Why is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a neck-and-neck runoff for re-election? He enjoys national press attention, advertises the endorsement of hometown favorite President Barack Obama, brandishes a $30 million-plus campaign war chest, largely funded by 100 or so major donors, and mobilizes wall-to-wall advertising and a professional campaign team. Yet he has not only been forced into a run-off, but also polls show him still unable to win majority support.
Like any Chicago mayor, Emanuel gets his share of brickbats and insults. He’s said to be insulting and profane, but Chicago prides itself on its feisty politicians. He’s tied to downtown interests, but, with the exception of Harold Washington, that has ever been true.
The reason Emanuel is in trouble is a widespread loss of faith across the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods. Faith, the Bible tells us, is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is what sustains hope in political leaders even when times are bad. Faith is what makes voters believe that a leader feels their pain, even if he or she does not live in their neighborhoods.
And in large numbers, working families in Chicago, particularly those struggling with low-wage jobs that provide no benefits and little security, have lost faith in the man now dubbed the mayor of the 1 percent. What is hoped for and unseen is any plan for neighborhood redevelopment. What is hoped for and unseen is any indication of a strategy for building the economy from the bottom up.
As mayor, Emanuel has focused resources downtown, not on neighborhoods in need. The lights are bright downtown, but the poor neighborhoods live in the shadows. Emanuel shut down 50 neighborhood schools with no community consultations. He waged war on teachers, privatized janitorial services and too often scorned public employees. Public housing has been shuttered even as private homes are foreclosed. When the schools close, neighborhoods lose resources and hope. Drug stores close; grocery stores close.
The downtown thrives while the neighborhoods continue to decline. As a 2013 study by the Grassroots Collaborative showed, only one out of four of the jobs created downtown goes to a Chicagoan. And those few go primarily to residents in majority white neighborhoods, not black or Latino neighborhoods. Massive subsidies don’t begin to touch the people most in need of them.
And as a Chicago Sun-Times report revealed, whites continue to hold a disproportionate number of the highest paying jobs in the administration, particularly those that the mayor controls himself. When the highest paid aides closest to the mayor are white, no matter how dedicated, the concerns of impoverished black and Latino neighborhoods are not likely to get priority.
Like any good politician, the mayor has reacted as his polls plummeted and his re-election stopped being a sure thing, pushing through an increase in the minimum wage. He’s also worked to extend pre-K and offer two years of community college tuition free to qualified high school graduates. He’s now touting his Neighborhoods Now program as a development program for seven neighborhoods, but as WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio exposed, the fund is a hodgepodge of private and public projects. In fact, one-fourth of the public money is focused on projects around McCormick Park Convention center, including two hotels and a big stadium for DePaul — hardly a program for neighborhood reconstruction.
Rahm’s challenger, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has an underfunded campaign but a rich message. He has the experience to deal with Chicago’s budget challenges, but he has the commitment to focus on urban reconstruction, on rebuilding neighborhoods, on putting the young to work. Against the odds, he has run a campaign that will take this race down to the wire.
When people lose faith, they lose hope. Sadly, they too often give up on politics. They see no difference between candidates, no reason to vote. The struggle to survive is hard enough. Usually an incumbent can win re-election with the confidence that many of those who have been abandoned won’t even show up. What is stunning about the rise of challenger Chuy Garcia is the movement behind him — citizens, teachers, organizers, union members, churchgoers unwilling to succumb to despair, unwilling to assume that nothing can change. That is the real story of the Chicago race. Whatever happens in the April runoff, that movement has given people a reason to believe once more.