He has imposed a nearly $2 billion avalanche of tax increases to solve a pension crisis his predecessor left behind.
He’s caught in a vice between police reform advocates demanding a say in a consent decree outlining federal court oversight of the Chicago Police Department and police officers who accuse him of “turning his back” on them at a time when he needs those officers to fight violent crime aggressively.
African-American voters who elected him in 2011, then re-elected him even after he closed a record 50 public schools, are unlikely to trust him again after his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
And the trial of Jason Van Dyke, the white Chicago Police officer accused of firing the 16 shots that killed the 17-year-old McDonald is likely to be held in the run-up to the mayoral election now just nine months away.
To say Rahm Emanuel is fighting for his political life would be an understatement.
Nine challengers have lined up to run against him, and one or two others are rumored to be poised to jump into that crowded pool.
The political deck appears to be so stacked against Emanuel, some political observers wonder why he’s running and whether he will finish first, second or even third.
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Victor Reyes, a former Daley political operative who ran the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization at the center of the city hiring scandal, sees Emanuel as a lock to make the runoff.
But, Reyes said, Emanuel must get more than 40 percent of the vote in Round One to avoid “looking like a damaged candidate.”
“Otherwise, 60 percent of the electorate chose somebody other than Rahm. It becomes very difficult” to survive, Reyes said.
To go into the runoff with the wind at his back, Reyes said Emanuel needs more than 50 percent of the white vote, 40 percent of the Latino vote and 35 percent of the black vote.
The more Latino votes he gets, the more black votes he can stand to lose.
“It’s very tough. It’ll be his hardest election. His path is narrow. But I think he’ll get it,” Reyes said.
“His fundraising advantage is No. 1. Incumbency is No. 2. And no Latino in the race is No. 3 . . . They don’t have money. They don’t have name recognition. It’s a younger community. And there’s not a lot of unity.”
In the 2015 runoff against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia — now a candidate for Congress — Emanuel managed to get just more than 64 percent of the white vote, 57.3 percent of the black vote and 39 percent among Hispanics.
This time, Emanuel’s political base is harder to define.
The mayor’s camp claims he still enjoys strong support among older African-American voters, particularly older black women who tend to vote at higher rates.
Despite the tax crunch, Emanuel’s internal polling shows he remains popular among older North Side whites, especially those who supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump.
And Emanuel allies argue that the mayor has “great growth potential” among Hispanics.
That explains why he has courted them heavily: with his running battle against President Donald Trump’s threat to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities; his creation of a $1.3 million Legal Defense Fund to assist immigrants threatened with deportation, and with a controversial municipal identification program.
“On some of the issues that are particular to the Latino community, he has stood up and stepped forward and actually taken a leadership role across the country — not just across the city,” said Ald. Danny Solis (25th), Zoning Committee chairman and one of the mayor’s closest City Council allies.
Assuming Emanuel already has punched his ticket to the runoff, the mayor’s camp is counting on a heated Round One competition among the challengers that will “make Game of Thrones look like a Renaissance fair.”
David Axelrod is the mayor’s friend of 30 years who worked together with Emanuel in the Obama White House. He was also a political architect of several of Richard M. Daley’s mayoral elections and Harold Washington’s 1983 upset.
Axelrod refused to say which of the mayoral challengers he views as Emanuel’s greatest threat.
“The real question is, who can perform well out there? Who can raise the money? Who can build the organization? They’re all unproven commodities. There’s no one who you would say, ‘Based on past performance, they’re the ones who can do this,'” Axelrod said.
“As a concept, Lori Lightfoot is an attractive candidate. She could turn out to be the greatest candidate ever. But who could say that now? She doesn’t start with a base of support. There are other African-American candidates. Paul Vallas is a formidable person. But he hasn’t proven himself to be a great electoral politician. He’s kind of a shambling candidate . . . Rahm does have support in the African-American community. But that support would be much larger if, say, Garry McCarthy were the [runoff] opponent.”
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said he considers Emanuel the “person to beat” even though there are alligators everywhere he turns.
“Laquan [McDonald] was an extremely volatile and sensitive issue. It still has people feeling a certain type of way. But you have to balance that with the improvements that are being made throughout the city,” Sawyer said.
“His base is gonna have to be spread around . . . It might not be a color base. It might not be an ethic base. It may be a base of like-minded individuals who think he’s doing a good job overall.”
Sawyer said the strongest card Emanuel has to play is his financial stewardship of a city brought back from the brink.
“Like it or not, the city was in a bad financial situation several years ago. We did have to do some things that were distasteful. But it worked. It helped put us on better financial footing,” Sawyer said.
“What the opponents are gonna have to do is say that those things were done in the wrong way. And they have to have a solution on what we should do going forward.”
Although Emanuel is raising money at a frenzied pace and positioning himself to run for re-election, he has not yet formally declared his candidacy for a third-term.
“Until someone says that they’re running there’s always a chance they may not,” Axelrod said.
“I don’t think he’s under any pressure to decide that today, tomorrow or in the next few weeks as long as he does the things that preserve the option, such as raising the money. My counsel to him would be, there’s no rush on this. Take a gut check at the appropriate time and make sure this is what you want to do.”
The trial of Van Dyke is an ill-timed political wild card beyond Emanuel’s control.
Still, Axelrod says he would be “shocked” if his friend decides not to ask Chicago voters to give him a third chance — and get it.
“It’s always easy to say to a friend, `Why don’t you put your feet up?’ But he’s not a guy who likes to put his feet up. He loves this job. And he feels he’s good at it . . . and he honestly can’t think of anything else that he’d rather do more,” Axelrod said.
“He rubs some people the wrong way . . . That’s his challenge. But if he’s re-elected, it’s because he can hack it . . . That’s the reason he won last time. It wasn’t because people loved him . . . It was because they understood that he was strong enough and tough enough and able enough to handle what is a really, really hard job.”