Kirkland: The mayoral runoff’s real winner — Chicago

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Will Kirkland, Columnist

Tuesday, Chicagoans from Englewood to Edgewater will vote in the runoff mayoral election between incumbent Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. The runoff, triggered by Emanuel’s failure to win an outright majority in the February general election, was great for the city for reasons I will explain later.

In February, I joined a group of Northwestern students on a trip to the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago organized by the Center for Civic Engagement. The purpose of the trip was to see the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit Center on the corner of West 16th and South Hamlin, where Martin Luther King, Jr. lived from 1966-67 during the Chicago Freedom Movement.

What struck me most on the trip was the devastating reality of the neighborhood today. Where one of the great battles of the Civil Rights Movement was once fought now stands a struggling neighborhood. It has an unemployment rate three times Chicago’s and almost half of its families live below the poverty line.

The fact that North Lawndale exists in the same city as, say, the conspicuous consumption of the Magnificent Mile, is a devastating testament to the depth of inequality in Chicago.

Chicago is in a tight spot. On one hand, it is home to egregious levels of inequality — all too easy to visualize on census maps that show how deeply segregated the city remains. On the other hand, it faces a serious fiscal crisis that limits the resources available to tackle inequality in the first place. As it stands, the city has a $20 billion heap of unfunded pension liabilities, a $300 million dollar current accounts deficit and an education deficit of $1.1 billion.

Given the weight of these concerns,  the election was bound to be an important one. The fact that it has come down to a runoff makes it all the more so. What is more, the runoff has actually been a huge positive for the city for two main reasons.

The first is that the runoff elevates Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to the forefront of the political debate. In addition to bringing a necessary left-wing voice to a mayoral table that has veered too far right, Garcia forced the city establishment to turn toward the neighborhoods of the West and South sides that have too long languished in quiet negligence. He brought attention to the many communities like Lawndale, adjacent to Garcia’s own Little Village, where unemployment rates are disproportionately high and where most of Emanuel’s school closings occurred.

The runoff also forces Mayor Emanuel to wrestle with both his political platform and personal style. If there’s one thing the mayor is known for around the country, it’s his abrasive and confrontational personality. President Obama, for whom Emanuel served as chief of staff in his first term, once said, “people think Rahm is a bad guy, but he has a really soft side. He volunteers to teach profanity to underprivileged kids.”

His opponent, Garcia, is one of the most likable politicians in the city. His easygoing, friendly manner and his commitment to Democratic populism has won hearts and minds across communities that have borne the brunt of Emanuel’s thundering reforms without any apologies from City Hall. Having to face-off against someone as well loved as Garcia has made Emanuel come to terms with his public perception and turn toward the communities most affected by his reforms.

Even more important than tempering his abrasive public image, Emanuel has had to reconcile his actual policies with public perception, too.

In his first term, the mayor closed 49 schools across the city and very publicly feuded with the city’s powerful teacher’s union and its charismatic president, Karen Lewis.

It may be that closing schools with dwindling student populations was the best policy for an education system in dire financial straits, but Emanuel was a poor salesman. At the height of the education battle, his approval rating dropped to 35 percent.

That number has rebounded and, according to the most recent polling, it looks like he will win Tuesday’s runoff election with a comfortable marginBut in the process, Emanuel has had to figure out how to sell a center-left reform package to a cash-strapped, solidly Democrat city.

In the end, the city will be better off because this election is so contentious. The runoff has forced the incumbent to clarify and adjust his political platform and personality — to the great benefit of the city — and it has raised the profile of his opponent, who gives voice to the many Chicagoans whose communities are affected by economic inequality and budgetary struggles.

And regardless of what happens today, Chicago will be front-page national news tomorrow, right where it belongs.

William Kirkland is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

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