Our Pledge To You

News

Former Obama adviser, political reporter David Axelrod handicaps race for mayor

Keep your eye on Amara Enyia, an “impressive” candidate with the power to excite notoriously-indifferent millennials.

Susana Mendoza is a formidable candidate, but she may not overcome a petition challenge.

Toni Preckwinkle’s union endorsements make her a powerhouse. But she has “base problems” and temperament troubles.

Bill Daley has “base issues,” too.

Welcome to a handicapping of the Chicago mayoral sweepstakes, courtesy of David Axelrod.

The former Obama presidential adviser, now director and co-founder of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, sat down with the Chicago Sun-Times to discuss the wide-open race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

A CNN commentor, Axelrod said he “got out of the prediction business” after he was blindsided by the election of President Donald Trump.

But if he had to predict who would make the runoff, it would likely be Preckwinkle and Mendoza, provided Mendoza can survive a “serious challenge” to her nominating petitions.

Preckwinkle has a base diminished by the black exodus from Chicago. But she has also has “competition from within that base,” he said.

“Willie Wilson will get votes. Lori Lightfoot will get votes. Amara Enyia, if she’s on the ballot, is a very bright, engaged person. And as you look around the country, these young women of color have emerged as stars in various venues. I would watch her as a factor in this race,” Axelrod said.

Amara Enyia

Mayoral candidate Amara Enyia speaks at a City Hall press conference in October after Chance The Rapper endorsed her. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“If you’re Preckwinkle, you have to look over your shoulder and not assume that you have an undivided base. What she does have that is not to be discounted is the endorsement of the Chicago Teachers Union, the endorsement of the SEIU, probably the two most powerful political forces in labor in the city. That is no small advantage.”

As a resident of Chicago, Axelrod said he can only hope the next mayor of Chicago is “someone who can govern the city.”

Preckwinkle sure falls into that category, having spent 19 years in the City Council and eight years as county board president.

Still, Axelrod said he can’t understand why Preckwinkle even wants the job.

“There are clearly parts of it that she doesn’t love. And part of it is dealing with people like you” in the media, Axelrod said.

Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle thanks SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana and the Chicago Teachers Union for their endorsements Thursday in her campaign for mayor. | Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

“The County Board presidency is sort of like a sleepy outpost. When you’re mayor, there’s a room full of people whose job it is to keep an eye on you throughout. You’re asked to comment on everything. You can’t duck anything. And she’s not particularly good at hiding her displeasure. That irascibility is something that can plague her in the campaign. And it can bedevil as mayor, if she gets elected.”

Axelrod was asked whether he believes celebrity endorsements from Chance the Rapper and Kanye West will excite millennials who flexed their political muscle in November.

“The history of mayoral races is that it hasn’t engaged young people in the city. That would be a challenge for her,” he said.

RELATED: Axelrod reminisces on covering mayors Byrne, Washington

“Where she could benefit is from televised debates. [But] when you have a field so large, it’s difficult for anyone to really rise up in debates. Trump did it. But he did it sort of in conjunction with a full-court blitz of other media.”

Axelrod served as the political strategist for six of Richard M. Daley’s mayoral campaigns. He “likes and respects” Bill Daley and considers him a longtime friend.

“He’s got a name that is a blessing and a curse. It gets him in the game. But he bears the burden of a long-term legacy that is positive, but also the sense of dynasty that trails him,” Axelrod said.

William Daley (left) with former Mayor Richard M. Daley shared a laugh as they waited for the start of the Chicago White Sox opening-day game in April against the Cleveland Indians at U.S. Cellular Field.

Bill Daley (left) with former Mayor Richard M. Daley shared a laugh as they waited for the start of the Chicago White Sox opening-day game in April 2016. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Axelrod said he’s not surprised that Daley has taken an overwhelming lead in the fundraising sweepstakes, with $2.7 million and counting. Gery Chico is second at $1.54 million after a $400,000 money drop late Friday.

“There are a lot of people in the business community who trust him,” Axelrod said of Daley.

Still, Daley has “base issues,” with Garry McCarthy and Paul Vallas certain to carve into Daley’s votes in predominantly-white Southwest and Northwest Side wards dominated by police officers, firefighters and other city workers.

Axelrod said Daley’s overriding challenge is to convince Chicago voters his administration would be a break from the corruption scandals, contract cronyism and financial mismanagement that plagued his brother’s administration.

“He’s a very competent guy. A very experienced guy. He clearly knows the city and loves the city. But whether people see Daley as the future — that’s what he has to address,” he said.

“And he has to convince people … that he’ll be committed to the revitalization of neighborhoods because there is a concern in some neighborhoods about too much of a focus on downtown.”

As for Emanuel, Axelrod’s longtime friend and colleague in the Obama White House, Axelrod said he “did the right thing” by calling it quits.

Axelrod believes that Emanuel would have been re-elected, in spite of his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video and the $2 billion avalanche of tax increases that have only begun to solve the pension crisis. But, it would have been a bloody battle that would have made it difficult for him to govern, particularly because Emanuel would have been a lame duck going into a third-term.

“He’ll be remembered more fondly because of the way he’s leaving. And that was one of the advantages of leaving, as you say, on his own steam. People can look more objectively at his legacy,” Axelrod said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, joined by his wife, Amy Rule, at his announcement in September that he would not seek re-election. | Rahul Parikh/Sun-Times

If Emanuel serves again in public office, it will likely be in a cabinet position — not in a campaign for the U.S. Senate if incumbent Dick Durbin calls it quits, Axelrod said.

“Any mayor of Chicago would have difficulties running statewide because there are these traditional resistances to mayors,” Axelrod said.

“Ed Koch was a popular mayor of New York. Ran for governor of New York. Mario Cuomo was a very distant second when that race started. And he beat Koch in a primary. Why? Because people around the rest of the state didn’t want a mayor with that much power.”