Rahm Emanuel should be taking a victory lap now. Heading into yesterday’s municipal elections, the Chicago mayor had everything an incumbent officeholder could wish for.
He had money. Just as he parlayed his Washington connections into paying clients during two and a half years working on Wall Street, after leaving the Clinton administration (despite lacking an MBA or any prior banking experience), Emanuel converted his Wall Street connections into a $30 million campaign chest — so massive that he outspent his closest opponent 12 to 1.
He had name recognition. Emanuel worked as a senior advisor to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1998. After his brief sojourn on Wall Street, Emanuel represented Illinois 5th congressional district from 2003 to 2009, during which time he chaired the House Democratic Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
He had White House connections and the president’s endorsement. Emanuel served as President Obama’s White House Chief of Staff from January 20, 2009, to October 1, 2010, before leaving to run successfully for mayor of the president’s adopted hometown. President Obama embraced Emanuel and endorsed his re-election, during an appearance to dedicate a national monument.
Rahm Emanuel had all this, and no major challengers. Low voter turnout (just 33 percent) should have worked in his favor, as well.
It wasn’t enough.
Despite being favored to win, Emanuel faced a stunning setback last night, when he won 45.5 percent of the vote. His top challenger, progressive leader Jesus “Chuy” Garcia won 33.9 percent of the vote. Falling 4.5 percent short of the 50-percent-plus-one he needed to win, Emanuel will face a run-off against Garcia.
Two major factors contributed to Rahm Emanuel’s comeuppance: Rahm Emanuel himself, and the progressive populist movement that rose up in response to his corrupt governance and corporate agenda.
With the support of most of his “Rubber Stamp City Council,” Emanuel imposed an austerity agenda on the people of Chicago.
- More than 50 neighborhood schools were closed, mostly in African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
- Half the city’s mental health clinics were closed. The clinics served lower-income families and those who cannot afford to pay for mental health services.
- Emanuel slashed pensions for city workers — teachers, police officers, firefighters, etc. — and tried to claim that pensions weren’t a part of the city government at all.
Dubbed “Mayor 1 percent,” Emanuel diverted $1.7 billion taxpayer dollars into a slush fund used to finance corporate subsidies, at the same time he was making painful cuts to public services, and flying around the country on taxpayer-funded trips to court wealthy executives to fill his campaign chest with their dollars. (Emanuel ultimately gave $14,000 back to the city, due to a new policy prohibiting the spending of city tax dollars on campaign fund-raising.)
Jacob Swenson-Lengyel wrote, “the campaign is moving from a candidate-centric model to a movement-centric model.” Reclaim Chicago leaders and volunteers spent 4,980 hours phone banking, knocking on doors and attempting to reach 59,000 Chicago voters with a simple question: “What issues are you and your family facing today?”
“Reclaim Chicago did something completely new and different in Chicago politics,” said David Hatch, executive director of Reclaim Chicago. ”We didn’t just talk to people about candidates. We talked to people about getting corporate interests out of city hall and asked them to help us build a movement. Then we trained people to have these conversations with their neighbors. “
It worked. Not only did the campaign force Emanuel into a run-off, but eight of its city council endorsees won outright, and three pushed Emanuel’s incumbents into run-off elections.
“Big money is dominating our politics, and Mayor Emmanuel’s political war chest is another sign of this,” said George Goehl, director of National People’s Action. “And yet, yesterday’s results show that a new populism is taking form in the United States. The emergence of independent political organizations like Reclaim Chicago is sign of hope for everyday people in Chicago and across the country.”
It’s not over yet. Reclaim Chicago will play an active role in the run-off election, and could yet return Rahm Emanuel to private citizenship. But the movement’s goals extend far beyond this election.
“We demonstrated that when you engage voters based on their values and concerns, you can overcome huge disparities of money in politics,” Hatch added. “We won’t go away after the election. Instead, we’re building our membership and advancing our issues for the next round.“
Reclaim Chicago’s victory puts Wall Street Democrats on notice, and reminds us that progressive, populist, people-powered movements can fight and win against corporate interests and corporate candidates.