03:05 - Source: CNN
African-Americans hold the keys in Chicago's mayoral runoff
(CNN) —  

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is known as a shouter, but last week he was the one being shouted down.

“What about the West Side?” Arlene Jones, a local community activist, demanded of the mayor, interrupting his answer during an NAACP forum in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood to a question on what he’d do to solve inequality in the city.

Jones continues, as the mayor, who’s up for re-election Tuesday, stares on: “We haven’t heard about Austin, Lawndale, North Garfield! We wanna hear about where we live!”

It’s a scene from the poorer half of the two cities that Chicago has become over decades of slow decline — a city divided down economic and racial fissures that deepened during the recession and show no signs of healing anytime soon.

Those fissures contributed to the widespread frustration with Emanuel’s leadership that drove him to a runoff with Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia after he failed to top 50% support during the first round of voting, in February.

Garcia is pitching himself as the only candidate capable of uniting the city after Emanuel’s efforts to solve its problems have only exacerbated those divisions.

But Emanuel has a pitch of his own: He’s the only candidate with a realistic plan, and while it may require some hard cuts and concessions in order to right the city’s finances, it’s better than Garcia’s murky alternatives.

The runoff has become a proxy battle for a broader national fight playing out for the soul of the Democratic Party, between business-friendly moderates and income inequality-oriented progressives from the far left.

They both campaigned feverishly through the final week of the race, a pace that produced a huge uptick in early interest in the race. By the time early voting ended Saturday, more than 142,000 Chicagoans had cast their ballots, a nearly two-thirds increase from the first round of voting in February.

On Sunday, the two visited churches across the city — and for the mayor, a few egg hunts — for Easter, but both ended the day with a bit of levity, greeting supporters at Wrigley Field during the Cubs season opener against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Public polls show the mayor opening a sizable double-digit lead in the final weeks before the runoff. But Chicago’s never seen a mayoral runoff before, and no political strategist in the city will predict decisively what exactly will happen Tuesday.

‘The forgotten side of Chicago’ speaks out

After Emanuel, who declined to be interviewed for this story, left the forum, Jones told CNN she was angry with the mayor because she felt that he’s “not interested in us,” the African American communities on Chicago’s South and West side that have seen little economic development — and in many cases, considerable decline.

“I want to hear what the plans are for the forgotten side of Chicago,” Jones said.

Step outside the gymnasium where the forum was held, and that reality is readily apparent. Trash litters residential streets lined with boarded-up homes, pockmarked by empty, open lots and the occasional convenience store.

The West Garfield Park neighborhood was one of Chicago’s 10 poorest from 2008-2012, according to Census data compiled by Chicago demographer Rob Paral. In 2011, more than 40 percent of the neighborhood lived below the federal poverty line, according to Census data analyzed by the progressive Social IMPACT Research Center; that was a nearly 19% increase from 2007-2011.

That’s not atypical for Chicago’s African American neighborhoods; according to the Census Bureau, African-American unemployment in Chicago in 2013 was 25 percent, higher than the unemployment for blacks in the rest of the nation’s biggest cities.

It’s those empty, open lots that have Rep. Danny Davis working day and night for Garcia. Davis, a 10-term Democrat who represents a district that spans parts of the city’s South and West sides, has come to campaign with the challenger at a Baptist Church in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood on Sunday.

He described the “vast, vacant lands that used to be viable commercial strips” on Chicago’s South side before riots broke out after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots burned many businesses to the ground.

“Nothing has happened to those vacant lands since,” he said. “We have not seen an urban redevelopment plan that would address that issue on the South side of Chicago, the West side of Chicago, other pockets of poverty.”

To Davis and other Emanuel critics, what economic reforms the mayor has implemented have only made the problem worse.

In an effort to find savings to help stave off a looming pension crisis, Emanuel closed public health clinics and nearly 50 public schools that were underperforming and transferred the students elsewhere. He sought to raise taxes and fees through creative maneuvers, like expanding the use of red light cameras, and has proposed having many of the city’s public workers contribute more to their pension programs.

African Americans say many of those reforms have hit the city’s minorities communities harder than the rest. And Emanuel’s critics also point to his support from Republicans and wealthy Chicagoans as evidence that Emanuel is the mayor of the 1 percent, while Garcia’s mayor of “100%,” as his campaign signs state. They’ve also accused him of allocating property tax dollars from a city fund the mayor controls to benefit his allies.

Garcia’s message has galvanized the support of a number of national progressive groups, including some of the country’s biggest unions, the Working Families Party and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, all of which are backing Garcia’s campaign.

And their support is a big part of what has Emanuel’s advisers reluctant to predict a win. Garcia’s campaign is predicting 6-7,000 volunteers will hit the streets for Garcia on Election Day to get out the vote, and they’re relying on the organizational expertise of the city’s teachers’ — who will be free to volunteer all day, as school is out for spring break — to bring every last voter to the polls.

Dave Schaffer, a top adviser to Garcia’s campaign and his finance chairman, said in an interview Garcia’s message is emblematic of the broader debate happening within the Democratic Party — and that’s why he’ll have the grassroots momentum drive him to a win on Election Day.

“It’s is an actual attempt to have the true values of the Democratic Party return to the forefront. It’s not the pay to play, it’s not the corporate cronyism, it’s not the lobbying abuse.”

’I’m going to go with what we have.’

Emanuel hasn’t been idly standing by while Garcia organizes attacks — he’s been fighting back with millions.

Big donations from many of the city’s top business leaders have driven Emanuel to a 12-to-1 fundraising advantage over Garcia, and boosted a super PAC backing his effort and the campaigns of a handful of alderman aligned with the incumbent.

That fundraising advantage has funneled into ads from Emanuel’s campaign focusing on one particularly potent argument against his opponent that appears to resonating with voters: Garcia doesn’t have much of a plan of his own.

The challenger released an economic policy proposal after weeks of dodging questions on his priorities, but is often murky on the details, saying the city’s books are “shrouded in a veil of secrecy” so it’s impossible to offer concrete solutions to the city’s financial woes.

It was only just this week that Garcia announced two members of the panel he plans to appoint to hammer out the details if elected. And much of his proposal relies on maneuvers it’s not even clear he could pursue as mayor, like a progressive income tax, which would require an amendment to the state constitution to implement.

Emanuel’s argument has won over some of the city’s African American community. Interviews with a half-dozen black Chicagoans over the past week revealed the general consensus: The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

“I know what we have. I don’t know what the other guy would do,” said Rochelle Hardaway, a 52-year-old clerical worker at an Illinois state agency.

“I’m going to go with what we have. I’m going to continue to support [Rahm] because I believe in him, I believe his motives and his intentions are right.”

Emanuel has sought to close the deal by making Garcia seem unfit for the job, hammering him during a Tuesday debate as a “Hanukkah Harry” for promising to put 1,000 additional police officers on the street, fund new school programs and still find the money to fix the city’s pension problem and budget shortfall.

And he’s argued, meanwhile, that the unpopular moves he’s taken as mayor have been the kind of tough-love policies needed to right the city’s finances after decades of mismanagement under the Daleys. That argument’s taken on added urgency as the city stares down a pension crisis that’s caused financial agencies to issue multiple downgrades of the city’s credit rating.

“Emanuel wants the issue to be, who is the most competent to get this city out of this financial mess? Who can best negotiate and deal with unions and deal with the governor?” asked Paul Green, the director of the institute of politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

But the economic debate, and persistent crime, is potent enough that it’s put the city’s sizable African American population up for grabs, and the demographic group could be pivotal in the runoff.

A Chicago Tribune analysis found that the city’s 18 majority-African-American wards accounted for about 40 percent of the ballots cast for mayor in February, and with no black candidate in the race, both Emanuel and Garcia are jockeying for the community’s favor.

Emanuel held a 700-person rally on Saturday featuring Chicago’s renowned Jesse White tumblers at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, and later that day shook hands, snapped photos and quite literally kissed babies at the Black Women’s Expo at Chicago’s downtown McCormick Place convention center.

Emanuel has also emphasized his ties to President Barack Obama throughout the campaign, tweeting out a picture of the president voting early for his former chief of staff to remind voters of their friendship.

Garcia, meanwhile, features pictures of himself and Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, on his campaign literature to emphasize both his support within the black community and the historic possibility that he could become the city’s first Latino mayor.

And he’s drawn on endorsements from Rev. Jesse Jackson and Emanuel’s most prominent African American opponent in the first round of voting, businessman Willie Wilson.

At least some African American Chicagoans said they’re willing to give the uncertainty of the next four years with Garcia a shot over the disappointments of the city’s past four years with Emanuel.

Cheryl Salter, walking with her pro-Emanuel friend, Hardaway, at the Black Women’s Expo, said that she planned to take a chance on Chuy — but noted she could always correct any mistake down the line.

“With Rahm, I know what I’m getting and I don’t like what I’m getting, so I’m willing to invest four years in Mr. Garcia,” she said.

“And if I don’t like what he gives in four years then you know I’ll go back to the polls.”