In Rahm Emanuel’s “Embarrassing” Victory, a Warning for Democrats

Richard Eskow

Despite the power of incumbency, the backing of President Obama, and an array of wealthy and powerful backers, Rahm Emanuel nevertheless became the first mayor in Chicago history to be forced into a runoff. Sure, Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s defeat was a setback for the left, but Emanuel’s struggle to retain his office is a warning for politicians everywhere: Corporate Democrats are likely to find themselves on the defensive in 2016 and beyond.

As the Chicago Sun-Times concluded, being forced into a runoff was a “huge national embarrassment” for Emanuel – one that could have ended his mayoralty. The nickname Emanuel earned during this race was “Mayor 1 percent,” and it’s a name that is likely to stick. That reflects a new reality for “centrists” in the Emanuel/Third Way mold: corporate-friendly policies bring serious political risk.

Why did Emanuel ultimately survive this challenge? For one thing, he raised enormous sums of money – much of it from Republicans, and much of it from executives who are making large profits from their relationships with the city. Emanuel outspent his challenger by an estimated eight to one. Garcia was never able to overcome the barrage of spending, much of it spent on negative ads. He was also hamstrung by other demographic and other factors that seemed to work to Emanuel’s advantage.

In an attempt to rebrand himself with a more progressive image, Emanuel supported raising the minimum wage to $13 (although not until 2019) and sought to reframe his educational policies (which included school closings that primarily affected lower-income and minority students) in a more progressive light.

Emanuel also had a surfeit of luck. Karen Lewis, the immensely popular head of the Chicago Teachers Union, led Emanuel 45 percent to 36 percent in head-to-head polling last July after confronting the mayor before and during a 2012 teachers’ strike. Tragically, Lewis was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor and was unable to run. That left Garcia short on time and resources with which to overtake the cash-rich incumbent. Another formidable challenger who chose not to run was Toni Preckwinkle, head of the Cook County Board of Supervisors.

Despite the final outcome, Emanuel’s unexpected upset in the initial vote sent a clear signal to corporate-friendly Democrats everywhere that excessive coziness with the business community carries electoral risks. A number of Emanuel allies were forced into runoffs in races for the position of alderman. An Emanuel appointee was overwhelmingly defeated in Ward 7, and incumbents lost several other races as well.

The fact that Emanuel was forced into Chicago’s first mayoral runoff is itself a sign of vulnerability for corporate-friendly politicians. As Chicago-based historian Rick Perlstein told me today in an email exchange:

“Chicago has a tradition of machine politics. In the olden days, mayors held onto power by handing out jobs. Now that that’s nominally illegal, they do it by handing out favors to rich donors who help them buy scads of TV commercials. That’s why this is the first mayoral runoff we’ve had since the new system was initiated twenty years ago.”

That sentiment was echoed by David Hatch, executive director of Reclaim Chicago, a grassroots effort jointly sponsored by the People’s Lobby and National Nurses United. In an email exchange yesterday, Hatch described the vote that forced Emanuel into a runoff as “a clear rejection of corporate austerity politics,” adding:

“Much like the election of Bill De Blasio in New York, Kshama Sawant [a socialist candidate who ran for city council] in Seattle, the Syriza victory in Greece, and the rise of Podemos in Spain, the vote in Chicago is indicative of widespread and deep dissatisfaction with a politics of the corporate austerity agenda.”

I asked Hatch how this election was likely to affect Chicago politics going forward. “We’ve strengthened the progressive movement in Chicago,” he responded. “We’re in a better position to fight back.” Hatch noted that “with progressives still a minority” on the City Council, “Garcia alone could not have been our savior.”

“We’ve got tremendous work ahead of us,” said Hatch. “Chicago’s fiscal crisis is not unique. It is the result not just of poor decisions made in city council and in the mayor’s office, but is also the result of broader global and national economic conditions and state level politics. Right now, Illinois faces a $6 billion budget deficit for next fiscal year, and the cuts coming down from Springfield will also hand the next mayor an even worse set of fiscal cards. We’ll see cuts to education, infrastructure, public transit, health care and much, much more.”

When asked about the challenges facing Chicago progressives going forward, Hatch said that “we’ve got tremendous work ahead of us.”

Writing in The Nation, Micah Utrecht profiled another activist group that expects to have a long-term impact on Chicago politics. Utrecht describes United Working Families as a coalition founded by the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union, and “a passel of other unions and grassroots community groups.” He quotes a UWF board member, Matthew Luskin, as saying that the group isn’t just focused on winning the next election. “It’s also about building space for movement politics,” said Luskin, “politics to the left of the Democrats – and trying to recruit people to those politics.”

National groups were active in the mayoral effort as well, including National People’s Action Campaign (NPAC), the Working Families Party, MoveOn, Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the American Federation of Teachers. Their efforts resulted in an impromptu coalition that is likely to resurface in future races. In a published statement, NPAC executive director (and Chicago resident) George Goehl said that “we’re seeing a new left pole emerge in American politics.” Goehl added:

“In cities across the country, progressive populists are talking on corporate politicians … As discontent with a system that’s rigged in favor of corporations and the super-wealthy continues to grow, so too will a new political movement.”

According to polling on issues such as taxation, Social Security, and Wall Street, Goehl may well be right. This incipient national mood is one reason why the question posed this week in the Atlantic, “Why Can’t the Left Unseat Rahm Emanuel,” is the wrong one. Emanuel survived because he caught a number of lucky breaks, and because he received major financial support from Republicans and corporate interests doing business with the city.

The real question is one that corporate-backed Democrats across the country should be asking themselves today: Why was a powerful mayor forced into a runoff in a city known for patronage and machine politics, despite the backing of wealthy interests and national party leaders? Corporate Democrats should be asking themselves: Am I next?

Chicago’s political scene is unique in many ways. But what is striking about the Emanuel agenda is how closely it resembles that of the “third way” Democratic faction nationally. Like other “centrist” Dems (a label that is inaccurate, since polls show their economic views are to the right of the general public), Emanuel supports the privatization of many government functions, courts investors and other financial interests, and successfully solicits large donations from private interests that benefit from their government ties. He confronts schoolteachers and exaggerates the accomplishments of private-sector education.

As a result of this election, Emanuel has been rebranded – some might say “unmasked” – as a tool of corporate interests. The agenda he reflects would have a hard time succeeding outside Chicago’s unique environment. His “huge national embarrassment” is an object lesson for Democrats everywhere: There is no cheap grace to be purchased if you ally yourselves with moneyed interests. New coalitions are coming together to resist the “third way.” Democrats have a decision to make, well in advance of the next election: will you support a populist agenda, or will you ally yourselves with the kinds of policies and interests that gave “Mayor 1 percent” his name and reputation?

The electoral future of Democrats everywhere may rest on the answer to that question.

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