Chicago surprise: Why Rahm Emanuel faces a runoff – and can he survive it?

Rahm Emanuel still faces criticism over his decision to close 50 schools and response to gang violence. His rival, Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia, aims to tie the mayor to Wall Street and the '1 percent.'

AP/Chicago Tribune/Terrence Antonio James
Chicago mayoral candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia addresses supporters with his wife Evelyn at his side at his municipal election night gathering at the Alhambra Palace Restaurant in Chicago, on Tuesday, Feb 24, 2015. After failing to persuade a majority of Chicago voters to back his re-election bid, Mayor Rahm Emanuel could face an even stiffer challenge in April against Garcia, a Cook County commissioner who claims the backing of teachers, unions and neighborhood residents disillusioned with Emanuel.

Despite campaign stops by President Obama – and outraising his opponents, combined, 4 to 1 – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces a surprise runoff in the president's home town.

It's an embarrassing setback not just for Mayor Emanuel, who had been Obama's chief of staff, but also for the city's Democratic establishment, which backed him openly.

While finishing first in the mayoral race, Emanuel, at 45 percent of the vote, failed to garner the majority needed to avoid the first runoff since Chicago switched to nonpartisan elections 20 years ago.

Now he faces six more weeks of campaigning against the second-place finisher, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a fellow Democrat, who took 34 percent of the vote and is expected to give Emanuel a tough race.

“This makes it an entirely different ballgame – a brand new election,” Dick Simpson, a political scientist and former alderman who contributed to Mr. Emanuel’s opponents, told the New York Times. “It becomes a real battle and it sharpens the issues.” 

The election results have also been interpreted as a blow to the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, led by Mr. Obama, who campaigned with the mayor. 

The president recorded a radio advertisement last month in which he endorsed Emanuel. The mayor's latest television advertisement also featured a clip of Obama hugging Emanuel at a Chicago event and a sound bite of the president declaring that the mayor was "making sure that every Chicagoan in every neighborhood gets the fair shot at success that they deserve."

Commissioner Garcia, who is backed by the left-leaning online activist group moveon.org, has portrayed his opponent as the mayor of the privileged 1 percent. Born in Mexico but raised in Chicago, Garcia, a former state lawmaker and Chicago alderman, campaigned on the theme of social equality.

“Today, we the people have spoken – not the people with the money and the power and the connections, not the giant corporations, the big-money special interests, the hedge funds, and Hollywood celebrities who poured tens of millions of dollars into the mayor’s campaign,” Mr. Garcia told a crowd of supporters, The New York Times reported.

Thom Serafin, a Chicago-based political consultant, told USA Today that Garcia's campaign could become "a rallying cry for labor and a new focus against the 1%.”

Meanwhile, Emanuel still faces criticism over his decision in 2013 to close almost 50 public schools seen as low-performing. During Emanuel’s term, public schoolteachers staged their first strike in 25 years. The Chicago Teacher’s Union is backing Garcia.

"We need to upgrade our communities by building more and better schools," Tracy McGrady, a college student and part-time construction worker, told USA Today. "Instead, Rahm is closing them."

Emanuel was also criticized for his handling of a wave of gang violence that led to 500 homicides in 2012.

Despite this electoral setback, Emanuel says he will work to "earn the confidence" of those who did not support him.  

“To those who voted for me in this election, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said at an election night rally, a local CBS affiliate reported. “For those who voted for someone else, I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come.”

The three other candidates in the race finished far behind Emanuel and Garcia. The runoff will be held on April 7. 

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