Rahm, Democrats Struggle With Progressive ‘Tea Party’

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Washington, DC

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is locked in a surprisingly tight run-off election to lead the Windy City, with the latest polls showing the incumbent in stuck in the mid-40s. Emanuel has the support of the Democrat establishment, Chicago media and deep-pocketed business interests. He’s losing the party base, though, in what is likely a foreshadowing of larger problems for national Democrats.

Emanuel’s weak showing against four little-known opponents in the first round of voting shocked the city’s political class. As previously reported, Emanuel ran strong in the city’s affluent, largely white, neighborhoods, but stumbled in working class areas and was routed in areas that are predominantly minority. Even a late campaign push from native son President Obama failed to win over minority voters for Emanuel.

With less than a month to go until the April 7th election, the specter of Emanuel losing the city’s first-ever run-off mayoral election is very real. His opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Gracia, was a late entrant to the mayor’s race, but has tapped into strong anti-Rahm sentiment among the city’s minority voters.

Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow Push coalition used to be a formidable political force in the city, recently endorsed Garcia, after remaining on the sidelines during the first round of voting. Jackon’s organization is a shadow of its former self. But it, and Jackson personally, still have strong ties in the city’s South Side, which is overwhelmingly African-American.

Emanuel only received 40 percent of the African-American vote in the first-round, down almost 20 points from his first election, but support for the Hispanic Garcia was tepid among blacks. Jackson’s public embrace of “Chuy,” as Garcia is more popularly known, is among the first signs of a “brown-black coalition” to defeat Emanuel. If such a coalition emerges, Emanuel would be certain to lose next month.

The Chicago Teachers Union has been at the front of the most of the opposition to Emanuel. As mayor, he’s pushed for sweeping reforms on the public school system, but was forced to backtrack. As a budget cutting measure, Emanuel closed dozens of neighborhood schools, overwhelmingly in minority areas. The union backed Garcia in the first round of voting and deployed an energetic ground game that seriously dented the vaunted Chicago Democrat machine last month.

In addition to holding Emanuel under 50 percent and forcing the runoff, the union also won several campaigns for Chicago’s city council. The union even forced the daughter of long-time Chicago machine ward boss Dick Mell into a runoff for a council seat. That result in February, even more than Rahm’s poor showing, exposed the weakness of the party establishment in the city.

“Chuy” is running at Emanuel from the hard left of the political spectrum. “The mayor’s agenda of closing neighborhood schools, closing mental health clinics and gouging hard working families has had a devastating impact on all parts of the city, but particularly in African American and Latino households,” his campaign spokesmen said in a statement. “You can’t destabilize the community and expect to maintain voter trust.”

The Teachers Union has long supported higher taxes on the wealthiest in the city to fund services, including education. At the event with Jackson, “Chuy” echoed this, saying: “For one, we will stop giving taxpayer subsidies to the wealthiest in the city of Chicago. You don’t need tax-increment financing to do development in the city center.”

Garcia is also campaigning on a full audit of the city’s books, examining all public spending. Therein lies an interesting new focus in the progressive political agenda. The Democrat party’s coziness with deep-pocketed special and business interests is coming under the same fire that conservatives have trained on Republicans.

Voters, whether conservative, independent or progressive, increasingly have little faith that Democrat or Republican politicians will act beyond the interests of those with the deepest pockets. Bill DeBlasio rode this anxiety to Gracie Mansion in New York City and progressive politicians around the country are starting to stalk traditional Democrats.

This week, progressive champion U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards announced her intention to challenge mainstream Democrat Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the primary for retiring Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski’s seat. A growing chorus of progressives agitate for a candidate to challenge Hillary Clinton’s expected campaign for the Democrat nomination.

Since the Bush administration, the national Democrat party has nurtured and emboldened a new block of progressive voters. It jettisoned many centrist policies and embraced hard-left identity politics. Through deliberate rhetoric to stoke racial and class enmity it rode this wave to temporary control of Congress and the election, and reelection, of Barack Obama.

The Democrat party’s cynical politics have made it uncompetitive in large parts of the country. Politically, with the exception of the White House, the party is at its lowest ebb in generations. When a party generally is out of power, it undergoes its own form of “soul-searching.”

The Republican party is in the later stages of that process, absorbing its Tea Party movement that began in the waning days of the Bush Administration. The media put these machinations under a microscope, while the process playing out now in the Democrat party is largely obscured.

Emanuel is still likely to eke out a win in April. The institutional forces behind him are still probably just strong enough to prevail. His troubles, though, are a clear sign of problems to come for other Democrat politicians. All political bases ultimately will be heard.