Rahm Struggles to Hold on in Chicago

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Having turned back more formidable challengers, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was supposed to be reelected to another term in February. Instead, a resurgent left-wing base, fueled by newly engaged Hispanic voters, forced Rahm into the first-ever run-off race for Mayor.

Rahm, with the city’s entire establishment, including Republicans, behind him, is likely to prevail on Tuesday. The very near-run contest, though, is a sign of future problems for the Democrat party. It is a touch ironic that Rahm, who built his political career as a hard-charging partisan Democrat, will need Republican support to prevail.

As of last month, Rahm’s reelection campaign has banked more than $2 million from major Republican donors. Rahm has used these donations to partially fund his TV ads, attacking his opponent, Cook County Commissioner, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, for wanting to raise taxes.

Rahm’s entire reelection, in fact, is based on beating back an increasingly active wave of progressive voters who threaten the Democrat party establishment. His challenge is not unlike many Republican establishment politicians who have faced strong primary challenges from conservatives.

Rahm’s public troubles began with an aggressive push for education reform, centered on consolidating and closing dozens of elementary schools. Rahm’s belligerent manner angered the Chicago Teachers Union while the school closings, concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, angered many minorities. Rahm’s tenure as Mayor has also been plagued by an explosion of violence in minority neighborhoods. On many weekends, dozens of youth are victims of gang violence.

Rahm only won 43 percent of the large African-American vote in the first round, as he fell well below the threshold needed to avoid a runoff. The lack of black support for Rahm, who won this group’s overwhelming support in his first election, arose even after President Obama made a late campaign swing for Rahm in February. Obama was unable to deliver.

Rahm’s struggles with black voters is magnified in this election because of an increasingly powerful, emerging Hispanic voting block. Hispanic voters are a rapidly growing share of the Chicago electorate, but their representation in city offices has been muted. Hispanic voters are almost equal to African-American voters in the city now. Garcia has been campaigning on explicit appeals to be the city’s first Hispanic mayor.

Jesse Jackson, whose political influence in city politics has waned, has seen the writing on the wall and has thrown his support behind Garcia. Jackson, and many black and Hispanic leaders, are campaigning on direct appeals to identity politics, with talk of a “brown-black coalition” to take the Mayor’s office.

This identity politics, combined with populist appeals against the city’s wealthy and financial sectors, who overwhelmingly support Rahm, now threaten his political career. The very forces that drove Obama to the White House, and Rahm to a position as his Chief of Staff, may now sweep away the city’s Democrat establishment.

Rahm is likely to dodge this bullet on Tuesday. The latest polls show him with a solid lead, although one pollster cautions that Hispanics are underrepresented in polling. His survival though, is predicated on an almost perfect political storm of universal establishment support and full backing from the city’s wealthy and elite.

Oh, and a big turnout and overwhelming support from the city’s Republicans. Rahm won national political acclaim for his tenacious fights to tear down the Republican party. In the end, it may be the only thing that saves him.


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