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Black vote may prove key in Chicago mayoral elections (+video)

A little known candidate, Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia, is giving Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel a tough race. But he will need to attract the support of a more racially diverse coalition if he wants to become Chicago’s first Hispanic mayor. 

A major political upset may be in the works in Chicago, with issues of race and education helping to catapult a little-known candidate into the position of viable contender to unseat incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The race took an unexpected turn last month after incumbent Mayor Emanuel failed to garner a sufficient number of votes in the Feb. 24 primary to avoid a runoff election. The April 7 runoff will be the first since the city started holding nonpartisan elections in 1995. Now, with just five weeks to go, Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia is giving Mayor Emanuel a tough race, with the two running almost neck and neck, according to one polling firm.

Commissioner Garcia has the backing of the teachers union, which is notoriously anti-Emanuel, but he will need to attract the support of a wider, more racially diverse coalition if he wants to become Chicago’s first Hispanic mayor.

“Chicago is a city where racial politics tend to spell out the calculus of victory, especially given the three major ethnic groups each have roughly the same number of votes,” wrote Mary Wisniewski and Tracy Rucinski for Reuters.

The race is emblematic of Chicago’s increased political plurality following the retirement of the 22-year dynasty of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the longest-serving mayor in the city's history. Mayor Daley was widely credited with bridging racial divides and attempting to reform the troubled Chicago Public Schools.

He was reelected six times because voters from every demographic were satisfied with the way he governed, New Yorker political reporter Evan Osnos wrote in 2010.

“In the city that Martin Luther King Jr. called the Birmingham of the North, Daley has presided for two decades during which race has receded, if not into the background, then into the din of city politics,” Mr. Osnos wrote.

During his first term in office, critics say Emanuel failed to satisfy the electorate to the extent that Daley did. Some of the criticism leveled against him includes: that he closed 50 public schools, many in poor, predominantly black areas; that crime, especially gang-related violence, increased during his tenure; and that he failed to protect the interests of the city’s African-American population.

After coming to office with the support of President Obama and around 59 percent of the black vote, Emanuel's support among Chicago’s black community had dropped to just 42 percent during the primaries, according to the Illinois Election Data website.

Polls during the primaries showed that Garcia garnered only around 26 percent of the black vote. The remainder was split between the three candidates who are no longer in the race.

Coalitions between the city’s Hispanic and black communities have been difficult to develop in the past, but some say Garcia may be the man for the job. The teachers union’s vehement dislike of Emanuel has already won Garcia the support of the union’s charismatic black President Karen Lewis, and her support could help win the favor of this key demographic, political experts say.

“Garcia has much positive momentum,” political strategist Vince Casillas told Reuters. “One thing that will help is if Lewis campaigns for him.”

Currently, the most recent poll shows Emanuel with a small lead over Garcia. The poll of 979 likely voters, which was conducted Saturday by Chicago-based polling firm Ogden & Fry, showed Emanuel with 42.9 percent support and Garcia with 38.5 percent. Given the poll’s margin of error, around 3.2 percent, the two candidates are extremely close.

Moreover, Hispanics are underrepresented in polling, the firm said in a press release, meaning that "Garcia is likely even with Emanuel as the runoff season begins."

Around 19 percent of Chicago voters remain undecided.  

This report includes material from Reuters.

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