Rahm’s Victory: Win for Progressives or “Right-Wing” Democrats?


Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s victory was supposed to go smoothly. The city’s long and storied history does not usually produce massive upsets, save for Harold Washington’s victory in 1983 when he consolidated the Black vote in an election that the White was split between incumbent Jane Byrne and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley.

But nothing about Mayor Emanuel’s tenure was expected to be that out of the usual from normal Chicago politics. As the hard-nosed, cut-throat former chief of staff for President Obama and a former congressman who was one of the main architects of the Democrats’ takeover of Congress in 2006, Emanuel won an easy victory in 2011 when he ran for mayor.

Things weren’t so easy after that. Facing a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, rising crime, and one of the worst and most expensive education systems in the country, Rahm went into action. He started closing bad schools and laying off ineffective teachers.

And since Republican Governor Bruce Rauner was inaugurated this year, the mayor has had political backup from Springfield initiating badly-needed reforms.

But many on the progressive left have been enraged by Emanuel’s mayorship. Activists like Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis have lead protests and demonstrations against failing school closings which have lead to very tense negotiations that have broken down at times. Emanuel’s ties to the Chicago Stock Exchange and financial class from his days as an investment banker have also been a source of consternation in a party increasing populist and suspicious of “Big Money.”

Newly installed red light traffic cameras that disproportionately impact poor neighborhoods have not been popular either.

On the other hand, Democratic allies of Emanuel have pointed to the mayor’s enactment of universal pre-k and big spending on infrastructure as proof of his progressive bonafides.

Looking into results, city voters bought into the mayor. According to reports, 143,000 ballots early and absentee ballots were cast. This number was much higher than the amount of absentees in the first round of voting or the mayor’s first 2011 race.

Most neighborhoods were showing strong support for the Mayor against Garcia.

Fundraising reporting found much more support for Emanuel as well. The incumbent raised $23 million compared to just $6 million for Garcia.

In the end, Chicago went for the incumbent by 56% to 44%. But although the election was a decisive victory for the mayor and centrist progressives, the debate was not. A resurgent populist mood on left is making things increasingly difficult for Democrats like Emanuel, President Obama, and likely 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Many in the party see the party as too close to Wall Street and too conciliatory toward the Republican right when it comes to reforming key liberal cornerstones like Medicare, Social Security, as well as their suspicion of free trade and foreign intervention.

What we are essentially seeing on the left is a progressive tea party, or what Occupy Wall Street was supposed to be once it was able to find a real issue to rally around. What Obamacare and opposition to Big Government is to Tea Party conservatives, regulating Wall Street and resisting any and all changes to Social Security and Medicare is to these New Progressives.

Chicago was a canary in the future of liberal politics in America. And although the establishment candidate won, many argue he was permanently pushed in a leftward direction.

And in many ways this will be a constant theme of 2016: not only what is the true vision of the Republican Party, but if Hillary Clinton wins, who will she be listening to?



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