If you’re not from Chicago, it may seem like Rahm Emanuel’s deep pockets and political ties should make him a shoe-in to be mayor for another four years. Yet for many Chicago residents, Rahm’s first term was more enraging than exciting. Voting in this mayoral election isn’t about who has the deepest pockets, it’s about the way the last four years have gone, and deciding which candidate is least likely to ruin the next four years of our collective lives. On one hand, you have current Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s curiously pitiful “Well yes, I was rude, overbearing, and I didn’t listen to you, but I’ll do better next time,” interspersed with “Chuy’s going to act like every other Chicago politician” and on the other you have his opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesús G. “Chuy” García’s “Rahm did a terrible job, I can’t be any worse” mixed with “I’ll promise to do whatever it takes to get your votes.” Frankly, neither set of messages is remotely convincing, but they exemplify what’s going wrong in Chicago politics this year.
Like many residents of Chicago I’m angry at what happened over the last four years as mental health clinics, schools, and other resources were gutted, often with little or no input from affected residents. Rahm’s decision to cut funding for teachers right before announcing the building of a new $60 million-dollar school is probably more memorable than anything else he might say during a campaign. Whether the discussion is school funding, Rahm’s alleged poor treatment of a grieving mother who wanted answers about the closing of the mental health clinics, or any of a dozen other examples, in many ways Rahm’s bad behavior is the candidate, not the softer image he’s trying to peddle now. The idea of voting for Rahm to have a second term feels like deliberately choosing to vote for Voldemort.
Meanwhile Chuy’s campaign can’t help but be underwhelming, especially given the fact that his political record in Chicago is so bland as to be nearly forgettable. The most damning thing Rahm’s campaign can find about his history is that he voted for an unpopular but necessary property tax almost 30 years ago. However pragmatically Chuy may have voted over the years, the fact that he wasn’t the first, second or third choice to be Rahm’s opponent outweighs any flowery rhetoric his camp can write for him. This isn’t even a case of choosing between the devil you know, and the one that you don’t. It’s more, “Well do I pick the devil sitting at the table, or the one standing in front of it?” Chuy isn’t necessarily exciting or inspiring as candidates go, but he doesn’t need to be for his campaign to be a refreshing change.
Chicago politics are a contact sport in any year, because even with our creaky crooked machine, would-be politicians have to work their way into the system, and then work very hard to stay in it. Despite the implied anointing of Rahm’s candidacy via his ties to Mayor Daley and to the White House, no politician in Chicago can ever afford to rest on their laurels. A recession, a pension crisis, and a range of long standing financially questionable political decisions have upped the stakes so much that Rahm’s educational agenda alone would have been enough to put his seat at risk. Add the much-publicized shootings in Chicago’s most economically vulnerable neighborhoods, the announcement that police misconduct cases cost the city over $521 million in the last decade, school budget cuts that followed the closing of 50 schools, the refusal to explain the closing of six mental health clinics, the push to spend TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds on a stadium for a private school, and the “solution” of shifting that funding to a hotel project? Rahm has consistently made choices that could torpedo any incumbent’s hopes for reelection.
While in office Rahm focused on plans that appealed to the upper middle class and outright wealthy voters who largely funded his first campaign run. And though he paid lip service to wanting the best for all of Chicago, many of his decisions have been detrimental to the lower middle class and low income voters who actually carried the last election for him. Much is made of racial segregation in Chicago, but in reality it’s often economic differences that divide Chicago’s North, South, and West sides from each other. Race and class are heavy factors here, candidates can’t afford to ignore either. I’m a middle class Black woman on the South side now, but I spent years in one of the lowest possible income brackets and like many I vote based on where I was, and where I am now.
Jesús G. “Chuy” García is for many voters a contender this year despite his history, not because of it. After nearly 30 years in Chicago politics, Chuy’s record doesn’t show that he’s the best candidate, so much as it shows that he is more in tune with the reality that Chicago voters live in places that aren’t the north side, and at socioeconomic levels below the Federal poverty line. Promises to support an elected school board, come up with a better financial plan for a foundering city budget, and do more to stop street violence sound good on paper. Unfortunately, without more concrete information, it is not as though voters can be sure he’ll keep all of his campaign promises. Unlike Karen Lewis, Chuy’s mild mannered “We will come up with a way to fix this” isn’t the firebrand rhetoric that swayed many voters to support the idea of her run for Mayor before illness made that impossible.
I can’t state for sure who will be the next mayor of Chicago. I know that as a native of Chicago’s South Side, a parent and a long time voter, my trip to the polls today wasn’t the optimistic bounce of someone excited about the future of Chicago politics. It is the pragmatic choice between the devil I know has ignored the needs of many constituents, and one who has at least had the good sense to try to work with voters who measure their income in hourly wages, and not in capital gains. Rahm might mean to keep his promises to do better, to listen more, and to make all of Chicago’s communities a priority. Chuy might be able to keep his promises to clean up the mess that predated Rahm’s term, as well as correct some of the things that went wrong under Rahm. Or they might both be full of it, and Chicago will stay mired in the same ugly mess that it has been in for decades.
Voting in a Republican, a different Democrat, or an Independent has been touted as the answer so many times, and every time the choices have come down to picking who voters thought would do the least harm. Because a single candidate can’t remake the whole system no matter how much we wish they had the power. This is democracy, this is politics in an era where best choice for the job may never even run, and even if they do, they might never have the funding needed to mount a successful campaign.