The Runoff

Disrupting the traditional narrative of Chicago mayoral elections

Running through the heart of Chicago’s political debate is an angry river, well-worn and deepened throughout its modern history. On one side of that seemingly eternal divide stands a white politician primarily committed to economic growth, one who downplays the political importance of race and typically ends up enacting policies directed toward attracting the college graduates and businesses that populate a vibrant and successful Loop. On the other is the minority politician who points out the gross inequities associated with those policy priorities and instead calls for safer streets, open schools, and an economic strategy that is geared toward neighborhood growth.

This divide appears to only have been exacerbated by the first round of 2015’s election, with Rahm Emanuel and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia occupying comfortable roles within that dichotomy. Over the past months, a pale enmity in both campaigns has dripped through every public statement, every radio advertisement, and every mailer.

Garcia, now the standard-bearer for a movement of Chicagoans deeply distrustful of the mayor’s claims that he has improved lives over the past four years, has embraced the notion that Emanuel’s administration embodies the worst of corporate excess that makes victims of ordinary Chicagoans. That campaign theme was front and center on Election Night. Acceptance speeches often function as bromides thanking volunteers and supportive family members, but unlike fellow candidate Bob Fioretti, who lovingly acknowledged that his wife Nicky has always been by his side, Garcia was far keener in going straight for the jugular.

“Today, we the people have spoken, not the people with the money and the power and the connections,” he proclaimed. “They’ve had their say for too long.” Armed with a laundry list of Rahm Emanuel’s transgressions, he made it clear that this was to be a referendum on Chicago’s recent past. “It’s wrong for the mayor to cut our police, then use the money to give corporations one hundred million dollars in tax breaks. It’s wrong for the mayor to cut our neighborhood schools.”

For their part, Garcia’s critics, Emanuel foremost among them, have also been determined to cast a stormy cloud over this election season. A week before the election, super PAC Chicago Forward blanketed the city with television ads condemning Garcia’s vote for “the largest property tax in Chicago history,” concluding on an ominous note: “Chuy Garcia. Out for himself. Not us.” Before that, columnists at the Sun-Times gleefully pondered the ethical ramifications of an extraordinarily well-timed exposé of Garcia’s sponsorship of a lucrative county contract for a law firm that represented his son pro bono. Mary Mitchell, a prominent Sun-Times editorial board member, opined: “The legal services were free [for Samuel Garcia], making the arrangement look like old-school Chicago politics.”

The upcoming runoff election is not about to be defined by a belated conversion to positive politics, and both men are expected to continue with the same broad strategies that led them to this present moment. Emanuel’s campaign was based on huge spending for television, radio, and mail advertising, as well as high-profile endorsements. Emanuel has already bought $591,395 worth of television time since the start of the runoff race, and he has given no indication that he is going to deviate from his public election routine of greeting members of the public at “L” stops each morning and seniors on a few afternoons.

Because of the sheer surprise that comes with pushing as well-known a political figure as Rahm Emanuel into a runoff, national attention for Garcia’s campaign has never been higher. He has used this bully pulpit to pour further scorn on Mayor Emanuel. During a recent interview with MSNBC, his very first words to a national audience were to insist that Emanuel had failed Chicago. He has since increased the intensity of his attacks on the mayor, coming close to describing his mayoralty as being founded on evil intentions.

“Discrimination [is] business as usual for the Emanuel Administration,” he said in a press release about recent CPS school board actions. “Emanuel has gone to the wall to defend a wealthy venture capitalist…while he’s defending discrimination against working mothers.”

Based on first-round election results, each candidate has a core constituency based along racial and income lines. Emanuel’s strongest showing during the first round of the election came in largely white precincts by the lakefront north of Navy Pier, and he triumphed in census tracts with a median household income of over $60,000 by seventeen percentage points. Conversely, Garcia’s strongest areas are very strongly correlated with the number of Latino residents; he won fifty-six percent of the vote in Hispanic-majority census tracts.

Broadly speaking, there are two constituencies that will go a long way in deciding this election. One has been consistently picked up by election prognosticators, who believe that the thirty-four percent of South and West Side African-American voters who collectively voted for Willie Wilson and William “Dock” Walls will be key in deciding who becomes mayor. Aaron Renn, an urban affairs analyst who frequently writes about Chicago’s politics, lays out Garcia’s challenge among black voters succinctly: “Unless [Garcia] makes inroads in the city’s black sections, where Emanuel captured a first-round plurality, he won’t win.”

The scale of the task that Garcia faces cannot be underestimated. Of the twenty wards in which Garcia did the worst, seventeen are majority African-American. He received a smaller percentage of the vote in wards like those centered on Roseland and Austin than in white and conservative ones like Norwood Park in the city’s far Northwest Side “Bungalow Belt.” Why black voters appeared unreceptive to Garcia’s appeal during the first round of the election is up for debate, but he will certainly have to diminish the mayor’s advantage among black voters if he is to emerge victorious on April 7.

However, apart from African-American voters, there is another constituency that is effectively unaffiliated with either campaign, and that betrays a potential weakness in the conventional calculus that white voters will turn out to vote for Mayor Emanuel.

Emanuel has very curiously neglected to address the political concerns of the young, well-educated, and mostly white constituency that has provided much of the city’s population and economic growth in the very recent past. Mostly concentrated along the Milwaukee Avenue stretch of the Blue Line, with growing South Side enclaves in places like Pilsen, these new arrivals have fueled the growth in Chicago’s college-going population. In 2000, a shade over twenty-five percent of the city’s population had at least a bachelor’s degree. As of 2008–2013, that proportion has grown to over thirty-four percent, far outstripping national growth in college graduation rates.

And still, even though they have been the first responders to the city’s burgeoning attractiveness, they have been almost entirely missing from recent political debate. Voter turnouts in the five wards that include and surround Wicker Park and Logan Square were the lowest among mainly white wards, all of them performing below the citywide average (which at about thirty-three percent was itself significantly lower than last election’s forty-two percent, although similar to previous elections). More detailed analysis must still be done at a precinct level to figure out the specific political activity of this growing segment of the city’s population, but it appears that neither campaign is doing much to appeal specifically to them. They are a constituency that is unlikely to be attracted by the promise of lower taxes and economic growth so beloved of Emanuel’s wealthy lakefront. By virtue of their age and the relative safety of their neighborhoods, neither are they likely to place a high priority on CPS graduation rates or better beat patrols.

But Garcia may have his own peculiar weaknesses beyond this: he has seen uneven success in attracting Latino support. According to analyses performed by Scott Kennedy at Illinois Election Data, some of the mayor’s biggest improvements from his 2011 performance came in overwhelmingly Latino parts of the city. Although his citywide vote share declined by almost ten percent from his 2011 baseline, there were eight wards in which he actually did better than in 2011. Latinos make up the majority racial group in six of those eight wards.

Most notably, Emanuel improved his vote share by fifteen percent in the 13th Ward, a part of the far Southwest Side containing the neighborhoods of West Lawn and Clearing that is almost three-quarters Latino. This suggests that Emanuel’s supposed weakness in far-flung communities disrupted by school closings and largely disconnected from the rhythms of the central city might potentially be overblown, and that Garcia cannot simply rely on Latino voters to carry him to the mayoralty.

With just over a month left in this runoff election, there is strong evidence that voters are in large part guided by unchangeable affiliations like geography, race, and income. This systematic interpretation is given greater credence thanks to Chicago’s stark segregation, where the effects of the mayor’s policies are felt very differently from neighborhood to neighborhood. As such, it is unclear how much vigorous campaigning actually matters in an electorate this static, as evidenced in the first round by polls showing that Garcia’s and Emanuel’s vote shares were virtually identical in December and February. Expect Chuy Latino loyalists to respond to Emanuel’s expensively produced ads with antipathy, while wealthier whites treat a potential Garcia mayoralty with fear.

But Chicagoans are unpredictable creatures in the voting booth, and there are still significant open questions left in this race. How far will voter turnout drop in a runoff election? Will there be a consistent trend in how black voters respond to both candidates? Are their respective bases truly locked up? Polls conducted after the first round of the election indicate that both candidates are effectively in a dead heat right now, with enough unpredictability to make definitive proclamations foolhardy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Politics