Zelda Galewsky

On April 7, incumbent Rahm Emanuel soundly defeated Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in a runoff election to determine who would serve as the next mayor of Chicago. However, a quick look at Rahm’s margin of victory—56.2 percent to 43.8 percent—does little to explain how Chuy, a previously under-the-radar member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, became an overnight political icon, or what the fragmented initial turnout that forced the runoff reveals about the type of policy and civic leadership Chicagoans demand from the mayor’s office. Several leaders and affiliates of South Side religious organizations—who understand how voter sentiment broke down beyond the numbers—often expressed dissatisfaction with City Hall, but held diverse opinions as to whether Emanuel is at fault for neighborhood problems.

In the weeks leading up to the runoff, the election was thrust into the national spotlight, as local and national pundits cast Emanuel as a golden boy of big banks on the verge of becoming unelectable because of his own belligerence, perhaps best embodied by his alleged “Fuck you, Lewis!” to the Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in 2011. In contrast, Garcia was cast as the underdog, who, while only pushed into candidacy by way of Lewis’ diagnosis with brain cancer late last year, would represent immigrants, union members, opponents of red-light cameras, and others in a broad coalition.

However, neither these representations of the candidates nor traditionally important factors like union affiliation and ethnicity—save strong support for Garcia in the Latino community—proved decisive at the polls. Nor, in all likelihood, did the candidates’ stances on one of the most important issues facing the city: its budget.  Neither candidate produced a clear plan to address Chicago’s over $35 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and other debt, largely a combination of a budget shortfall within Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and underfunded benefit plans for retired city employees. As reported by the Tribune, Emanuel intends to lobby for increased financial support from Springfield and roll out plans for a city casino—also to be approved by Springfield—in order to shore up Chicago’s finances.

However, Woodlawn pastor Alton Burns is not buying it. Burns is the pastor of the New Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, a small congregation of less than 200 nestled at the intersection of 67th and Cottage Grove. He sees the potential plan to establish a casino as an example of vice profiteering that would harm South Side communities.

“If you get someone who is likely to become addicted to gambling, and that person has a family, you have two sets of problems. That person goes to the casino, their child doesn’t have food or clothes, and the child turns to sticking someone up,” Burns said. “It seems to me like [the city government] is more concerned with finding a way to raise funds than with treating the community as an asset.”

While he refused to disclose which candidate he supported, and emphasized that he did not promote either Emanuel or Chuy to his congregation, Burns suggested that Rahm’s tenure, while successful in reducing crime overall, has been marked by a routine failure to recognize the difference between the intent of local government policy and the outcomes that it produces.

“I supported Emanuel early on, because there were a whole lot of positive things that he said he was going to do,” he said. “He said he was going to improve the schools and reduce crime, but shutting down schools [during the 2013 CPS closures] has forced a lot of kids to cross gang lines just to get to school, where gangbangers ask them to join every morning. In the same way, the new city bike lanes cut traffic flow down to one lane, which has caused more traffic, more accidents, and more worry about people losing their jobs.”

While Burns expressed disillusionment with four years of Rahm in office while withholding support for any candidate in particular, at least one clergyman from Chuy’s home neighborhood of Little Village went on the record as decidedly pro-Garcia. Ramiro Rodriguez, Pastor of the Amor de Dios Church in South Lawndale, said that he supported Chuy because he was the only candidate that advocated for the unconditional legalization of undocumented immigrants, whom he said constitute “many of [his] Church members.”

“We supported Chuy because he wanted what we wanted, which is to be legal,” Rodriguez said. “Our people are good and decent people, who only want jobs and houses to raise their families. But that is only possible if they are given [amnesty].” He added that if the city does not grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants, he believes Little Village will become impoverished to the point of desperation.

“If Rahm does not do [unconditional amnesty], we will only see our community get poorer. In the states of Mexico where many of our people are from, the killing has gotten even more messed up, and they definitely can’t go back at the moment,” he said. “They are asking, screaming, ‘We want a future!’ They work and they pray to God, but they don’t know who will help them. They don’t want to be against the police or the mayor, but they have families to take care of, both here and in Mexico, and they need employment.”

Like Burns, Rodriguez said that he is not necessarily anti-Rahm, but takes issue with his seeming ignorance of the needs of particular communities.

“We can support Rahm Emanuel, too—we can be on his side. But he has to show that he is on our side,” he said.

However, other neighborhoods with a high percentage of immigrant residents did not turn out in droves for Chuy. The 11th Ward, which includes Chinatown, was a Rahm stronghold in the runoff, as 61.4 percent of residents voted for Emanuel. Anthony Chan, the English Congregation Administrative Assistant at the Chinese Christian Union Church in Bridgeport, said that political debate was largely absent from his congregation in the weeks leading up to the runoff.

“Our church was not passionate about the election, and our congregation is pretty much detached from city politics. I’m not saying that city politics doesn’t affect the congregants, but a lot of immigrant Chinese are more concerned with affairs in their own neighborhood. Also, a lot of people who go to our church are from the far suburbs, and do not actually live in Chicago,” Chan said.

He added that he personally supported Emanuel because he thought he presented a more cogent plan to remedy the city’s finances. However, he, like Burns, expressed little confidence in the propositions that a city casino or the hope of more help from Springfield in the form of an increased sales tax and other measures would do much to address budget shortfalls in education and public pensions.

“I felt as though Rahm had better initiatives for shoring up the city budget, mostly because Chuy really had not flipped his hand in any way regarding what he planned to do,” he said. “But the casino, if it does work as a fundraising effort, will not take effect for many years, and gambling may have a negative effect on residents. An increased sales tax may also have the effect of making Chicago less appealing for businesses—both of those ideas are real unknowns.”

While Burns, Rodriguez, and Chan all suggested that the mayoral office itself has a tangible impact on South Side communities, David Pendleton, director of the Door of Hope Rescue Mission in Washington Park, had more doubts about whether either Rahm or Chuy could make a substantial difference for homeless Chicagoans. Pendleton, who described his organization as a “Christian based shelter and support program” for homeless men over the age of twenty-five, said he has had an unsatisfactory working relationship with the Mayor’s office since he began working at the Mission ten years ago.

“We used to do a yearly breakfast with the Mayor’s office, which was free, and then they started charging us for it. My response was, ‘Really?’ [But] you really can’t fault the mayor, because he is just one person on a fifty-seat City Council,” Pendleton said.

He added that he has received more institutional support from other arms of state and local government.

“I don’t really see [the mayor] as necessary. The HUD [Illinois Housing and Urban Development Office] has a lot more to do with our operation than the mayor ever will. Everything I ask for from the aldermen—which isn’t much—I get. The state Representative shows his interest in [the Mission] as well,” he said.

Pendleton said the treatment of the Chicago’s homeless population should depend on the humanity of individuals, as opposed to the public policy of Rahm Emanuel.

“There is a serious problem of residents and local police kicking homeless people out of public parks, or taking down their tents—more so on the North Side, but here as well,” he said. “All citizens should be outraged about these abuses. In the meantime, our doors are open and our beds are full.”

In the aftermath of the historic runoff, it’s clear that the election raised questions not just about the differences between Rahm and Chuy but about the fundamental relationships between citizen and state, and relations among citizens.  In the coming months, Emanuel will need to address a mountain of municipal debt through some kind of fiscal hocus pocus. It’s uncertain whether Rahm can instill local communities with faith in public policy and confidence in his office’s capacity to address deep-seated social issues. But he’s likely praying that he’ll be able to.

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