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Rahm Emanuel Sat Jan 01 2011
To say that Danny Davis's withdrawal from the Chicago mayor's race, and his endorsement of former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, changes the landscape is understatement. The emergence of one, and only one, strong African-American candidate in a field where no one is named Daley would be noteworthy under any condition. But for that candidate to be a history-making personality who now also happens to be the only woman in the race is an earthquake of far greater magnitude than the tremor felt in Chicago a few days ago. Effectively narrowing the field to four strong candidates, west sider Davis's weight being thrown to South Sider Braun now makes clear what had always been true but not recognized by some: the ascendacy of Rahm Emanuel to City Hall, despite numerous advantages, is not an inevitability. Some other person, including Carol Moseley Braun, could be the next mayor of Chicago.
So far, this race had always been about the runoff. While Emanuel, with help of media coverage no other candidate enjoyed, surged to an early poll lead, no survey ever showed him with anything near the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. Mathematically, anyone who requires a runoff to win is theoretically vulnerable in that runoff, because, after all, most of the electorate voted for someone besides the person who comes in first. The question becomes who, of those who voted for someone else, re-aligns with whom, who stays home, and who comes out who didn't vote in Round 1.
Multi-candidate races have their own peculiar dynamics, and to some extent each is unique, but a common characteristic is their tendency to betray front-runners. Chicago is a paradox of political sentiments: we so often bow to power, but deep down almost always root for the underdog -- that's part of why Braun became Senator in the first place, and Barack Obama her successor. So an electoral snarl of "you ain't the boss of me" is always a possibility. As voter resentment continues to play out against anything and everything connected with a power structure that many feel has abandoned the average citizen, that may prove especially true in Chicago in 2011.
A tricky part of that for Braun is that leaders such as Davis or Bobby Rush cannot "deliver" votes per se for Braun. Another trickbag is the extent to which Emanuel is seen as Obama's man. But Braun's emergence is likely to be seen as the result of a "process" that gives her candidacy an endorsement more valuable than any politician's. By prevailing over two men of not inconsiderable political strengths themselves, charismatic preacher-politician state Sen. James Meeks and Davis -- the latter practically an institution, a sitting Congressman with direct lineage to the Harold Washington coalition -- Braun has also showed the strength that many look for in a chief executive. Barring any of the unforeseens that can occur in any campaign, Braun's chances of making the runoff have now morphed from possible to probable.
The apparent African-American coalescence behind Braun does not make either Gery Chico or City Clerk Miguel Del Valle chopped liver. Del Valle, the only candidate besides Braun who has won Chicago-wide vote, is an intelligent and capable veteran of the reform movement who has attended more City Council meetings in the past four years than all other candidates and should have the greatest present knowledge of the City budget. A public servant who has not profited by his service, Del Valle stakes claim to connection with the grassroots, and like Davis traces back to the Washington coalition. Widely regarded as human, genuine, and committed to government that better serves citizens, Del Valle is as much an issues as an ethnic candidate, and has been quietly building the greatest amount of hardcore lakefront progressive support, from the likes of Democracy for America's Sandra Verthein and Prairie State Blue's Jeff Wegerson. By process of elimination, Davis's withdrawal strengthens Del Valle incrementally. If a quantum of opinion leaders were to back Del Valle as the candidate most likely to lead Chicago to reform, he would have a real shot.
Chico, on paper, has an unmatched resume of experience running large entities: the schools, the parks, the city colleges, and even Daley's staff. He brings money and connections to the race, as well as, like Del Valle, an Hispanic surname for those for whom that's the most important ballot consideration. With a possible shot at garnering the most editorial support from the business community, and the backing of traditional powerhouse Ald. Burke in a race remarkable for its absence of any Irish-American, Chico had to have been considered, all along, a contender for at least one of the two coveted runoff spots. That contention, however, presumed a more splintered African-American vote. Additionally, if voters in some way, somehow, are looking for "change" in Chicago, Chico's resume, ordinarily a plus, is potentially baggage. How many Chicagoans really think that every organization that Chico has run -- or any of them -- has been run well? Whether Chico can prove otherwise, with stats and charts, is irrelevant. There are only 7 weeks until the election; perception matters, and my hunch is that building a plurality from voters who say "I wish Chicago could be run as well as the Chicago Public Schools!" will be a tough climb.
The foregoing assumes that Emanuel remains the presumptive favorite (and on the ballot). That seems sound for now. Smart, skilled, tough, well-funded, nationally known, with some big-name backing, how do you not count Emanuel in? Oh, and did we mention he's the most Caucasian major candidate (for those for whom that's the most important ballot consideration)? The only scenario under which that might change would be if, as more start to see Braun as likely to survive the first round, some start to wonder who would be strongest against her 1-on-1.
Because the runoff is the thing, typically now the media focus will turn to the traditional horse-race talk. Money. Polls. Endorsements. Race. Irrelevancies and the bogeyman of "character" will circulate, under the surface if not above. For those for whom the issue is "anybody but Rahm" (and whether or why the ABR Movement exists at all is another discussion altogether), the fundraising numbers and the next set of polls may produce pressure on Del Valle, Chico, or both to also withdraw. They may well not. Four is a manageable number of serious candidates, the race is not currently suffering from a surplus of good ideas about how to right Chicago's ship, surprises can and do happen, and the April election itself will provide ample opportunity for further coalescing and for the bargaining that builds coalition.
I don't think you can throw the money and polls, the organizational backing and the big-name endorsements, completely out the window on this one, but any pundit who relies on those and neglects the intangibles is likely to be fooled again. Much may yet evolve; all candidates and candidacies have weaknesses, little is inevitable, and millions of individual decisions ultimately will decide. But if the election were held today, it would likely result in a runoff between Braun, invoking "the people," and Emanuel, warning that if he is not elected, Chicago will become a "second-tier city."
Davis was the "unity" candidate but, so long as Braun didn't buy it, Davis could not truly claim that title. Now, however, he has been able to confer it. His doing so is a game-changer. One candidate now has "mo" in more than her middle name. Emanuel still commands the board but if, in Chicago in 2011, "change" is the game, Carol Moseley Braun could yet win.