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Winning second place, Black vote key to Chicago mayoral election

By La Risa Lynch -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Feb 17, 2015 - 9:04:34 AM

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CHICAGO ( - An untested Rahm Emanuel backed by then-popular President Barack Obama swept into office when he ran for mayor of Chicago in 2011. It may not be so easy in this year’s race for mayor, according to some of the city’s Black political analysts.

From left to right, Phil Ponce talks to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, businessman Willie Wilson, Alderman Bob Fioretti and Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia before a televised debate for the office of Mayor of Chicago at WTTW in Chicago, Feb. 4. The candidates are vying for mayor in the Feb. 24 election. Photo: AP/Wide World photos

Mr. Emanuel overcame five challengers, including three Blacks and two Latinos, in the 2011 election to win the city’s top job by garnering 55 percent of the vote. But the closure of 50 public schools, unpopular ticket-generating red light and speed cameras and the city’s $26.8 billion unfunded pension liability may weigh heavily in the Feb. 24 city election. That, the analysts said, makes Mr. Emanuel vulnerable to defeat, especially if the first-term mayor is forced into a runoff.

Those challenging the mayor are jockeying to position themselves to force that runoff. In Chicago’s non-partisan election, candidates for office do not declare political affiliations. But a mayoral candidate must get 50 percent of the votes plus one to win the election. If not, the top two vote getters will face a runoff election in April.

Mr. Emanuel faces four challengers just as diverse in 2011. Among them is philanthropist and businessman Willie Wilson, who is Black, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Latino, City Council alderman Bob Fioretti, who is White, and William “Dock” Walls, also Black.

Mr. Fioretti said a runoff is the best way to unseat the mayor. But in recent mayoral debates, he and Mr. Garcia seemed to be jostling one another to be that second top vote getter. Mr. Fioretti said he has a vision for the city that’s more inclusive, where every resident has safe streets and strong neighborhoods.

“I think we need a mayor who is going to be tough but fair, and I am that candidate,” said Mr. Fioretti, who is part of the City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus and has opposed the school closings and red light cameras.

Mr. Walls, who has run for mayor twice before, wants to win the mayoral race outright. Mr. Walls said his campaign represents the 99 Percenters—the homeless, the disabled, senior citizens and disadvantaged youth.

“Those persons who live check to check as well as those people who are forgotten by society,” Mr. Walls said, noting unemployment in the city is still high and underserved communities still suffer. He wants to create 50,000 jobs through a mix of big box and small grocery stores scattered throughout the city to spur the economy.

“Rahm Emanuel has done nothing to create opportunity or prosperity for Blacks, Latino and Asians,” he said.

Political analyst Maze Jackson says any one of the four candidates have the potential to prevent the mayor from getting the “whole pie in every ward.” A runoff is likely as long as 50 percent of votes don’t go Mr. Emanuel’s way regardless of how votes are split among the challengers, Mr. Jackson said.

That could be considered “a virtual loss” for Mr. Emanuel, he added. If Mayor Emanuel is forced into a runoff “by the likes of the candidates in the race,” it wouldn’t bode well for someone seen as a political power broker, he said. Mr. Emanuel once served as the president’s chief of staff.

“Imagine … him being in a contest with Willie Wilson. It would be a national joke, and I don’t mean that to disparage Willie Wilson,” Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Wilson is a self-made millionaire who heads an industrial and medical supply company. The entrepreneur, who’s running for public office for the first time, is best known for his Singsation gospel television program and his philanthropy to local churches. Attempts to contact Mr. Wilson for an interview by The Final Call’s deadline were unsuccessful. He has, however, pledged to work for all the people of the city in speeches and campaign ads.

Analyst Jackson noted Mr. Emanuel easily won in 2011 because he had no record, and his endorsement by President Obama made voters think Mr. Emanuel “was the natural choice.”

“So he got the Black vote by default,” Mr. Jackson said. “He won every Black ward with a super majority.”

But the mayor is vulnerable now. Residents have experienced four years of his rule that includes a 2012 teacher strike.

“The mayor has so many headlines that have not been in favor of the constituency that elected him,” Mr. Jackson said. “They may not like the choices, but they don’t like the mayor as much.”

Bob Starks, a Northeastern Illinois University professor emeritus of politic science, predicts Mr. Garcia will be at the top contender—based on polling data—to force a runoff. According to a Feb. 14 poll by Ogden & Fry, Mr. Emanuel had a commanding lead with 49 percent. Mr. Garcia was 26 percentage points behind. Mr. Wilson had 14 percent, Fioretti 8.6 and Walls 4.9 percent.

Mr. Garcia could win the run-off race, but faces an uphill battle against Mr. Emanuel’s $30 million political war chest, Mr. Starks explained. Mr. Garcia has raised $817,000 for the election. But if the mayor outspends Mr. Garcia, then the advantage would be in the mayor’s favor, Mr. Starks said.

Mr. Starks also cautioned against underestimating Mr. Wilson’s appeal. More Blacks are tuning into Mr. Wilson because of his Southern roots and his religious background, which could translate to a strong showing at the polls, he said.

“It’s quite possible that he could be the second highest vote getter,” Mr. Starks said.

But Black voters play heavily in this election, he noted. Mr. Emanuel could win if voter turnout is low, he said. In 2011 voter turnout was about slightly over 50 percent. Black voters, however, could determine the runoff if they come out en masse, Mr. Starks said.

“None of them can win without a strong African-American vote. But at the same time very few of them are saying the kinds of things the masses of Black people want to hear,” Mr. Starks said.

Blacks, he continued, are concerned about school closings, but few candidates offered specifics on how they would rectify that. Police brutality is another issue as well as the city’s failure to go after cops who kill young Black men only to settle lawsuits with taxpayer money, he added. Unanswered questions like these could keep some Blacks away from the polls, Mr. Starks noted.

Alderman Fioretti said he would sack Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy if elected. He added he would hire a police chief from the departmental ranks—“someone who knows the city.”

Mr. Walls said he would take decisive actions against police misconduct. “I have zero tolerance for police abuse. I believe the police should be reminded that they are here to serve and protect. As mayor I will not support any police officers who abuse their authority,” he said.