The fuzzy sweater worked wonders, it seems.
On Tuesday, Chicago voters re-elected Rahm Emanuel as mayor by a staggering 56-44 majority, well ahead of the predictions provided by exit polling (earlier reports had the mayor winning in a nailbiter, 52-48), and far ahead of challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s laughable “internal polling” from earlier in the week, which only a few select media outlets believed in enough to write about. The results rolled in quickly, and although a few aldermanic elections remain undecided (at the time of this writing, one was hinging on just seven votes) and by around 8pm CST, Chicago had already finished choosing a preference, between a dyed-in-the-wool career Democrat and his further-left-than-Elizabeth Warren challenger.
Emanuel will return to the Daleys’ hallowed halls and well-appointed mayoral accommodations, but he’ll have to return a changed man — or, at least, that’s the message Chicagoans hoped he got from his experience in Chicago’s first ever mayoral runoff election. The prevailing opinion is that Emanuel’s war chest, which totaled in the millions for what is, essentially, a municipal election, put him over the top. After all, he managed to raise and spend circles around Chuy Garcia, his opponent, which helped him run not only his own campaign, but pour money into campaigns for his city council supporters, hopefully ensuring that when re-elected he’d have widespread support from his legislative body.
But that’s only part of the story; Garcia, too, had significant resources. By the time the runoff election rolled around, Garcia had accumulated a million-dollar campaign fund of his own, raised mostly from state and local teachers unions (as well as SEIU), and was looking to benefit from the unions’ grassroots “get out the vote” operations that had worked wonders for underdog candidates in the past.
Garcia, however, could never articulate a true plan for the city. And as exit polls showed, the financial health of the city in the immediate future, not down the road, was the primary concern. Garcia could only articulate — in bizarre television commercials where he robotically read from off-camera cue cards — a vaguely developed plan, which involved forming a vaguely developed committee, which had a vaguely considered purpose. They wouldn’t raise taxes, he said, though he couldn’t promise they wouldn’t raise taxes. They’d probably take down red light cameras, he said, but he could promise that they would take down red light cameras. They would hire thousands more police officers and teachers, reopen schools, limit privatization of city services, and restore Chicago to the bloated, barely functioning union-controlled paradise it once was. But they didn’t really know how they were going to pay for that. If the leprechauns failed to crawl soggily out of the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, and the coffers of gold failed to materialize, they’d let you know how they planned to proceed.
Emanuel is, of course, the devil you know. He’s borrowing money and reconfiguring expenditures, and robbing Peter to pay Paul, but it’s a plan. And, when confronted with a challenge from the Chicago Teachers’ Union over pensions and raises, at a time when the city is struggling to pay for essential services, he showed surprising backbone — such an unexpected quality, apparently, that the teachers unions made it their sole purpose in life to end his mayoral career before it even began. Emanuel will probably raise property taxes, he’ll probably keep the speed cameras that torture Chicago residents up for the time being, and he’s likely to find ways to nickel and dime Chicagoans to pad the city’s bank accounts. But, apparently (and, for that matter, ironically, considering Emanuel’s roots), Chicagoans felt that that was better than relying on “hope and change” to deliver formidable results.
Emanuel seems to be under no illusion as to how voters feel about his first term performance, at least for now. Also, with five of Rahm’s aldermanic choices on their way out, he’ll face less of a rubber stamp from the City Council (though, let’s face it, it’ll still be a rubber stamp). But he’s also likely to know that his runoff challenge was the result of a single, terrible and monstrously uncouth interaction with one of Chicago’s most powerful unions, and that he survived the challenge. He is Humble Rahm today, but the dead fish are probably already in the mail. And Chicagoans know to expect respectful, efficient government to emerge from Chicago’s City Hall around the same time the Cubs win the pennant.
As for national consequences, now that Garcia proved unsuccessful, the prevailing opinion is that Chicago’s mayoral election was most certainly not a test case for a larger, nationwide, from-the-left challenge to existing, moderate-governing Democratic legislators. But MoveOn.org invested in the mayoral race, combining its efforts at mobilizing grassroots activists for Chuy Garcia with its efforts to convince Elizabeth Warren to run. They frequently alternated email blasts between requests for help for Chuy’s campaign with announcements about “Ready for Warren” rallies citywide. Other progressive groups sunk what resources they could into Garcia’s campaign as well, pushing messaging that trumpeted the failures of moderate Democratic governance, and claiming to want results in Chicago’s election to send a message that progressives would hold their elected leaders’ feet to the fire. But “Tea Party-esque” primary challenges these proved not to be; with only a meager 44 percent of a historically low-turnout vote, the message failed to send.
So now Chicagoans dust off and prepare for the next four years, possibly, still, by packing moving boxes.