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Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Run-Off Should Terrify Hillaryland


Last week, the mayoral election in Chicago produced a shocking result when incumbent Rahm Emanuel—Barack Obama’s former chief of staff—failed to get the 51% of the vote needed to avoid a run-off.

Emanuel should be worried, but you know who should really be terrified? Hillary Clinton and her acolytes. This election result is a warning that not everyone is ready for Hillary.

First, some context. In Chicago, Da Mare does not go to a runoff. Ever. If you’re in charge of the machine, it does your bidding and its gets you re-elected, period. That’s how Richard M. Daley ended up serving six terms, following the example of his father Richard J. Daley, the very embodiment of the 20th Century machine politician.

So what went wrong? Emanuel was blindsided by a rebellion from his left. Emanuel had earlier opposed the city’s teachers’ union in contract negotiations, so he was expecting a mayoral challenge from the head of that union, Karen Lewis. When she had to bow out because of health problems, Emanuel assumed the field was clear. But then Jesus “Chuy” Garcia emerged from the Cook County Board of Commissioners and unexpectedly received 34% of the vote to Emanuel’s 45%. They will now face off in a head-to-head race.

What is important is that Garcia is challenging Emanuel from the far left: his mentor, the late Rudy Lozano, was connected to the Communist Party, and Garcia ran by denouncing Emanuel as a member of the “Corporate Wing of the Democratic Party.”

In short, this is a rebellion of the radical “progressive” left against the “neoliberal” moderates: Democrats who at some point have compromised with elements of business and markets, described as “politicians who are socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and more reliant on the support of affluent professionals than organized labor.”

Which is to say: the wing of the party associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Bill Clinton famously campaigned in 1992 as a “New Democrat” pursuing a “Third Way” in which free markets were not always the enemy and “the era of Big Government is over.” This supposed overhaul of the Democratic Party was always more hype than reality—the Clintons’ first priority in office was an attempted takeover of health care—but it did achieve some concrete results, such as a welfare reform. Many on the left have never forgiven the Clintons for this, which is how an inexperienced upstart like Barack Obama could overthrow the Clinton machine in 2008 by billing himself as a true believer and denigrating Hillary Clinton as a cynical compromiser.

Slate’s Alec MacGillis recently catalogued the bad things Democrats said about Clinton when she was running against Obama, all of which they have conveniently forgotten. The risk is that someone might remind them.

Some of the same people who have been promoting Garcia’s campaign, as well as Bill de Blasio in New York City, are looking to draft Elizabeth Warren as a “progressive” challenger to Clinton in 2016. But Chicago’s vote is a warning that even if Warren stays out of the race, someone else might sense the opportunity and grasp it, and a relatively obscure challenger could quickly gain support.

Chuy Garcia emerged as a challenger to Rahm Emanuel, not because he was well-known—he was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2010 with fewer than 25,000 votes—but because the “progressive” left in Chicago was looking for someone, anyone as an alternative.

The people of Chicago have a legitimate grievance against their existing leadership. As I have examined, Chicago has been transformed over the past few decades into a two-tier society. The rich and upper middle class live in a few neighborhoods in the city’s North and Northwest, where they enjoy relatively safe streets, decent public schools, and easy access to the city’s train system. The rest of the city is increasingly dominated by the very poor, who are stuck with failing schools, high crime, and a shrinking network of bus lines. Meanwhile, the city has been purged of its middle class, who were all driven out to the suburbs, along with many of their employers.

So it’s no surprise that a map of the wards where Emanuel won more than 50% of the vote, versus those where he polled under 50%, coincides pretty closely with a map of the contrast between Chicago’s wealthy and poor neighborhoods.

But Garcia is exactly the wrong solution to Chicago’s problems. If the city’s devolution into a two-tier class society is driven in part by the failure of its public schools, then the last thing they need is a candidate who is in the pocket of the teachers’ unions, whose solution is impose higher taxes on employers so they can throw more money at the existing system without reforming it in any way. Garcia threatens the city with a Detroit-like death spiral: the failure of the moderate Democrats drives the poor into the arms of the far left—which chases even more employers and middle-class residents out of the city, making all of its problems worse.

(This is why, despite being in real trouble in the polls, Emanuel has a good change of winning the run-off—by appealing to the city’s Republican voters and their fear of a far-left mayor.)

The two-tier stratification of big Democrat-run cities is not exactly a political accident. Some of us have speculated that Democrats are purposely fostering the constituency that favors them, a “top-bottom coalition” of the upper-middle-class and the poor, while driving out the politically independent middle class. The kind of people who gave Richard Nixon a majority of the vote in places like Chicago and New York City way back in 1972 have been chased out to the suburbs by now. But the creation of urban liberal hothouses could now backfire on the Democrats. They haven’t built a coalition for the moderate left. They’ve built one for the far left. In doing so, they are damaging their national image and endangering the more moderate leaders who need the support of all those now-suburban voters.

Because as far as I’m concerned, if the Democratic Party wants to move left, they can keep on moving. The farther they go to the left, the farther they will leave the American people behind.

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