Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel thanked voters Tuesday night for giving him a “second term and a second chance” as he declared victory over challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Still, Emanuel, whose tough political persona is legendary, appeared humble in the wake of a fierce six-week runoff battle that served as a proxy war between the ascendant progressive wing of the Democratic party and the more traditional centrist bloc.
“I want to thank you for putting me through my paces. I will be a better mayor because of that,” Emanuel told the crowd during his victory speech.
President Barack Obama’s notoriously prickly former chief of staff also promised to do things differently in his second term.
“Chicago, I hear you,” he said. “I’m proud of what we have accomplished, but I understand the challenges that we face will require me to approach them differently.”
Emanuel was viewed skeptically by the left during the campaign. But in victory, he rattled off a list of progressive priorities, including a hike in the minimum wage, and pledged to unite the city
But he warned that “in an era of hard choices, I can’t promise that everyone will be pleased with every decision.”
It’s an era of significant financial challenges for the city, including a $20 billion pension crisis and $300 million operating budget shortfall that have resulted in multiple downgrades in the city’s bond rating. The city’s financial woes, and the reforms Emanuel undertook to try to address them, produced widespread backlash from Chicago’s teachers, working class and minority communities that ultimately drove Emanuel to a runoff in February.
Those economic challenges are now Emanuel’s problem to solve, after he won with 56% support to Garcia’s 44%, with about three-fourths of precincts reporting.
Garcia, meanwhile, said he called Emanuel to concede on Tuesday night but delivered more of a stump speech than a concession, framing his loss in optimistic terms and criticizing the status quo in Chicago.
“We didn’t lose today, we tried today,” he told a crowd of supporters. “We fought hard for what we believe in.”
He went on to decry a “growth crisis” in Chicago that can’t be fixed with taxes or borrowing, and called for better schools and less crime on the city’s streets.
Preliminary results indicate Emanuel was able to boost turnout in the city’s majority white communities on the Chicago lakefront and on the North side, as well as maintain a strong lead in the African American neighborhoods on Chicago’s West and South side.
The race has seen a huge surge in early votes, with more than 142,000 Chicagoans submitting their ballots early, up from just about 90,000 before the February vote, which saw unusually low turnout.
But the early vote indicated Garcia was heading into Election Day already at a disadvantage, as turnout was low in Hispanic-majority areas.
Garcia’s team was predicting victory up until the end, however, promising a never-before-seen ground effort buoyed by the organizational abilities of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and a handful of local and progressive groups working to oust Emanuel.
The city’s financial challenges ultimately took center stage in the final week of campaigning as Emanuel has sought to paint Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, as inexperienced and unfit for the job of fixing the city’s financial mess.
He aired a series of hard-hitting attack ads accusing Garcia of dodging questions and refusing to offer particulars on his policy proposals. And Garcia has given the incumbent ample fodder for such attacks — he’s refused to name members of an expert panel he plans to appoint to craft those policies, won’t put dollar amounts on the reforms he has proposed and significant chunks of his plan aren’t even under the mayor’s control.
But those financial woes were also part of what made Emanuel so vulnerable to a challenge in the first place. Many of the city’s residents felt he hadn’t done enough to solve the city’s sluggish economy, and critics said what steps he has taken — like closing public health clinics, 50 public schools and installing red light cameras to raise fees — have only made the problem worse for Chicago’s low-income and minority communities.
The perception that Emanuel’s forgotten about the disadvantaged pockets of the city put Chicago’s sizable African American vote into play, and the two candidates spent the final weeks of the campaign vying for the black vote on Chicago’s South and West sides.
Emanuel rolled out the endorsements of a number of the city’s most prominent African American state legislators, and campaigned with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on Saturday, before hitting a number of churches for Easter Sunday.
Garcia, meanwhile, played up his affiliation to former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, and touted endorsements from Emanuel’s main black challenger during the first round of votes and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
That perception also fueled a progressive backlash against Emanuel that parallels the broader debate within the Democratic Party, between its business-minded and working-class wings.
Garcia hit Emanuel as a traditional pay-for-play politician more interested in helping his wealthy donors than improving the city, pointing to the business leaders who have contributed to his campaign, and could stand to benefit from city grant money, as evidence.
In contrast, the challenger framed himself in the mold of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and is getting help from many groups that consider themselves a part of the “Warren wing” of the party — Move On, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Working Families Party, to name a few. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who’s emerged as another leader of the progressive movement, campaigned for the challenger in Chicago last week.