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Chicagoist's Top Stories of 2014: The Drama (Or Lack Of) In The Mayoral Race

By Chuck Sudo in News on Dec 29, 2014 7:00PM

Photo credit: City of Chicago/Brooke Collins

Rahm Emanuel’s bid for a second term as mayor has been marked not by an opponent forcing him to defend his record, but by wondering if he would if two prospective candidates decided to challenge him in February. Ald. Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia have worked hard to get their names out to undecided voters and force Emanuel to defend a spotty first term record marked by a teachers strike, labor issues, a looming pension crisis, record homicide totals and broken promises of government transparency. But this is what Emanuel can do with a $10 million war chest: avoid debate.

Here’s how he’s doing that.

Emanuel's new campaign slogan is "Chicago Together." He can't use "Building a New Chicago" again because it's been co-opted for all the infrastructure projects that have popped up in recent weeks to screw with your commutes and remind disgruntled voters that Emanuel is really trying to build a new city. Much hay has been made about how Fioretti, Garcia or another candidate would be able to match Emanuel's war chest. But then, they really don't have to if they have clear messages and are dogged campaigners.

The two big "what ifs" of the slow-building mayoral campaign are would Toni Preckwinkle, or Karen Lewis have made Emanuel sweat? Lewis definitely would have spiced this campaign with fiery rhetoric, a galvanizing personality and the political cachet of the Chicago Teachers Union behind her. Lewis remains the only major Chicago figure to have beaten Emanuel, during the 2012 Chicago Teachers Strike, and her profile locally and nationally rose during the negotiations and her news conferences where she tore into the Emanuel administration and former CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. Lewis, recognizing she needed to reach a wider voter base, toned down that rhetoric somewhat and even looked to be in the stages of a physical makeover. (And how frustrating, if not insulting, is it to read comments about Lewis' weight whenever the subject of her exploring a mayoral run was broached? As if being fat ever disqualified anyone from running for political office.)

Lewis (and arguably Fioretti) were constant thorns in Emanuel's side during his first term. While we're unsure if Lewis could have beaten Emanuel head to head, she absolutely had the support base to play spoiler and force a runoff election.

Preckwinkle is another matter. The Cook County Board President long said she had no aspiration to challenge Emanuel and that she had unfinished business in county government. Yet for a seeming weekly spell during the summer, Preckwinkle had to address largely media-driven speculation she would run against Emanuel in February, even as she was running for re-election as County Board President.

When Preckwinkle finally said to local media's satisfaction she would not run for mayor and Lewis dropped out of contention with health issues, Emanuel was left with a playing field that included Fioretti, Garcia, community activist Amara Enyia and a bunch of also-rans and never-weres. Thanks to perennial pundit and fly in the ointment William Kelly, Emanuel could raise as much money as he wanted to for his re-election campaign. The pro-Emanuel "Chicago Forward" Super PAC, headed by longtime political insider Becky Carroll, raised an impressive amount of money to target anti-Emanuel incumbents in City Council and strengthen the mayor's rubber stamp.

All this leads to voter disenchantment and odds are solid that we'll be discussing low voter turnout weeks from now. Historically, low voter turnout in Chicago almost always favors the incumbent. So it's to Emanuel's advantage to continue to avoid answering Fioretti's call for debates, to brush aside Garcia's public criticisms and the labor endorsements both Fioretti and Garcia are receiving. All this keeps the people who are hurt the most from Emanuel's agenda away from the polls.

And nothing will change unless those voters say, "enough."