Former White House Chief of Staff and one-time influential Congressman Rahm Emanuel – affectionately known by Capitol Hill rats as “Rahmbo” for his combative political style – easily strode into victory on Tuesday night as the next Mayor of Chicago. Emanuel replaces outgoing Mayor Richard Daley, brother of newly appointed White House Chief of Staff William Daley, as the Windy City’s executive. Now the top cheese presiding over management of the nation’s third largest city, Emanuel will face a hardened City Council ready to unleash pent up post-Daley rage and a deficit that rings to the tune of $1 billion in a city of nearly 3 million.
With $13 million in the bank and endorsements of gold from two Presidents and former bosses, Emanuel appeared to coast into a victory lap in the final weeks of the campaign as challenges from top Chicago political brand names dissolved into ancient history. The result was a 55% margin, more than enough to stave off a dreaded April 5 run-off, and a range offering a loud and clear mandate amid a crowded field of six candidates. Many observers had Emanuel pegged as a winner from the start, noting the heavily Democratic city’s legendary political machine was already churning into motion for the consummate Illinois pol who has dominated the electoral and legislative landscape since his days as a Senate staffer.
“What makes this victory most gratifying is that it was built on votes from every corner of the city from people who believe that a common set of challenges must be met with a common purpose,” Emanuel boasted to throngs of supporters at a Near West Side Chicago venue called Plumbers Hall with his wife and three kids standing next to him.
The Mayor-elect was also full of jokes, referring to his roller coaster residency requirement challenge that, at one time, seemed to consume every available ounce of campaign strength he had. “You sure know how to make a guy feel at home,” Emanuel laughed.
Emanuel’s hat tip to “every corner of the city” pointed to the wide swath of support he received from the Northwest White side of the city to generally strong support from the Black community, as well. Emanuel ended up winning 40 of the city’s 50 wards, with former Daley Chief of Staff Gery Chico winning 10 and coming in at second place with 24 percent of the vote.
Chico, Mexican-born, did become a favorite among the city’s Latino voters and was able to siphon off most of that demographic from Emanuel’s dominant grip. While it wasn’t enough to win first, it did offer signals that the Latino electorate could become a force should they pick a strong candidate to back in future races and can increase voter registration numbers.
“It was truly a citywide victory. To do that in one round is a remarkable feat,” said Obama strategist and Emanuel friend David Axelrod in a Chicago Sun Times interview. He further noted that, “The most important thing for the city was the multi-racial, multi-ethnic nature of this victory…There were people who doubted his strength in the African American community, but it was real. It is much healthier for the city, and it will give him the foundation from which to attack the problems of the city.”
Indeed, from the time Daley announced retirement, the city’s Black political elite began its own frantic internal community race for a strong African American candidate the likes of which had not been seen since the first Black Mayor Harold Washington (D). Initially, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D) emerged as a very early favorite, but crashed and burned amid the scandal of ethics probes and an affair with a Peruvian flight attendant. Over time, the entire field was crowded with big Chicago names with national profiles like Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), State Senator and Reverend James Meeks and former U.S. Senator Carol Mosley-Braun. Black politicos in Chicago were voicing first dibs on city hall in an attempt to reclaim past glory and the need for a Mayor that would directly address the needs of a community still struggling with rampant unemployment, crumbling schools, street violence and foreclosures.
Ultimately, it was Braun who ended up with the mantle of “consensus Black candidate” as Meeks and Davis dropped out to encourage the selection of a strong, unified Black political firewall against Emanuel.
But, from the start, controversy followed Braun at every step. For the longest time, she wouldn’t release her tax returns until pressed. If she wasn’t blasting President Clinton for “betraying” the Black community for his endorsement of Emanuel she was immersed in petty public squabbles of her own creation with lesser known candidates, at one time referring to opponent Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins past drug use in a church-sponsored debate.
“Patricia, the reason you do not know where I was for the last 20 years is because you were strung out on crack,” said Braun in response to Van Pelt-Watkins in what became the most infamous line of the Chicago Mayoral race.
And, in a later string of gaffes, Braun later made a joking comparison of Emanuel to Adolf Hitler before a crowd at a recent campaign rally. She immediately denied the claim, using it as another opportunity to lambast the press and to force a discussion on Emanuel’s famously abrasive temperament.
In the end, Braun was a burning plane wreck, crumbling much like – ironically – that recent earthquake in New Zealand where she was once Ambassador. Despite her history as the first Black female U.S. Senator, Braun’s glamour in the Chicago Black community faded and she only garnered a little over 9% of the vote. She could barely raise more than $500,000 – nowhere near the $2 million she would have needed to run an effective TV campaign blitz to offset Emanuel gains.