Chicago's Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party

Is the Democratic Party's future on his shoulders?

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In any other year, the mayoral election in America's third-largest city wouldn’t matter much to anyone beyond driving distance to Wrigley Field. This year's race for Chicago's mayor, however, both reflects and could shape the direction of the Democratic Party -- not to mention the future of American cities.

Incumbent Rahm Emanuel failed to win outright on Tuesday, finishing with 45 percent of the vote (less than the required 50 percent plus one vote) to challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia's 34 percent. Both candidates are Democrats, but beyond that, they have little in common.

Consider the two men's approaches to education. Emanuel adopted teacher evaluations linked to student performance, flexible hiring and firing rules, and a longer school day (Chicago’s had been the shortest in the nation). He also increased the number of charter schools and made the politically difficult decision to close dozens of underperforming or underused schools. Garcia, who has promised to end mayoral control of the schools if elected, enjoys the strong backing of the city's teachers union, which called a seven-day strike to protest Emanuel's policies.

Schools are the archetypal local issue, of course. But the state of the nation's education system -- especially in its cities -- has a profound effect on U.S. economic growth and competitiveness, and there is disagreement in the Democratic Party over how to improve it. These differences are neatly reflected in Emanuel and Garcia.

The rising cost of public pensions is another issue that every state and local elected official in America must confront -- and some are doing it more effectively than others. It is an especially acute problem for Democrats, with their long ties to the labor movement. Emanuel has taken on politically powerful public-sector unions to reduce the city’s pension costs. Garcia has mainly pledged to work with labor leaders on the issue, which is easier said than done.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two candidates -- and the greatest current divide in the Democratic Party -- is on economic matters. Emanuel has focused on bread-and-butter issues familiar to any successful mayor: cutting red tape and costs for small businesses, promoting tourism, attracting well-paying jobs. Garcia has cast his campaign in populist terms. His supporters call Emanuel, who used to work in investment banking, "Mayor 1%" and have embarked on a nationwide effort to defeat him.

Over the next six weeks, Chicago's voters can show the nation -- and the national party -- that fiscally responsible government remains a priority for Democrats. That's why this mayoral campaign has consequences not just for Chicago, but for the presidential race and debate over the next year and a half.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.