Ousted Chicago Public School Principal Troy LaRaviere was the first to dip his toe in the troubled political waters surrounding Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but he won’t be the last.
One year to the day before mayoral candidates start circulating nominating petitions, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering has begun to determine who will challenge Emanuel, assuming he seeks a third term.
That is not a given.
Emanuel is positioning himself to run. He’s telling his political team to get ready while continuing his frenzied attempt to rehabilitate a public image that took a beating after the court-ordered release of video showing a Chicago Police officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald.
But he has not made a final decision on whether his polling numbers have rebounded enough to risk facing an angry electorate openly hostile to incumbents.
“He loves the job. But he’s also smart enough to see all sorts of issues out there,” said a mayoral confidante, who asked to that their name not be used.
“He can’t be thinking that the stars line up wonderfully for him. He knows he’d have a devil of a time getting re-elected.”
Another Emanuel adviser said: “While I’m sure the mayor and his wife, Amy, and their family will sit down at the appropriate time to make a final decision, he has made it clear to those of us close to him to get ready.”
Emanuel points with pride to the progress he has made in solving the financial mess left behind by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
But Chicago’s nagging homicide rate and the $1.2 billion avalanche of tax increases imposed to help solve the pension crisis — with more on the horizon for the Chicago Public Schools and city pensions — will be political fodder used against him. So will the mayor’s attempt to avoid federal court oversight of the Chicago Police Department.
Emanuel survived Chicago’s first mayoral runoff only after spending $24 million to defeat County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a relative political unknown. He now has just $1.6 million in the bank.
In spite of the storm clouds hanging over Emanuel, a mayoral ally notes that, “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Here’s an early rundown of potential somebodies:
JESUS “CHUY” GARCIA: He lost the runoff by 73,609 votes after getting a late start as a stand-in for Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and being outspent by a 4-to-1 ratio. This time, Garcia hopes to get a running start with a final decision this fall. He has blasted Emanuel on everything from taxes, schools and crime to his handling of the McDonald video. Emanuel allies question whether voters who concluded last time that Garcia wasn’t up to solving Chicago’s financial crisis would make a different decision this time.
SHERIFF TOM DART: He’s the Hamlet of Chicago politics. That’s how many times Dart has flirted with running for mayor, only to pull the plug. Now, he’s talking about running again. Emanuel allies note that Dart “either can’t or doesn’t like to raise money.” They also point out that “jails are messy places” and that there are certain to be political skeletons buried there for Dart, who has long cultivated an otherwise favorable public image.
COUNTY COMMISSIONER BRIDGET GAINER: She’s made no secret of her desire to be mayor someday. But challenging Emanuel would seem to go against her DNA and deep roots in the Democratic Organization and 19th Ward clan of James “Skinny” Sheahan. Gainer held the top job in the Chicago Park District under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, then had the clout to win appointment to fill Mike Quigley’s county board seat. Tough, smart and politically ambitious. A race against suddenly vulnerable County Board President Toni Preckwinkle might make more sense.
POLICE BOARD PRESIDENT LORI LIGHTFOOT: Nobody has held Emanuel’s feet to the fire more on police issues. Lightfoot overhauled a Police Board with a history of reversing the police superintendent’s recommendations. She also co-authored a scathing report that forced Emanuel to abolish the Independent Police Review Authority and laid the groundwork for a similar investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. She branded the memorandum of agreement that Emanuel drafted to avoid federal court oversight “fundamentally flawed.” Her frequent clashes with Emanuel have fueled speculation of a mayoral run. But after campaigning for and winning re-appointment, mayoral allies believe her window of opportunity has closed.
ATTORNEY GENERAL LISA MADIGAN: She blindsided City Hall by demanding that Emanuel honor his promise to seek federal court oversight of the police department, fueling speculation about a mayoral run — even if she wins a fifth term as attorney general. But this is not a great time to be the daughter of House Speaker Mike Madigan, who shared the blame for a marathon state budget stalemate that ended with a massive tax increase. Still, Lisa Madigan has built a solid reputation in her own right. She’s also boxed in by her father’s refusal to quit.
ALD. AMEYA PAWAR (47th): His populist campaign for governor could be a prelude to a 2019 race for mayor. Young, gutsy and smart, Pawar knows city issues after two terms on the City Council. He led the drive for tax increment financing reform, mandatory sick days and a Council budget analyst; he even pushed to cut the Council in half. Pawar can’t be underestimated; he won his first term in an upset against a candidate handpicked by retiring Ald. Eugene Schulter. Pawar then won re-election in 2015 with 83 percent of the vote.
CITY TREASURER KURT SUMMERS: He’s been measuring the drapes in Emanuel’s fifth-floor office from the moment the mayor appointed him to replace retiring City Treasurer Stephanie Neely. That insider appointment by Emanuel is a major liability for Summers, grandson of Sam Patch, one of beloved former Mayor Harold Washington’s closest friends. Summers flirted with a run for governor before throwing support behind billionaire J.B. Pritzker, though Pritzker is unlikely to return the favor if Summers challenges Emanuel. Michael Sacks, the mayor’s biggest campaign contributor, is also a former boss and backer of Summers.
GARRY MCCARTHY: The former police superintendent has been on the warpath ever since Emanuel fired him for becoming a “distraction” after the McDonald video was released. McCarthy could make hay with the surge in homicides and shootings and what he calls Emanuel’s “illegitimate” end-run around the Police Board’s nationwide search for his replacement. But McCarthy, a former New York City deputy and Newark police chief, would be vulnerable in a campaign with police reform as a central issue. Thin-skinned McCarthy has also acknowledged politics is “not in my DNA,” saying he’s “not very good at that.”
STATE’S ATTORNEY KIM FOXX: On the night she scored her landslide victory over incumbent Anita Alvarez, the crowd chanted: “Two down. One to go.” The “two down” were Alvarez and McCarthy. The “one to go” was Emanuel, who had kept the McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year, releasing it only when a court ordered him to. Now that her patron Preckwinkle has been weakened politically, neophyte Foxx may lack the muscle to defeat Emanuel. She also lacks experience to confront formidable city issues.
COUNTY COMMISSIONER RICHARD BOYKIN: He’s making noises about challenging Preckwinkle, but a mayoral campaign can’t be ruled out. Boykin’s political patron, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., has worked closely with Emanuel since endorsing Garcia in 2015. Boykin remains relatively unknown citywide and, like Garcia, might have trouble convincing Chicago voters that he has the stuff to confront the city’s unrelenting financial challenges.
STATE SEN. KWAME RAOUL: Took a pass on 2015 mayoral race, declaring that he wasn’t ready. “There have been people who have run campaigns who were ill-prepared for the job or the campaign. I’m never going to put myself in that position just to satisfy people who are disenchanted with an incumbent or just want to see a race. It’s got to be something I’ve studied and prepared for,” he said then. Four years later, Raoul just might be ready to take the plunge even though he worked closely with the mayor to get stiffer sentences for repeat gun offenders.
GERY CHICO: He has experience at all levels of government and is a strong fundraiser. Chico ran an energetic, ideas-filled campaign against Emanuel in 2011 that attracted major unions and nearly forced a runoff. Since then, Chico appears to have made his peace with Emanuel and even endorsed the mayor for re-election in 2015.
VALERIE JARRETT: BFF of Barack and Michelle Obama, Jarrett clashed repeatedly with Emanuel during his time as White House chief of staff. Jarrett also is writing a book, often a prelude to political campaign. Also has access to big money. But that U.S. Senate race she’s eyed for years seems like a better fit. Her local track record — as Daley’s planning commissioner and CTA board chair — shows she has trouble working with others. It’s also tough to imagine Obama taking sides in a Jarrett vs. Emanuel race.
OTHER POSSIBLE CHALLENGERS: Aldermen Patrick Daley Thompson (11th); Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of City Council’s Black Caucus; Scott Waguespack (32nd), chairman of Progressive Caucus; and Brendan Reilly (42nd). All four have been forced to take difficult votes to raise taxes. Thompson would have baggage from problems and scandals during the mayoral tenure of his uncle, Richard M. Daley.