This year’s race for Chicago’s mayor both reflects and could shape the direction of the Demcratic Party – not to mention the future of American cities.
Incumbent Rahm Emanuel failed to win outright on Tuesday, finishing with 45 percent of the vote (less than the required 50 percent plus one vote) to challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s 34 percent. Both candidates are Democrats, but beyond that, they have little in common.
Consider the two men’s approaches to education. Emanuel adopted teacher evaluations linked to student performance, flexible hiring and firing rules, and a longer school day (Chicago’s had been the shortest in the nation). He also increased the number of charter schools and made the politically difficult decision to close dozens of underperforming or underused schools. Garcia, who has promised to end mayoral control of the schools if elected, enjoys the strong backing of the city’s teachers union, which called a seven-day strike to protest Emanuel’s policies.
The rising cost of public pensions is an especially acute problem for Democrats, with their long ties to the labor movement. Emanuel has taken on politically powerful public-sector unions to reduce the city’s pension costs. Garcia has mainly pledged to work with labor leaders on the issue, which is easier said than done.
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But perhaps the greatest current divide in the Democratic Party – is on economic matters. Emanuel has focused on bread- and-butter issues familiar to any successful mayor: cutting red tape and costs for small businesses, promoting tourism, attracting well-paying jobs. Garcia has cast his campaign in populist terms. His supporters call Emanuel, who used to work in investment banking, “Mayor 1 percent.”
Chicago’s voters can show the nation – and the national party – that fiscally responsible government remains a priority for Democrats. That’s why this mayoral campaign has consequences not just for Chicago, but for the presidential race and debate over the next year and a half.