Illustration by Allison O’Flinn
During the mayoral election last February, 32.7 percent of registered Chicagoans who voted made a nationally significant decision that could change city politics. This change ultimately depends on the outcome of the runoff election set for April 7 (with in-person voting registration open until April 4).
In a political era overrun by super PACs and privatization, Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia — a grassroots campaigner whose family immigrated from the state of Durango, Mexico, to the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago — earned about 33 percent of the votes, enough for a runoff against the incumbent Rahm Emanuel.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel’s ads (before the February election) would cover 6.5 days of television, if they were all played one after the other. While Garcia didn’t purchase a single television ad until two weeks before the election, Emanuel spent an estimated $7 million on television ads. With the help of a pro-Emanuel group spending a separate $450,000 on smear campaigns against Garcia, Emanuel gathered around 44 percent of the votes in the first round of voting.
The runoff came as a shock to Emanuel, who did not harvest the expected 50 percent of votes to avoid a runoff. A few days after being forced into the runoff, Emanuel — a politician who has a reputation for being argumentative and volatile — released an ad with an apologetic tone, “Sometimes I can rub the wrong way. Sometimes I talk when I should listen. I own that.” Days after that ad aired, mental health activists told reporters that after repeatedly asking Emanuel what he was going to do about the lack of resources for citizens who struggle with mental illness, Emanuel repeatedly yelled “You’re going to respect me!”
Emanuel closed 6 out of Chicago’s 12 mental health clinics in 2012. He closed the clinics around the same time he announced the closing of 49 of Chicago’s public schools on the South and West Side. As with the mental health clinics, these schools served neighborhoods in which residents are almost entirely black and Hispanic. In 2013, shortly after the school closings, photos of the former Crispus Attucks Elementary school were released; the deteriorating building shows evidence of gang activity, according to the Chicago’s Teachers Union.
Emanuel, who has been tag-lined ‘Mayor 1 Percent,’ has been criticized for his use of taxpayer money, especially TIF funds. Tax Increment Financing funds were brought into use nationally in the 1970’s as an attempt to develop neighborhoods by creating a fund that limits the allocation of tax dollars within that district. As property values rise, the extra those property hikes provide flows into TIF funds controlled by the Mayor. Ideally, these funds are distributed to districts that are underdeveloped and face higher crime rates. The money is meant to be spent on businesses and public centers that will help foster a better community. However, in Emanuel’s Chicago, higher percentages of these funds are going into the Loop and Chicago’s North side. According to the Chicago Reader, more than half of the tax payer money going into the TIF funds would be going directly into public schools, if the funds were not in use. But, since the funds are in use, the people in power get to decide how to divide up the money. It wasn’t until the summer of 2013 that Emanuel finally let the public see, via a virtual portal on the city’s website, which areas received the funds. This was announced at the same time that the mayor fired 2,100 CPS employees. So, if Emanuel wants to spend $55 million on building a new basketball arena for DePaul, a private university on the Northside, and a new hotel, while he cuts public funding for schools, he can, because apparently there hasn’t been anyone with the means to challenge him.
Emanuel raising $20 million in election donations, compared to Garcia’s $2.6 million, highlights that Garcia was relatively unknown to voters outside of the Hispanic community. Garcia also received most of his funds from unions, especially the Chicago Teachers Union, and is supported by community members that he’s met. Garcia is more accessible than Emanuel, the former investment banker and Chief of Staff for President Obama. Garcia has spent the past few months knocking on doors and asking community members what they feel they need from their government, whereas Emanuel spends more of his time talking to his banking/CEO supporters.
Garcia is running on a campaign built around transparency; if he wins, he promises to hire a Freedom of Information Act officer, and has plans to reform the TIF funds so that they “actually spur economic development … and job growth in blighted areas.” Garcia also criticizes the Mayor for privatization of city services, in particular, closing public schools and opening charter schools managed by private companies. Privatization refers to the act of transferring public sectors (which converts public jobs to private ones by laying off public workers and hiring private companies to supply employees) to the private sector, run by corporations. Emanuel has been pushing schools to privatize. Virtually all schools opened in the past few years are charter schools. Charter schools are privately managed schools that use public funding, but can design themselves to select certain students based on their performance, like test scores or grades.
Garcia is dead set against the privatization of schools, and seeks to use the many abandoned buildings on the South and West Side as “community peace hubs.”
Critics of Garcia argue that he fails to say exactly how he is going to balance the budget. It’s impossible to deny that Emanuel has more experience handling large sums of money, but it’s also impossible to deny that Garcia has more experience as a community activist in the city of Chicago.
The current runoff may be local, but it is also symbolic of a national question: is the ‘1 Percent’ going to hold onto the majority of our nation’s wealth and power, or are independent thinkers, operating on small donations, going to take back our governments?