What Rahm Emanuel’s Near Miss Says About Philly’s Mayoral Race

Outrage over city schools and the gap between rich and poor nearly cost the incumbent his job.

Credit: Shutterstock.com

Credit: Shutterstock.com

By now, you’ve probably heard about the exciting runoff in the Chicago mayoral race. On Tuesday night, Rahm Emanuel prevailed in a surprisingly close contest, winning 56 percent of the vote to top Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County Commissioner who almost rode a tidal wave of resentment over Emanuel’s school policies into office. Not only did the race (presumably) jolt Emanuel—a POTUS-endorsed, deep-pocketed, (sometimes-arrogant) incumbent mayor who was left humbly thanking voters for giving him a “second term and second chance“—but it shook the bones of Democratic politicians nationwide.

In the hours after the victory, national pundits began writing campaign obits about what the tight race might mean beyond the Second City. Besides the inevitable “Hilary Clinton beware” yarns, there were some intriguing reads from municipal-minded political observers regarding the near-miss rejection of a well-known Democrat. One was written by ex-City Paper staff writer, Daniel Denvir, now over at City Lab:

Garcia’s tale-of-two-cities campaign echoed the populist rhetoric that suffused that of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected out of a movement fueled by progressive anger over centrist Democratic hostility to public school teachers and favoritism toward high-end developers. Garcia’s strong showing is also a reminder that education politics has become a defining feature of intra-Democratic Party warfare, particularly at the city level, pitting well-financed charter school backers against teachers unions.

The debate over education policy in Chicago’s race has obvious parallels in Philly. On the one side there’s Anthony Williams, enthusiastic ed reformer, who is supported by $1 million (and counting) in advertisements largely paid for by three suburban school-choice advocates, and on the other, Jim Kenney (endorsed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers) and most of the rest of a Democratic field that wants to pump the brakes on charter growth. Education is clearly a major wedge issue here, just as it was in Chicago, just as it was in New York in 2013.

Bill de Blasio triumphed in New York’s election two years ago because he broke clean from onetime-frontrunner Christine Quinn on education. Quinn was perceived as the inheritor of Michael Bloomberg’s legacy on schools, which included tenuous relations with the teachers union and support for charter experimentation. In Chicago, Garcia’s primary backer was the teachers union (Karen Lewis, the head of the teachers union who famously tangoed with Emanuel during the teachers strike in 2012, essentially pulled Garcia into the race).  “Garcia’s campaign tried to seize on widespread frustration over the mayor’s first-term record on education and crime and highlighted Emanuel’s ties to wealthy power brokers,” wrote the Washington Post.

It’s a playbook that very nearly worked for Garcia, and you can expect Williams’ foes to try some of the same here in Philadelphia. The parallel isn’t a perfect one. Williams isn’t an incumbent mayor. But he does have a long, documented record as one of the state’s highest profile Democratic school choice advocates. And attacking that kind of record has proven awfully politically effective now in both New York and Chicago.

But Emanuel was vulnerable to another line of attack that just won’t work on Williams. Chicago, perhaps even more than other big U.S. cities, is starkly divided between the haves and the have-nots. As John B. Judis wrote in the National Journal:

The quandaries begin with Chicago’s dramatic social divide. To an even greater extent than is the case in, say, New York or Philadelphia, Chicago has become two entirely separate cities. One is a bustling metropolis that includes the Loop, Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, and the Gold Coast, as well as the city’s well-to-do, working-class, and upwardly mobile immigrant neighborhoods. The other Chicago consists of impoverished neighborhoods on the far South and West Sides, primarily populated by African-Americans. These places have remained beyond the reach of the city’s recovery from the Great Recession.

Emanuel is pretty easily labeled by his opponents as the Mayor of the Loop. Anthony Williams, on the other hand, has a campaign theme of “One Philadelphia,” which is built on the argument that the city needs to focus on improving conditions in low-income neighborhoods. It’s folly to try and cast him as the candidate of elite Philadelphia. Really, there’s nobody in the race that can be effectively tarred as the plutocrat candidate.

Which means what, exactly? There are some lessons to be learned from the recent experiences of Chicago and New York, but Philadelphia’s election is its own creature. It always is.