Facing reelection, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sees falling poll numbers

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s approval rating has dropped in recent months, reflecting the growing public view that he’s out of touch on key issues.

Stacy Thacker/AP
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks while Evelyn Diaz, commissioner of family and support services, listens during a news conference July 21. Emanuel met with law enforcement and school officials to talk about the city's violence problem.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces reelection to a second term in February, but he also faces a city that appears to like him less and less.

Mayor Emanuel’s poll numbers have been sinking since last year. The latest poll, released Thursday by The Chicago Tribune, reveals his lowest numbers yet: Just 35 percent of likely voters approve of his performance as mayor, a sharp drop from his 50 percent approval rating in May 2013 and 52 percent in May 2012. Sixty-two percent of voters said Emanuel is out of touch with citizens.

Recent polls conducted by The Chicago Sun-Times reached similar results.

Emanuel easily succeeded former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley three years ago based on two things: He basked in the glow of President Obama, whom he served as White House chief of staff, and he faced a litany of candidates whose records and campaign bank accounts were both poor.

While he campaigned on transparency and good governance, Emanuel has been criticized for his rigid control of the media as well as a stubbornness to fully disclose the inner workings of his administration. And he has appeared out of touch on issues like poverty, a rising homicide rate, and public education.

Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies public corruption, says those key issues have become a problem for much of the public now critical of the Emanuel administration.

Mr. Simpson says Emanuel’s harsh governing style lacks the common touch found with most successful administrators, especially when compared with former Chicago mayors such as Mr. Daley or Harold Washington, who appeared to be more connected with the character of the city.

“Rahm’s arrogant my-way-or-the-highway approach isn’t helping him,” Simpson says. “He doesn’t listen to citizens and then acts on those things. He just decides what needs to be done like a CEO of a corporation.”

There have been missteps related to a red light camera program that was promoted as helping public safety but local media showed to have been the product of corrupt dealmaking. This week, three people connected to the deal received federal indictments.

A CNN reality series meant to put Emanuel in a good light was also revealed to be the product of a backroom deal as well: His Hollywood agent brother was involved, and its producer revealed to the Tribune that Emanuel took part in creative decisions despite the mayor’s staff insisting he was not.

But the issue that has turned off voters most is Emanuel’s decision last year to shutter nearly 50 schools he said were inefficient and not at maximum capacity. The majority of the school closings took place in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where gun fatalities and crime are most prevalent.

Emanuel’s polling among blacks continue to tumble. Only 26 percent of black voters give him their approval; in May 2013, 40 percent approved.

The school situation bolstered a possible opponent: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who has been Emanuel’s most vocal critic.

The Tribune poll shows that, in a hypothetical matchup, Ms. Lewis would receive 43 percent of the vote, Emanuel 39 percent. Lewis’s lead is higher among voters who have children enrolled in Chicago Public Schools: 57 percent to 27 percent. Lewis says she is considering a possible run.

One factor that has chased away other viable contenders from this election cycle is Emanuel’s considerable fundraising reach. He has already amassed $8.4 million in his campaign fund.

A new super political action committee called Chicago Forward has raised $1.35 million designed, according to local media reports, to attack critics of the mayor, including a handful of vocal aldermen who have formed a caucus in opposition to his policies. The PAC consists of some of Chicago’s wealthiest donors to Emanuel’s campaign from the financial service industry.

Lewis has said she could never raise as much money as Emanuel, but suggested that campaign spending will not be the main issue in this race as it may be in state or federal elections. Simpson says any serious candidate will need to raise $3 million to $5 million to build a political base.

“This is going to cost some money and it requires skill and organizing experience among the staff of volunteers to mount an effort like this,” he said. “However it is true that David can beat Goliath” based on past grass-roots efforts that have been successful, such as Mayor Washington’s victory in 1983.

For the time being, Emanuel faces a small pool of challengers with little name recognition or clout, which assures his second term.

“At the moment, if Rahm ran today, Rahm would win, despite what the polls show,” Simpson says.

The Tribune polled 800 registered Chicago voters between Aug. 6-12. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

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