Terrance Heath

People-Powered Campaign Pushes Back Against 'Mayor 1%'

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 26, 2015 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, Chicago, mayoral election, Rahm Emanuel, Reclaim Chicago, runoff

rahm-emanuel-45-percent.jpgChicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel should be taking a victory lap right now.

Heading into Tuesday's municipal elections, he had everything going for him that an incumbent officeholder could hope for, but a populist uprising still forced him into a runoff -- in a re-election campaign he was almost certain to win.

He had money. Just as he parlayed his Washington connections into paying clients during two and a half years working on Wall Street after leaving the Clinton administration (despite lacking an MBA or any prior banking experience), Emanuel converted his Wall Street connections into a $30 million campaign chest -- so massive that he outspent his closest opponent 12 to 1.

He had name recognition. Emanuel worked as a senior advisor to President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1998. After his brief sojourn on Wall Street, Emanuel represented Illinois's 5th congressional district from 2003 to 2009, during which time he chaired the House Democratic Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

He had White House connections and the president's endorsement. Emanuel served as President Obama's White House Chief of Staff from January 20, 2009, to October 1, 2010, before leaving to run successfully for mayor of the president's adopted hometown. Just ahead of election day, President Obama embraced Emanuel and endorsed his re-election during an appearance to dedicate a national monument.

Rahm Emanuel had all this, and no major challengers. Low voter turnout (just 33 percent) should have worked in his favor, too. But it wasn't enough.

Despite being favored to win, Emanuel faced a stunning setback Tuesday night when he won just 45.5 percent of the vote. His top challenger, progressive leader Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, won 33.9 percent of the vote. Falling 4.5 percent short of the 50-percent-plus-one he needed to win, Emanuel will face a runoff against Garcia.

Two major factors contributed to Rahm Emanuel's comeuppance: Rahm Emanuel himself, and the progressive populist movement that rose up in response to his corrupt governance and corporate agenda.

With the support of most of his "rubber-stamp city council," Emanuel imposed an austerity agenda on the people of Chicago:

Dubbed "Mayor One-Percent," Emanuel diverted $1.7 billion of taxpayer money into a slush fund used to finance corporate subsidies -- at the same time that he was making painful cuts to public services and flying around the country on taxpayer-funded trips to court wealthy executives for campaign donations. (Emanuel ultimately gave $14,000 back to the city, due to a new policy prohibiting the spending of city tax dollars on campaign fundraising.)

Reclaim Chicago -- a partnership between the People's Lobby and National Nurses United -- rose up against Emanuel's agenda to reclaim the city and reduce corporate power in city government.

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel wrote, "the campaign is moving from a candidate-centric model to a movement-centric model."

Reclaim Chicago leaders and volunteers spent 4,980 hours phone-banking, knocking on doors, and attempting to reach 59,000 Chicago voters with a simple question: "What issues are you and your family facing today?"

"Reclaim Chicago did something completely new and different in Chicago politics," said David Hatch, the group's executive director. "We didn't just talk to people about candidates. We talked to people about getting corporate interests out of City Hall and asked them to help us build a movement. Then we trained people to have these conversations with their neighbors. "

It worked. Not only did the campaign force Emanuel into a runoff, but eight of its city council endorsees won outright, and three pushed Emanuel's incumbents into runoff elections.

It's not over yet. Reclaim Chicago will play an active role in the runoff election, and could yet return Rahm Emanuel to private citizenship. But the movement's goals extend far beyond this election.

"We demonstrated that when you engage voters based on their values and concerns, you can overcome huge disparities of money in politics," Hatch added. "We won't go away after the election. Instead, we're building our membership and advancing our issues for the next round."

Reclaim Chicago's victory puts Wall Street Democrats on notice, and reminds us that progressive, populist, people-powered movements can fight and win against corporate interests and corporate candidates.

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