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Emanuel Might've Won, But A Progressive Movement Is Still Percolating In Chicago

By aaroncynic in News on Apr 9, 2015 5:20PM

(Mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia giving his concession speech Tuesday night./ Photo: Aaron Cynic/Chicagoist)

During the last four years in office, many have criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel's imperial-like qualities. Between his "Mayor 1%" moniker, his style of legislating by press release along with a City Council that voted with him nearly 100 percent of the time, Emanuel garnered a reputation for running Chicago like a king, rather than a mayor. While Emanuel managed to defeat challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia with a larger than 10 point lead in this week's runoff election, the fact he was even forced into a runoff at all signals a growing opposition movement to both traditional Chicago politics and the neoliberal agenda of many Democrats.

“We didn’t lose today, we tried today,” said Garcia to a packed and even upbeat crowd of supporters during his concession speech. In this, the Cook County Commissioner was right. Though propped up by the CTU and backed by other unions like SEIU, the American Federation of Teachers and Amalgamated Transit Union, his campaign had to contend with a $30 million war chest that was funded by a bevy of wealthy individuals. "Chuy got in late, and had to make up a lot of work in terms of educating the general public about who he was,” said Kristen Crowell, Executive Director of United Working Families, a progressive super-PAC that backed Garcia and Emanuel’s opponents running for City Council.

Movements don’t happen overnight and Emanuel’s opposition included a wide collection of unions like the CTU, who organized one of the largest strikes Chicago has seen in decades, grassroots community groups like the Mental Health Movement, which dogged the mayor after he closed half the city’s mental health clinics, and countless individuals who have pressured him on everything from school closings to reparations for survivors of Chicago Police torturer John Burge. “We were clear from the beginning this would be a multi-cycle fight,” said Amisha Patel, Director of Grassroots Collaborative, an organization that’s pushed economic alternatives to Emanuel’s preferred austerity agenda. Patel joined representatives of several of Garcia’s largest support groups in a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We’ve been organizing together for years and that coalition work with a shared vision of the city is what laid the groundwork for this election,” said Patel.

Garcia was extremely light on solid financial ideas to fix the City’s fiscal crisis. He would often defer to the idea of “opening the books” with a full audit of the City’s budget when pressed on the issue, along with lobbing well-worn critiques of the mayor’s penchant for passing TIFs to wealthy, well-connected developers and heavy borrowing from Wall Street. A plan put forth by the Roosevelt Institute and trumpeted by Grassroots Collaborative, which includes ideas on how to escape from the constant credit downgrades that cost Chicago millions, has options for additional revenue - most of which the Garcia campaign gave a lukewarm shrug and “we’ll see” attitude towards. Though unpopular with some, things like a LaSalle Street tax, also known as a financial transaction tax, along with ending corporate tax subsides and massive TIF reform, could generate real dollars into the city’s much starved coffers.

But governing the nation’s third largest city is about more than just balancing the books. Emanuel’s “my way or the highway” attitude is one that directly contributed to a large swath of suffering in many Chicago neighborhoods and helped to create the rise of a movement that is coalescing to be a force of opposition to policies that created a tale of two cities. Garcia’s frequent attacks on the mayor’s transparency were on point, considering Emanuel failed to deliver on his promise of the “most open and transparent” government Chicago has ever seen.

It’s in the battles surrounding these issues that, despite a Garcia loss, progressives took home a victory Tuesday night. “Vibrant participatory democracy and Chicago aren’t typically used in the same sentence,” said John Green, Deputy Director of the Working Families, a national progressive group that supported Garcia. “In just a few months this campaign came as close as it did to toppling a candidate as wealthy and powerful as Rahm.” Despite having an almost unlimited amount of money in his war chest, Emanuel still shifted on policies in the lead up to both the Feb. 24 election and subsequent runoff. The $13 an hour by 2019 minimum wage, though a paltry offering, wouldn’t have likely happened in a non-election year and without the constant drumbeat of what is now a national movement. He wouldn’t have offered to rip up some of the much maligned red light cameras, often a burden on the City’s poorest residents. And the Emanuel of four years ago certainly wouldn’t have admitted to “making mistakes” while making an offering to “make changes if reelected.”

Still, these small concessions from Mayor 1% will require both a movement and City Council to keep him in check during the next four years. With the unseating of some of his staunchest Aldermanic supporters and razor thin margins that others won by, that’s within the realm of possibility. “The message that electeds got through some losing and then some winning by a hair both in the runoff and other races is that they can’t vote with him this time around without paying the price of losing the election,” said Alderman Scott Waguespack, part of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus. Waguespack, who supported Garcia and retained his seat in the 34th Ward, said that the election might make various Alderman think twice before voting with Emaneul 100 percent of the time. “I think he might stay the same but you might see some change with the way Alderman vote.”

Indeed, the long game and consistent pressure is what’s needed to avoid another four years of a city governed by press release. “While we’re disappointed by the result of the mayor’s race, we have a lot to keep our heads high about,” said Jesse Sharkey, Vice President of the CTU. “This was the first competitive mayor’s race. We’ve been able to create a conversation about what kind of city we want that has gone much deeper and put a lot on the table, which has been percolating for the last several years.”