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The two-horse race where everyone wants to see Rahm Emanuel get whipped

In the tough battle for Chicago mayor, has the Hispanic community been underestimated?

David Usborne
Friday 27 March 2015 19:23 GMT
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) is being challenged by Mexican candiate Jesus Garcia
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) is being challenged by Mexican candiate Jesus Garcia (AP)

Rahm Emanuel wore the pinched look of a man maligned. He hated the gotcha question – and its implication – about which restaurants he liked in the black neighbourhoods of South Chicago and could barely contain himself when the moderator poked him about exotic holidays he’s taken with his kids.

Even Mr Emanuel, who knows about political combat as a one-time congressman and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, has surely been shocked by the mutinous groundswell that has met him as he attempts to win a second term as Chicago’s mayor.

After failing to win 50 per cent support in a first round of voting among Democrats to select their candidate in February, he is now fighting for his political life with a primary run-off set for 7 April.

“I know that people make fun of me. You always make a big deal where I take my kids,” Mr Emanuel, 55, snapped at a candidates’ forum at Chicago State University, CSU, itself on South Side, on Wednesday evening. “I know what my record is and I know who I’m helping... I know why I fight for progressive policies that make a difference in people’s lives, and I know what I’ve done.”

The general charge laid against Mr Emanuel by his opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Mexico-born local county commissioner, and his supporters is that he precisely has not bettered the lives of the ordinary folk of Chicago, especially blacks and Hispanics, Instead, they say, he has been solely concerned with looking after the rich (and in return getting pots of their money to fund his campaign).

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia meets supporters in Chicago (AP)

The more specific Sins of Rahm, in the eyes of his opponent, include his shutting down of 50 of Chicago’s cash-strapped schools, most of them in minority neighbourhoods, and a string of mental health clinics; the introduction of a myriad of red-light traffic cameras that generate fines disproportionately levied on poorer drivers; and his failure to end Chicago’s cycle of shootings and violence. The black community, which supported Mr Emanuel overwhelmingly four years ago because of his ties to Mr Obama, is also angry over alleged police abuse and the high rates of stop-of-and frisk involving minority males. The mayor hadn’t even sat down at the CSU forum before a group of protesters unfurled a banner declaring, “Stop Police Terror”.

Polls show him with a decent lead over Mr Garcia, who uses his thick moustache as a humorous mascot of his campaign, but they also show double-digit numbers of undecided voters. But regardless of who wins, the battle here may portend seismic ructions for the Democratic Party nationally, where a similar schism between centrists and a restless, progressive left is already becoming hard to paper over.

No one will be watching with more trepidation than Hillary Clinton, whose own trajectory towards the party’s nomination and thereafter, she hopes, to the White House, is being clouded by concerns that she will be tarred with the same elitist brush as Mr Emanuel – and by fears that she may yet also face a challenge from the left, in the form, for example, of Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Unlike Ms Clinton, who will face a fierce contest for the White House against whoever the Republicans choose, whoever wins the Democratic nomination in Chicago is certain to become mayor, so strong is the party’s grip on the city.

Nicknamed “Mayor 1 Per Cent”, Mr Emanuel was also an adviser to former President Bill Clinton and helped him to draw the party to the centre, for instance by implementing welfare reform. He happens to be a millionaire. Mr Garcia, by contrast, has a home in a modest, working class section of Chicago. He cut his teeth in the eighties, toiling for Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

The mighty advantage of Mr Emanuel is his huge campaign fund. While he has a war chest of $30m, Mr Garcia has so little cash he only bought his first TV spots a week ago. But Mr Garcia has advantages too. He is the underdog, which brings its own cache. More than that, he can contrast his long years working in the trenches in Chicago with Mr Emanuel’s long absences in Washington and on Wall Street. “He is not rooted in the day to day life of Chicago,” he noted of the mayor in a TV debate on Thursday.

Denise Hamiel, 46, a nurse who toted an oversized “Fire Rahm” button to Wednesday’s forum, is certain he cares nothing for anybody outside the power nexus of the downtown Loop. It’s not about skin colour either, she says, but just money. “As long as you’re not hurting the rich people it’s OK,” she said. “Rahm is an elitist and he has always been. He talked about transparency last time, but he lied... he is giving money to people who don’t need it. These people are stealing money and giving it to their friends. They are selling us down the river.”

Mr Emanuel has a far large campaign fund than his rival (AP)

A victory for the mild-mannered Mr Garcia, who is far from an electrifying speaker on the stump, would also send a loud message to both national parties about the changing demographics of America, the growing clout of the Hispanic community and the peril – for Republicans especially – of not paying attention.

Pollsters may be underestimating the numbers of Hispanic voters here. Getting them to the polls will be key for Mr Garcia who after leaving the CSU forum, soon found himself on another stage at “Latin Street Wednesday”, a weekly salsa party in a north Chicago club, stopping pairs and imploring them to vote.

“If he becomes the first Latino mayor of Chicago, that will be really, really important to us. He has a lot of guts to go after Rahm and I really appreciate that,” said Sonia Zacatenco, 37, a project manager with Motorola, also Mexican. “I know what the polls are saying but I think he is going to win and he is going to make a lot of difference in the lives of the people of Chicago”.

If there is an intensity about this race, it is also because the fiscal problems faced by the city are so overwhelming – there may not be money to reopen its public schools after this summer – that neither candidate is really spelling them out according to Paul Green, a professor of public policy at Roosevelt University. “People get frightened and you don’t want to frighten people or they won’t go to the polls,” he observed. Fixing Chicago’s finances “is going to require pain.”

For the record, Mr Emanuel instantly summoned the names of two African-American restaurants. But that may not help him. If he loses, it may also just be because there are plenty of people here who simply want the pleasure of seeing him get whipped, never mind what kind of mayor Mr Garcia would make.

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