DOWNTOWN — To borrow from Shakespeare, call the 2015 Chicago municipal election thus far the winter of our discontents.
And the "discontents" in the city weren't shy about letting everyone know about their triumphs Wednesday.
It's commonly said a decision not to vote is a vote for the status quo. And with voter turnout approaching a record low Tuesday, hovering at about one-third of registered voters, that's a lot of support for the way things are.
Yet those votes don't count in the ballot box, of course. And with turnout low, it played to the strengths of those still upset about the mayor's closing 50 schools and half the city's mental-health clinics and other progressive issues, said Grassroots Illinois Action Executive Director Amisha Patel.
"Rahm's corporate dollars, and lots of them, wasn't enough to stop this movement," Patel said Tuesday night at the Alhambra Palace, where Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-Chicago) held what amounted to a victory rally after forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff.
"People weren't bought off by that," she added. "They want change."
And change is what they got — at very least the opportunity to make sweeping changes, as Emanuel failed to garner a majority and was pushed into an April 7 runoff along with aldermanic candidates in 19 wards, many of them his City Council allies backed by his Chicago Forward super political action committee.
With such a low turnout, the races tended to shift to those discontents who actually worked to get out the vote, such as the Chicago Teachers Union. Still stinging from the 50 school closings, and nursing grudges from its bitter battle with the mayor in the 2012 strike, the union fielded candidates in several aldermanic races and campaigned hard for loyal union backers in others — including Garcia, who was its endorsed candidate in the mayor's race.
"You had to get people out," the union's Jackson Potter said at the Garcia party Tuesday. "It can't all be the Air Force, where you try to reach hearts and minds with a fancy commercial. You have to talk to people face to face and show you share what their concerns are. We did that."
Progressives crowed about their triumphs Wednesday, including Reclaim Chicago Director David Hatch.
"Across the City of Chicago, voters rejected the mayor and City Council's corporate austerity policies,” he said. "Despite the power of incumbency and more than $2 million in Super PAC money to attack his opponents ... Rahm Emanuel was not able to defeat a single sitting progressive."
Hatch pointed to Reclaim Chicago-endorsed candidates who won outright, including Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Nicholas Sposato (38th), as well as soon-to-be aldermen and first-time victors David Moore (17th) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).
Reclaim Chicago challengers also forced incumbents into a runoff in the 33rd Ward with Tim Meegan, the 37th Ward with Tara Stamps, and the 46th Ward with Amy Crawford. They threatened to topple Aldermen Deb Mell, Emma Mitts and James Cappleman, respectively, all recipients of Chicago Forward backing.
Yet Becky Carroll, who runs Chicago Forward, countered that it devoted only a small percentage of its spending to negative campaigns against Aldermen Scott Waguespack (32nd) and John Arena (45th) and that it actually spent far more backing the mayor's allies in the City Council. She added that the mayor's council allies fared better than the rival candidates overall.
Patel said the referendum on an elected school board was key, in that it helped galvanize opposition to the mayor and the current council in 37 wards. Emanuel's allies succeeded in packing the citywide ballot with three other referendums, but activists placed the referendum on the ballot on a ward-by-ward basis, and the widespread dissatisfaction with the Emanuel-appointed Chicago Board of Education, blamed for rubber-stamping the school closings, helped move voters to the polls. An elected school board was backed with enthusiasm wherever it was on the ballot.
Garcia at first seemed an unlikely leader for this insurgency. Running a moderate, grassroots campaign that dealt in issues rather than overheated rhetoric, Garcia successfully depicted himself as a capable administrator who would emphasize neighborhood vitality and local economic development.
Although relatively unknown in city political circles before the election, Garcia emphasized his progressive credentials throughout his career — including a term in the '80s as an alderman under Mayor Harold Washington and, before that, a stint as campaign manager to legendary Latino activist Rudy Lozano — to establish himself as the top candidate to challenge Emanuel's re-election.
Garcia had the backing of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle as well as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, both considered possible challengers to Emanuel before they declined to run last fall, when Preckwinkle was seeking re-election herself and Lewis was dealing with a brain tumor.
Garcia seemed the reluctant candidate at times, but on Tuesday night he was feeling it.
"Nobody thought that we'd be here," he told a cheering crowd. Garcia said Emanuel had spent millions to defeat him and other insurgents in the aldermanic races, but "we're still standing."
And he found not just a keynote, but a rallying cry. "We want change," Garcia said. "This city deserves a mayor who will put people first, not big-money special interests. I will be that mayor."
He drew finally on the words of civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who once said, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," adding, "A majority of the people of Chicago said with one loud voice: we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Get used to hearing that over the next six weeks.
It also energized his base, such as Citizen Action Illinois Director William McNary, who told the crowd, "Y'all ready for change? Y'all ready to make history? ... We still believe organized people beat organized money."
Yet the thing about a runoff is it prompts the silent majority — if such a thing still exists — to get out and defend the system they're content with.
Emanuel immediately promised to "double down" in the extended campaign, and he still has a hefty war chest to throw around. What Tuesday's election showed, however, is it might take more than that to actually get voters to the polls.
What's more, his rivals, including Garcia, have tried to inoculate themselves against attack ads by using them to draw attention to Emanuel's fundraising, in effect making every negative ad or mailer a product of the mayor's campaign war chest. On Tuesday night, Garcia made a point of attacking "the giant corporations, the big-money special interests, the hedge funds and Hollywood celebrities who've poured tens of millions into the mayor’s campaign."
Emanuel is the first mayor to face a runoff since the city abandoned the primary system and went to a single election requiring a majority victory in 1999 under Mayor Richard M. Daley. Yet he has company, in the 19 aldermanic races in runoffs as well, with many of the mayor's City Council allies facing populist uprisings the same way he is.
So it's down to two candidates — in 20 different races citywide.
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