Did the mayor’s race change Chicago politics?

April 21, 2015

Lee Sustar analyzes what has changed--and what hasn't--in Chicago politics in the wake of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's reelection victory on April 7.

HEDGE fund bosses, political power brokers, Hollywood players and CEOs across the land breathed a big sigh of relief April 7 when their man Rahm Emanuel was reelected mayor of Chicago by a 10 percent margin after facing an unexpected runoff election against challenger Jesús "Chuy" García.

Emanuel, shocked by his loss in the February 24 general election, had to once again tap his wealthy allies to fund a barrage of television, media and online ads that tried to soften the mayor's bullying image on the one hand, and to destroy García's credibility on the other. Those big-money donors came through, bringing Emanuel's total campaign war chest to $22 million--whether out of fear of Emanuel's notorious vengeful approach to politics or out of hope that Emanuel's political success in pushing pro-business, neoliberal policies would continue to benefit them.

The mayoral runoff election that rattled the 1 Percent clearly highlighted substantial discontent with Emanuel's pro-business, union-bashing policies. To many prominent progressive supporters of the García campaign, that counts as evidence that his run for City Hall has changed the political landscape in Chicago by creating an opening for the left--even though García himself failed to support many of the issues dear to activists.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

"Emanuel won another term, but he fell far short of defeating the broad-based grassroots coalition represented by García's candidacy," wrote Amisha Patel, head of the Grassroots Collaborative, wrote in a Crain's Chicago Business article headlined, "Emanuel Won the Mayor's Race, But Progressives Won the Election."

David Hatch, executive director of Reclaim Chicago, made a similar point in In These Times: "Buoyed by the runoff and pushed by progressive forces to run on his bona fide progressive credentials, García increasingly articulated a scathing critique of Emanuel as the agent of Chicago's corporate elite working against the interests of regular Chicagoans."

Writing at the Jacobin website, left-wing journalist Micah Uetricht was more critical of the García campaign, but argued that he came to express popular demands for change:

Chicago's movements endorsed a mediocre candidate for mayor and failed to elect him. But that movement wasn't relying on a García victory: it focused on other political offices that can shore up progressive political power in the short term, and laid the infrastructure for a new independent politics in the longer term.

The runoff election for 18 City Council seats was further evidence of a shakeup on the Chicago political scene, the argument goes--and no members of the council's self-identified Progressive Caucus was defeated for re-election, despite the best efforts of an Emanuel-allied political action committee.

WERE THE Chicago elections really a victory for progressives?

For certain, the political debate in Chicago was far greater than it would have been if Emanuel had won a first-round victory, as he did in 2011. And many of the leading activists and organizations from important local struggles in recent years were heavily involved in the García campaign.

That included the people who mobilized to save mental health clinics and the resistance to public school closings--and above all, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) that humbled Emanuel with its 2012 strike. There's no way García, a commissioner on the Cook County Board, could have been a contender if the CTU hadn't backed him after union President Karen Lewis bowed out of the mayor's race for health reasons. Additional union backing for García in the runoff election helped put a national spotlight on the race.

There was a sharp contrast between the two contenders for the mayor's office.

On one side was the incumbent, a man who has gathered both the biggest players in the Democratic Party players and the super-rich squarely behind him for decades. By contrast, García still lives in the working-class Mexican-American neighborhood where he organized for years.

García's political rise was a source of pride for an immigrant community that has been saddled with a string of politically connected and corrupt "leaders" foisted on them by City Hall. Where Emanuel campaign fundraisers featured exotic hors d'oeuvres, pricey liquor and expensively dressed business executives, a García event was likelier to be populated by working people, dining on tamales and beer donated by local businesses.

The mayor's attempt to create a grassroots image leaned on favor-seeking unions like the building trades and UNITE HERE, which launched an embarrassing "Rahm Love" advertising campaign in the hopes of landing jobs at the casino Emanuel wants to build.

The mayor, looking for votes in African American wards to counter García's popularity among Latinos, turned to a network of loyal African American politicians and preachers. But as an Associated Press report put it, "[E]ven Emanuel's supporters offer endorsements that sound a little like they're swallowing a dose of medicine that tastes bad, but they know is good for them."

THE SUCCESS of García's campaign for City Hall was possible because of the discontent in working-class Chicago. But his campaign tossed aside many of the most important concerns of his supporters to try to make García more "electable"--by appeasing big business and playing to the middle class.

Rather than empowering popular movements through his campaign, García in fact narrowed the horizons for political change in Chicago by legitimizing Emanuel's austerity policies. He promised "tough medicine" to balance the city budget and declared there would be "no gravy train" for his union supporters.

So in the future, when those opposed to Emanuel challenge his policies--as the CTU will in negotiations now underway on a new contract--the mayor can point to García and argue that the union's own candidate concluded that concessions are necessary.

From the beginning, García campaigned not as the voice of grassroots movements, but as a conventional Democratic politician--a liberal, to be sure, but one who long ago adapted to the rightward move in the party over the last 30 years.

As a Cook County commissioner, García serves as floor leader for an administration that balanced its budget through layoffs and cuts to social services--something that García pointed to as an accomplishment during the campaign. The broad demands of the city's social movements--spelled out in the new CTU document "A Just Chicago"--found little space in García's campaign. As has happened many times in the past in local and national politics, the attempt to graft social struggles onto Democratic electoral politics leads inexorably to the shelving of the movement's most important demands.

García's one and only commercial in the general election campaign centered on a promise to hire 1,000 more police officers--and he stuck to that position even after revelations of a secret police detention facility on the city's West Side and statistics showing that "stop-and-frisk" police procedures targeting African American and Latino youth happen in Chicago at a greater rate than in New York City.

Put another way: At a moment when the most important African American protest movement in decades has taken shape against racist police violence, García decided to chase the cop vote.

Even on schools, García avoided taking up the CTU's main demands for education justice. He refused to commit to reopening any of the 49 schools closed by Emanuel in the spring after the CTU strike, and he said he would reform--but not abolish--the Tax Increment Financing scheme that drains property tax money away from schools and other public services, and into a development slush fund controlled by the mayor.

García refused to explain how he would tackle Chicago's fiscal mess, allowing Emanuel to paint him as an incompetent--a not-so-subtle appeal to racist stereotypes of Mexican-Americans. Meanwhile, Emanuel's supporters in African American neighborhoods in Chicago played on racial tensions between Black and Latinos that have underpinned factional politics within the Chicago Democratic Party for the last 25 years.

García's campaign failed to make the issue of racial segregation and the plight of African Americans a central part of his campaign, as the Chicago Reader, a liberal weekly newspaper sympathetic to the challenger, pointed out.

Emanuel's efforts to portray himself as an advocate for Black Chicago should have been easily punctured by pointing out how school closures were overwhelmingly located in African American neighborhoods. But García failed to make that case--and even campaign insiders acknowledge that he didn't put sufficient effort into campaigning in the heavily African American South and West Sides.

BY BEING vague about his economic program but guaranteeing austerity, García fell into Emanuel's trap. García managed to both demoralize potential supporters among working people while confirming Emanuel's argument that he wasn't up to the job. A Chicago Tribune editorial headline summed up the mayor's race this way: "Chicago, awakening from its stupor, now chooses its crisis manager."

Faced with this unpalatable choice, the majority of Chicago voters stayed home--just 40 percent turned out to vote.

But Emanuel's victory wasn't inevitable. García supporters are correct to point out that Chicago politics has changed in important ways. A political setup built on a century of patronage is unraveling through privatization of city services, budget cuts and tax giveaways to the rich. This opened the door to García, as well as a layer of liberal candidates for City Council, a handful of them truly independent of the Democratic Party.

The election of self-described progressives as members of the City Council--called alderman in Chicago--doesn't necessarily mean a big step for the left. In the 2007 elections, organized labor, led by the SEIU, backed several "independents" for alderman, only to see most of them fold into then-Mayor Richard M. Daley's political operation.

The current "Progressive Caucus" couldn't even stand together against Emanuel's austerity budget in recent years. The pressure of conforming to the Democratic Party has overwhelmed whatever principles such politicians may have held.

But an independent, pro-working class mayoral campaign, free of the "realism" of the Democratic Party and austerity politics, could have tapped into the kind of enthusiasm seen during the CTU's 2012 strike. With no Republican threat to corral the left into supporting a lesser evil, an independent campaign could have made a political breakthrough that--win or lose--would have advanced the issues pushed by the left and the unions.

Such a campaign might even have won. The United Working Families (UWF) party--launched principally by the CTU and SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana--backed Democrats like García, but it also supported a mix of Democrats and independents for City Council. One was teacher Tim Meegan, who nearly forced a runoff election in the 33rd Ward with a campaign for the 99 Percent. The UWF also backed another teacher, Sue Sadlowski Garza, who campaigned as a progressive Democrat against the Emanuel machine in the 10th Ward--she claimed victory after the runoff, pending a recount.

But history--particularly the history of politics in Chicago--shows that these kind of "inside-outside" formations are eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party unless they stake out a clear alternative.

Certainly the potential for an independent, pro-labor campaign existed in the race for Chicago's mayor. But García, a proponent of conventional Democratic Party politics, ran a conventional Democratic Party campaign against a consummate Democratic Party operative and lost convincingly.

As a result, Emanuel has the appearance of political support beyond what he actually commands. But even worse, García has helped further the idea--pushed constantly by the political establishment, newspaper editorial boards and big business--that there is no alternative to austerity policies that target the working class.

Now come the fights that will put that question to the test. With a $1 billion pension payment due from the city and a CTU contract to be negotiated, the battle lines are being drawn. The prospects for those struggles depend not on the political ground staked out by García, but by going beyond it to challenge the priorities of the system.

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