After Zephyr Teachout's underfunded progressive campaign held New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to a weak primary win, the left put Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on notice. The former congressman and former Obama administration chief of staff had alienated not just the left, but also voters who were unimpressed by his job performance and worried about raging gun crime. He'd never recovered support from the left after almost 50 school closures led to a teacher's strike. A summer 2014 poll found that Emanuel would trail Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. For progressives, New York had hosted the pro bowl; Chicago would host the super bowl.
Tragedy struck. Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and had to pass on the race. The main opposition to Emanuel became Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia. As in 2011, Emanuel's combination of luck and dinosauric fundraising had seemed to hold off a tough race. In the press and on the left, yesterday's election was greeted with a shrug and an expectation that Emanuel would pull it off and win more than 50 percent of the vote, avoiding a recount.
He didn't. As Bloomberg's Tim Jones and Elizabeth Campbell report, Emanuel underperformed across the city, winning just 45 percent of the vote to Garcia's 35 percent. The November election of Bruce Rauner, a friend and investor who'd helped make Emanuel rich, had come back to bite Chicago after Governor Rauner proposed cuts of more than $300 million from the state to the city.
Emanuel's weakness was felt all across the ballot. He'd created a super-PAC, Chicago Forward, to bail out 17 of his allies on the council and to beat progressive incumbents. Only seven of them won outright: Will Burns, Mike Zalweski, Danny Solis, Robert Maldonado, Margaret Laurino, Pat O'Connor, and Debra Silverstein. The rest were forced into runoffs, including Deb Mell, the sister-in-law of disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Meanwhile, Chicago Forward had lobbed mailers at two aldermen–Scott Waguespack and John Arena–who'd asked the SEC to investigate the legality of donations to Emanuel from the executives of companies managing the city's pension funds. Arena narrowly missed a win and will head to a runoff; Waguespack won outright.
It was not all progressives wanted, but it was not what the super-PAC had wanted either. The progressive bloc was expected to expand to 12 of the council's 50 seats.
"The good guys won Round One," said Working Families Party national director Dan Cantor in a statement. "Forcing Mayor 1% into a run-off is a remarkable achievement. Along with the run-off, the progressive caucus on the Council is poised to make gains."
MoveOn, which had endorsed Garcia after taking a poll of its members, was just as rapturous. "Rahm Emanuel’s millions of dollars weren’t enough to whitewash his record of siding with big-money corporate interests over regular people," said MoveOn executive director Ilya Sherman. "The fact that a majority of Chicagoans voted for change is a clear rejection of Mayor Emanuel’s policies that have left too many behind." Just three years earlier, Sheyman had been losing a progressive primary for Congress in the Chicago suburbs.
Why did progressives–why do progressives–want to humble Emanuel? The answer's been blaring from magazines like In These Times and Rolling Stone and the Nation for months. In the election-month cover story of In These Times, for example, progressive historian Rick Perlstein explained why the deal Emanuel cut with a company to remake the city's transit cards never stopped hurting him.
The transit cards can double as debit cards, you see, promoted as a boon for Chicago’s un- and under-banked. But dig the customer fees hidden in the 1,000-page contract the city signed with Cubic: $1.50 every time customers withdraw cash from an ATM, $2.95 every time they add money to their online debit account with a personal credit card, $2 for every call with a service representative and an “account research fee” of $10 an hour for further inquiries, $2 for a paper copy of their account information, and, if you decide you’ve had enough, a $6 “balance refund fee.” This all makes mincemeat of the pro-privatization argument that “the marketplace” is more transparent than a government bureaucracy. The city might have been able to anticipate this before inking the deal had they paid attention to the fact that Money Network, the payment processing company partnering with Cubic, had received the lowest possible grade from the Better Business Bureau, and that another partner, MetaBank, was fined $5.2 million by federal regulators for a scheme to issue debit cards funded by tax refund loans at interest rates of up to 650 percent.
Emanuel was elected in the nadir of the first Obama term. While the White House adapted to Democratic politics, and while economic progressives took back a leading intellectual role in the party, Emanuel governed as a neoliberal. He's still got plenty of advantages over Garcia, but he's the first Chicago mayor to be forced into a runoff since the runoff system was created. Progressives wanted not just to humble Emanuel but to make a point about what sort of politics could no longer define the Democratic Party. And they've done that.