by Todd M. Freimuth, Alex V. Hernandez and Chris Zois
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia made history Tuesday, forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel into the city’s first ever runoff election for mayor.
“Nobody thought we’d be here tonight. They wrote us off, said we didn’t have a chance; said we didn’t have any money while they spent millions attacking us. Well, we’re still standing…we’re still running and we’re going to win,” Garcia told supporters.
Garcia’s supporters filled up the Alhambra Palace restaurant on Tuesday night ahead of the runoff announcement, anxiously watching the poll numbers come in on the big screen televisions scattered around the venue.
“There are some interesting things happening tonight,” said Marty Castro, president of Castro Synergies, LLC and a long time supporter of Garcia, said of the evening’s precinct results.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has raised about $30 million since leaving his post as the White House’s chief of staff to run in the 2011 mayoral election. Of that amount, $15 million was raised specifically for the election on Tuesday. Using that sizable financial advantage the incumbent mayor was able to spend about $1 million on television ads during the final week of the campaign and funnel about $2 million from his Super PAC to attack his City Council opponents in their races. All this money was used to project a carefully crafted image of invincibility by the Emanuel campaign.
To contrast, Garcia was only able to afford to start running TV ads until less than two weeks before the election and instead relied on radio “get-out-the-vote” ads, solidifying his support from Hispanic voters and hosting handshaking events across the city.
“I feel like he has it in the bag. He’s an excellent mayor and I don’t think the competition is anywhere near on Rahm’s level. I think he has it,” said Jose Mendiola, 21, before the final results came in. He was one of the many supporters at the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Union Hall expecting the mayor to come on stage and declare victory that night.
Except, he didn’t. To avoid an April 7 runoff election the mayor needed to get over 50 percent of the vote. And once 98 percent of precincts reported in Emanuel had a little more than 45 percent of the vote while Garcia was able to snag about 34 percent. Chicago election officials said this year’s turnout was 34 percent, just one point above the record low in 2007 when former Mayor Richard M. Daley won his sixth and final term in office.
“We have come a long way and we have a little bit further to go. This is the first step in a real important journey in our city,” a hoarse, humbled Emanuel told his supporters on Tuesday. “For those who voted for someone else, I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come.”
At this point an audience member began chanting “boo” at the mention of Garcia’s name, which Emanuel was quick to stop.
“No. No. No. He’s a good man, and I look forward to a debate on the issues in the weeks ahead so we can be clear about the choice for the city of Chicago’s future,” said the mayor.
On Wednesday the two mayoral candidates were back at it, with Emanuel busy shaking hands with voters at the 95th Street Red Line stop while Garcia was doing the same at the Merchandise Mart Brown Line stop.
While the runoff embarrassed Emanuel, the fact he was only about five points shy of winning outright on Tuesday means it’s still his race to lose.
“Now you have a one-on-one race and the mayor needs a few more points. I’m confident he’s going to get those,” said David Axelrod, former top political advisor for Obama, at Emanuel’s event Tuesday. “It’s easier in a one-on-one race because the choices are clearer and people understand that this is not a dress rehearsal, one of these guys are going to be the next mayor of Chicago.”
To win the mayor will need do more to win over the Hispanic vote, as endorsements from U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, City Clerk Susana Mendoza and his 2011 rival for mayor Gery Chico couldn’t crack Garcia’s hold on the city’s wards with large Hispanic populations. The one-on-one nature of the runoff race also means that Emanuel won’t be able to so easily dodge questions about his closure of 50 Chicago Public Schools in 2013, the fact that shootings were on the rise even though crime was down in 2014, and that many Chicagoans see the mayor as focusing too much on improving the Loop to the detriment of the rest of the city.
As for Garcia, he needs to bring his progressive platforms and underdog story to voters outside his Latino base if he expects to take over the fifth floor office at City Hall after April. This means making stronger inroads among Black and White voters critical of Emanuel, to whom he’s still a relative unknown. And Garcia, a former alderman and state lawmaker, will also need to prove he’s qualified to take on the education, violent crime and pension problems a city the size of Chicago has.