An alternative to Mayor 1 Percent?

March 5, 2015

Jesús "Chuy" García is giving Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel a run for his money--but can he fulfill the hopes that fed-up voters are placing in him? brian bean, Melissa Rakestraw and Lee Sustar look at the reasons for Emanuel's setback and ask whether a Mayor García would break from Emanuel's pro-business policies.

VOTER ANGER over budget cuts, school closures and tax giveaways shook up Chicago's February 24 municipal elections, forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel into an April 7 runoff election with Cook County Commissioner Jesús "Chuy" García.

Whether or not García's moderate program will come close to satisfying those who voted for him is another question. But it is certainly clear that Emanuel, despite an overwhelming advantage in campaign contributions and backing from the Democratic Party establishment from Barack Obama on down, is in serious trouble.

By winning only 45.5 percent of the vote in a low-turnout, non-partisan election while García got 33.6 percent, Emanuel looked weak. The mayor's allies on the City Council had a hard time, too, with as many as 19 of 50 races for alderman (city council member) heading to a runoff, including one candidate independent of the Democrats, Chicago teacher Tim Meegan. A nonbinding referendum to have an elected school board--currently appointed by the mayor--got almost 90 percent support from voters.

Rahm Emanuel (left) and Jesús "Chuy" García
Rahm Emanuel (left) and Jesús "Chuy" García

Then came a poll released March 1 that shows Emanuel and García in a virtual dead heat.

Given Emanuel's central role in driving pro-business, neoliberal policies in the Democratic Party under the Clinton and Obama administrations, the message of Chicago voters to "Mayor 1 Percent" is national news.

As New York Daily News columnist and Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzales wrote:

The Chicago race has instantly turned into the next big test for the soul of the Democratic Party. It is a face-off between the party's progressive wing, led by folks like [New York Mayor Bill] de Blasio, [Mayor] Ras Baraka in Newark and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and its corporate wing, leaders like Emanuel, [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo and Hillary Clinton.

A headline in Politico, the Inside-the-Beltway publication for Washington insiders, sounded the alarm to the Democratic establishment: "Rahm could actually lose."

NOW, THE Democrats--national and local--who assumed that Emanuel would be a shoo-in are finally being forced to take notice with long list of grievances that working people have with Rahm, as he's known to friend and foe alike. These include the closure of 50 public schools while expanding charter schools, the shuttering of mental health facilities, cutbacks in library services, privatization of city facilities and services, numerous tax breaks for corporations and even the red-light cameras rigged to ticket as many cars as possible.

Then there's Emanuel's notorious unwillingness to take criticism from any quarter. In the City Council, the mayor's operatives twist arms whenever someone has the guts to speak up. On the streets, the mayor ordered Chicago police to clamp down on the 2011 Occupy protests and crack heads during demonstrations at the NATO summit the following year.

But not everything has gone Rahm's way. Most importantly, there's the 2012 strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) that forced the mayor to drop his plans to gut the teachers' union contract. The strike was overwhelmingly popular in working-class Chicago and exposed the limits of Rahm's political power.

CTU President Karen Lewis had planned to challenge Emanuel for mayor herself before health considerations forced her to step aside. She backed García instead. Now, what seemed like a long-shot campaign has become viable as García taps into a popular mood by arguing that, under Emanuel, the neighborhoods have been neglected while economic development focuses on downtown and well-off neighborhoods.

Certainly City Hall has catered to the wealthy and powerful. Public records show that the corporate elite and the ultra-rich had full access to the mayor's office on the fifth floor of City Hall.

And the rich want to keep things that way. Whether they were worried about Rahm's well-known vengefulness, or they simply enjoy having Chicago reshaped to meet their every need, an assortment of hedge fund managers, Hollywood moguls and top-shelf Democratic donors eagerly contributed to Emanuel's $15 million campaign war chest.

And just in case that wasn't enough, an Emanuel operative left the Chicago Public Schools to run a super-PAC that raked in another $2.4 million in 2014 from fewer than 50 donors to back the mayor and his allies in incumbent races. García, by contrast, could only raise about $1 million, as most labor unions fell in line behind Emanuel. The CTU and a handful of other unions were the exceptions.

WITH THOSE kinds of advantages, how could Emanuel fail to win a first-round election victory? If you attend a Chuy García campaign event, you'll begin to see why.

At a January 24 rally on Chicago's South Side, those in attendance were worlds away from the business tycoons and entertainment figures that crowd around Emanuel. The crowd included young people you might see at a Fight for 15 strike or a Dreamers' rally for immigrant rights. People on disability, retired teachers and veteran community activists greeted García with cheers and voiced their hopes that he'd break the corporate grip on Chicago politics.

Those are the kinds of people cheering García's strong showing February 24 and who would rejoice if he ousts Emanuel on April 7. They hope that García, a former community organizer in the 1970s who went on to become an alderman and state senator, will enable working people to "take back Chicago," as one activist network puts it.

García's political record as a Democratic officeholder and his rhetoric during the campaign show that he's not as radical as the anti-Rahm sentiment driving his success.

That mood was far broader than the campaign itself, and the election results highlighted both racial antagonisms and class divisions. Despite bringing in President Obama and basketball great Magic Johnson to bolster his image in the last week before the election, support for Emanuel in predominantly African American wards decreased from 59 percent in 2011 to 42 percent this time around--likely the result of the school closures that hit mostly Black communities.

García received just 26 percent of the vote in African American wards while drawing 52 percent in mostly Latino wards. For his part, Emanuel drew 52 percent support in majority-white wards. But García polled surprisingly well in predominately white neighborhoods in Chicago's "bungalow belt"--where working-class homeowners, many of the city employees hit by pension cuts, used to reliably vote for Democratic machine candidates. Today, they're fed up with Emanuel's attacks on their wages and pensions.

Assuming that pattern holds, the runoff will likely hinge on who is able to best appeal to African American voters, who are one-third of the electorate, along with similar numbers for whites and Latinos. Emanuel and García are both courting the endorsement of the African American mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, who received about 10 percent of the votes on February 24.

Wilson is a millionaire businessman who strongly backed Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner last fall. After pledging to back García, Wilson is currently hedging about endorsing him. Wilson initially said that whoever gets his endorsement must eliminate red light cameras and reopen some of the 49 closed schools. Emanuel would be unlikely to do either. Wilson more recently claimed he will probably vote for García as an individual, but may endorse Emanuel anyway.

The maneuvering over the Black vote will open the way to the racist undercurrents always present in Chicago politics. Since the late 1980s, the refashioned Democratic machine around Richard M. Daley has leaned heavily on the Latino vote while continuing to play favorites among African American establishment politicians to keep the Black vote from consolidating.

NOW, WITH Daley's--and Emanuel's--Latino allies mired in corruption, García is poised to get an overwhelming Latino vote. So Rahm will have to try to work through surrogates in Black Chicago to turn out the vote for him. Meanwhile, Emanuel has outsourced the racial scaremongering among whites to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, who recently warned that Chicago would go bankrupt like Detroit if Emanuel is not re-elected--a crude call for the white middle class to vote for Rahm, and for big-money donors to give the mayor even more campaign cash.

García will make overtures to working-class African American voters as part of his appeal as a progressive. And he'll continue to have the support of the CTU, which made his candidacy possible when no establishment Democrat was willing to stand up to Emanuel.

In an interview following the election, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said, "As the Democratic Party has governed to the right and taken on tax cuts for the wealthy and public coffers shrink, there's a big space that has opened up to the left and candidates are saying, 'My opponents are corporate Democrats.'"

Yet a look at García's record--and close attention to what he's saying on the campaign trail--makes it clear that even if he ousts Emanuel, García will continue to administer the type of austerity policies that triggered the electoral backlash against Emanuel. In effect, the CTU is enabling a candidate, who, if elected, can be expected to balance the budget on the backs of teachers' unions and others.

This isn't a matter of speculation. As floor leader for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, García supported creating a two-tiered pension system that causes disproportionate harm to new hires. The proposal, which failed to make it through the state legislature, would increase the number of years that employees must work before reaching retirement, reduce future retirees cost-of-living pay increases and increase employees' pension fund contributions.

Early on in the campaign, García defended Cook County's layoffs and austerity measures. "We inherited a deficit of $479 million, which is not chump change," he said, championing a budget that was praised by the Chicago Civic Federation. "I believe that we demonstrate through our actions that we can live within our means."

WITH THIS commitment to austerity, García is making it clear even if he is elected, working people will have to pay for the unfunded $20 billion in pension liabilities that prompted Moodys, the bond rating agency, to downgrade Chicago's debt rating. The city must make about $1 billion in pension payments this year alone.

Where's the money going to come from if García is elected? García is mum on the Robin Hood financial transaction tax promoted by National Nurses United and a similar measure proposed by the CTU. So far, his campaign has avoided making any detailed proposals about Chicago's budget. That leaves higher property taxes--and the cuts in pensions of the sort he helped implement at Cook County--as García's only policy options.

What's more, García is attempting to placate Chicago's business elite. After the February 24 election, García hailed the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club--an outfit formed more than a century ago to help plutocrats crush strikes and rule the city--as a "visionary organization" in an interview with a business publication. He added: "I'm not opposed to corporations. I recognize the critical role they play in the economic vitality of the city."

In the same interview, García has talked about bringing "transparency" and "reform" to Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, which divert money otherwise earmarked for schools and libraries into economic development controlled by the mayor.

This raises a question, though: If García promises to use TIF money to support community projects, rather than simply gentrify the neighborhoods, then why not eliminate the TIF system entirely to prevent his and any future administration from using the slush fund to their own advantage?

Another area in which García has remained vague and non-committal is on the environment. For his part, Emanuel--laughably--took credit for the long hard work of activists in getting coal plants shut down in the city, as well as stopping the expansion of pet coke repositories on the city's Southeast Side. Even so, García has failed to develop any specifics in his platform on the environmental concerns that face the city's most disadvantaged communities.

ONE ISSUE where García has been clear is his call to hire 1,000 more police officers--a promise Rahm Emanuel made and then broke.

Yet in a city that already has one of the top five per capita ratios of cops to citizens, this move seems to entirely ignore what's happening in African American and Latino communities, where police violence has galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S. While many neighborhoods in Chicago are desperate for relief from the violence that has claimed so many young lives, the solution is not more police, but better schools, youth outreach and a bold program of job creation and economic development.

Simply adding more police will only compound the problem of racist police violence and harassment. In fact, García has yet to address the issue of rampant police abuse in Chicago, even after Britain's Guardian newspaper reported on a secret police detention unit in the Homan Square neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. This is a location where suspects are taken but not booked, and allegedly shackled and tortured. Many are held indefinitely without access to an attorney, and one suspect died while in custody.

The revelations of police abuse in Homan Square come after years in which Chicago police were found to be torturing and illegally interrogating people of color. This should be the time for García to call for a full-investigation of CPD practices, along with a demand for reparations to previous torture victims--or at least comment on the Homan Square facility. But García, mindful of the cops' hostility to Emanuel, apparently wants to avoid antagonizing them.

García's pro-police stance and commitment to austerity has gone largely unnoticed by people who are understandably eager to toss Rahm Emanuel out of office. Many compare García's campaign to the 1983 election race of Harold Washington, the city's first African American mayor, which defeated the old Democratic machine. But what's often forgotten is that Washington, who held office during the Republican Reagan administration, was himself compelled to administer austerity measures--a stance that led the CTU to go on strike under his watch, not once, but twice.

In the 30 years since, the Democrats have administered neoliberal policies from the White House to City Halls around the U.S. Progressives like García, in order to advance within the party, have adapted to those policies, even if they seek to moderate them to build an electoral base.

Without a political organization that is independent of the Democrats, this is inevitable. Some of the independent alderman campaigns in this election provided a glimpse of how this may come about--but García's campaign was quite different.

The task is a long-term one, of course. Whatever happens in the April 7 runoffs, whether Rahm wins or Chuy does, stopping further cuts and austerity will require organizing, protest and a fightback.

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