.
Then there’s Emanuel’s new challenge, this time in the form of the Service Employees International Union, which moved to back Garcia’s bid to unseat him. The union’s Land of Lincoln affiliate did the mayor a favor earlier this year by refusing to back any candidate as a reward for having successfully pushed for a $4.75 increase in the city’s minimum wage. By backing Garcia, SEIU has allied itself with the American Federation of Teachers’ Chicago Teachers Union, which recruited the politician to run against Emanuel after its notoriously bellicose president, Karen Lewis, was forced by illness to back away from her own mayoral run.
Yet as a poll released this past Saturday by polling firm Ogden & Fry show, Emanuel has as much as a 16-point lead over Garcia — and a strong chance of pulling victory from the jaws of defeat.
How is that possible? For all of the general disdain for Emanuel, voters probably realize that he may be the only chance for the Second City to keep from falling into the fiscal and social quagmire that has plagued Detroit and other Rust Belt cities. If Emanuel wins, he will offer a path for other urban Democrats to successfully tackle big-city woes and beat back public-sector unions.
As with his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, Emanuel hasn’t been nearly as attentive as he should have been on the crime-fighting front. His failure to embrace the community policing-oriented Broken Windows approach to policing explains why Chicago’s homicide rate remains three times higher than that of New York City. But given that the city’s property crime and robbery rates declined by, respectively, 45 percent and 53 percent between 1989 and 2012, Chicago long ago shed its moniker of Beirut by the Lake.
Besides, Emanuel has had other matters to focus on, all of which have forced him into sparring with public-sector unions that have long been the biggest backers of Democrats at all levels of government.
For the past two years, Emanuel has been working to shore up Chicago’s busted pensions, which have been mismanaged for decades by Daley and public-sector unions who control the majority of seats on pension boards. The virtual insolvencies of the pensions is one reason why Moody’s Investors Service moved just days after the mayoral race to lower the city’s bond rating down to Baa2, the second-worst bond rating for a big city after just-emerged-from-bankruptcy Detroit.
Within the past three years alone, Emanuel has sparred with the Second City’s police and fire unions as well as the pension boards they control over reducing disability payouts that cost the city $46 million a year. The Chicago Sun-Times ran an exposé that showed that some supposedly injured cops were collecting disability checks even as they held other jobs and took up strenuous hobbies such as hunting. This includes forcing those on disability to submit to more frequent medical exams, which the fire pension board rejected out of hand.
Emanuel has been more successful with the Illinois legislature, which, along with former Gov. Pat Quinn and successor, Bruce Rauner, have been battling public-sector unions over reforming the state’s even insolventer (if that’s a word) pensions. Last year, Emanuel convinced Springfield to pass a modest reform plan for two of the city’s pensions over the objections of public-sector unions. Those changes are now being challenged by the unions in court.
Emanuel has also spent the past year battling with Lewis over addressing the teachers pension, which officially reports a shortfall of $9.6 billion, but is more likely insolvent to the tune of $12.5 billion, according to an analysis by Dropout Nation. Emanuel’s pugnaciousness hasn’t won him praise from public-sector unions. But it has won him esteem from the Second City’s centrist Democrats and middle-class residents, as well as from the fiscally conservative business community and private-sector unions who have long ago become used to less-generous retirement plans.
The biggest reason why Emanuel will likely win re-election – and why he is in trouble politically in the first place — lies with his successful continuation of predecessor Daley’s overhaul of the city’s traditional public schools. Between 2005 and 2013, the city’s high school graduation rate increased from 39 percent to 66 percent. The percentage of Second City fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 60 percent to 49 percent between 2003 and 2013.
Even one of Emanuel’s most-controversial moves on the school reform front — the shutdown two years ago of 47 half-empty schools — has worked out for most kids. Ninety-three percent of the students affected ended up in better-performing schools, according to a study released in January by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Shutting down the schools may have not made the AFT or its local happy. But it did make life better for Second City children.
Another one of Emanuel’s efforts — expanding public charter schools — has also worked out for Chicago children. The average charter school student increased his achievement in math by 14.4 more days than a traditional public school peer, according to a study released last week by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes. Particularly for the Second City’s poorest students, charters have proven to be better on average for their future success than going to a traditional public school.
These facts aren’t particularly thrilling to Lewis or to CTU, which have spent the past three years opposing Emanuel’s school reform efforts. While a two-week strike by the union three years ago managed to score it a small victory against Emanuel, the union has found itself on the defensive since then as the mayor has opened up 24 new charter schools and shut down more of the city’s failing district schools. Even an alliance CTU and parent union AFT struck with the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition (for which the former presidential aspirant has collected $75,000 over the past two years) has been only slightly helpful to the union’s cause.
Emanuel has remind voters that Garcia, a longtime player in the Chicago Democratic machine, isn’t likely to stand up for either children or taxpayers because of his dependence on CTU and other public-sector unions. In one ad released by a Super PAC backing the mayor’s campaign, retired cop Milton Dixon expresses skepticism about Garcia’s agenda. “When I see Chuy Garcia, I say, ‘Hold on to your wallets… We just can’t afford that.’”
It’s not in the bag yet. Emanuel could stumble further still. But if he beats off the challenge, expect other big-city Democrats facing equally vexing fiscal straits and failing public schools to become Rahmbos to great success.