To view all articles in this series about Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago mayoral campaign, click here.
Early voting began in the race for Chicago’s mayor yesterday.
What a strange week it’s been. Last Monday at 5 p.m., despite the rainy snow, a small, hearty crowd of about a hundred people gathered on the corner of Dearborn and Washington Streets, in front of the Board of Elections Commission’s building, to protest the Illinois Court of Appeals’ booting of Rahm Emanuel off the ballot for mayor. With a jot more than four weeks to go until the February 22 election, the decision, which overturned the Board of Elections Commission and the Circuit Court of Chicago ruling that Emanuel was a resident, meant that—his $11 million war chest notwithstanding—there might be a Rahm-less ballot.
The protesters arranged themselves in a semicircle facing Washington St. and held up signs with messages written in colored magic marker: “Let Rahm Run!” “Let The Voters Decide!” “I Want to Vote for Rahm!” “Keep Rahm on the Ballot!” “Chi Town hearts Rahm!”
They began to shout their slogans. The cops kept a clear path between the protesters and the media. Commuters hurried by, some not even looking up. But Pam McKinney, a campaign volunteer, approached me. “I want my voice to be heard,” she said. Apparently, someone else wanted to hear it. From out of the cold, one of Emanuel’s staffers swooped down. “Can I listen in?” she asked. McKinney said: “I worked hard. I hope it’s not going to get political when it gets to the state Supreme Court. It’s not rocket science.” She returned to the crowd of protesters. The staffer warned: Of course you can quote her, but she doesn’t speak for the campaign.
By 5:20 p.m. the protest had broken up. As I walked to the parking garage, I saw a bunch of posters curled up in the trash.
On Tuesday, Emanuel’s lawyers made an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court to hear the Appellate Court’s decision. Early voting, the lawyers pointed out, began in six days.
And for the next few days, speculation about how the Illinois Supreme Court would rule wiped out everything else. Both of the major newspapers ran pro-Emanuel editorials. Newspapers and blogs from all over the world weighed in on the situation, mostly to repeat clichés about Chicago’s politics.
The same day that ballots were printed without Emanuel’s name on them, the Supreme Court granted a stay of the Appeals Court’s decision and promised to rule quickly on the lower court’s decision. The printing press making up the Emanuel-less ballots stopped and began printing ones with his name on them.
While the city waited, theories were floated, some of them conspiracies. Talking heads kept arguing that whatever decision was made, it would be corrupt. Because justices in Illinois are elected, and thus often have deep ties to political officials, the talk was about who owed what to whom and how that would affect the ruling. There was discussion of Supreme Court justice Anne Burke, wife of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who for years has been deeply involved in the campaign of one of the other candidates, Gery Chico. On Wednesday, Burke, who, it had been speculated, might recuse herself, ridiculed the idea that she should do so.
If Emanuel lost, some pundits speculated, maybe he would stage a write-in campaign or take the matter to federal court. Others thought the Supreme Court ruling would be unsigned, to protect the guilty. An op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune accused the Appellate Court of “obstructing” the democratic process. The other candidates were ecstatic.
Across the nation, Emanuel was joked about. And in Taiwan, Next Media Animation, the video company responsible for bizarre computer animations about other pop culture memes, released one about the residency debate, in which Emanuel appears naked.
On Thursday evening, only two hours before the first official mayoral debate, the Supreme Court decision was made public: 7-0 in favor of Emanuel being on the ballot. But two of the justices, Charles E. Freeman and Burke (the alderman’s wife), though concurring with the majority decision, disagreed with its reasoning. “The result in this case is in no way as clear-cut as the majority makes it out to be,” they wrote. “As this court has noted, the legal term ‘residence’ ” does not “have a fixed and constant meaning.” Further, the concurring justices criticized the tone of the majority as inflammatory. “Spirited debate plays an essential role in legal discourse. But the majority has crossed the line.”
After all the excitement, the mayoral debate, sponsored by the City Club and the Chicago Tribune, was something of a let-down. One sadly predictable attempt to turn the tables came when the other candidates criticized Emanuel for sucking the air out of the campaign with the residency issue, which has, nearly everyone agrees, made him play the uncharacteristic role of victim. But the more substantive attempts to get Emanuel on the issues flopped, like when Gery Chico tried to attack Emanuel’s plan to lower Chicago sales tax, which at 9.75 percent is the highest in the country, by taxing a wider variety of luxury services. Chicagoans will be crushed under a tax “on common services: barber shops, child care, pet clipping,” Chico said.
Now the main issue in the race is whether the so-called outsider candidate will score the 50 percent of the vote needed on February 22 to avoid a Democratic run-off. Since the Supreme Court decision, Emanuel has jumped back in, grabbing an endorsement from the gay community and producing several glitzy ads with footage from Bill Clinton’s endorsement. The coming week promises equal doses of homespun Chicago “I’m just a tough-guy going to the L twice a day” posturing and high-wattage fundraisers. A private meet-and-greet at the house of Martin Nesbitt, the treasurer of President Barack Obama’s campaign, and Nesbitt’s wife, Anita Blanchard, Michelle Obama’s obstetrician, is scheduled for later today. Emanuel’s video response to Chico’s allegations about taxes, which uses a soundtrack by the Lovin’ Spoonful, is so smooth it made me feel sorry for Chico.
Nothing bad seems to stick. Not Emanuel skipping mayoral events, as when he committed the sin of leaving Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH forum early on Martin Luther King Day. He later explained he had somewhere else to be.
Also unsticky are the charges, originally reported in the Chicago Tribune in 2006—and much repeated around town—that there might be something rotten about Emanuel’s tenure on the Freddie Mac board in 2000, during an accounting scandal at the firm.
On Sunday, Emanuel’s demanding schedule included a stop at Rapid Transit Cycle Shops in the hip Wicker Park neighborhood, where he made expanding the city’s bike trails sound as urgent as lowering the deficit. “I promise to expand the trails 25 miles a year, that’s 100 miles a term,” he said with gravitas, also outlining a plan to create a series of walking trails in the spirit of New York’s extremely successful High Line park.
And then there was the Wilco fundraiser, held Sunday night at the Park West concert hall off Lincoln Park, where the scene looked like the set of a Nancy Meyers film. While the warm-up band J.C. Brooks and Uptown Sound covered an Otis Redding tune, campaign staffers passed out free snacks in large wicker hampers: pretzels, candy bars, oatmeal bars, nuts, trail mix, and dried fruit snacks. When Emanuel came on stage, he got a standing ovation.