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Can Rahm Emanuel Overcome His Weakness Among Hispanics to Avoid a Runoff?

The mayor is polling poorly among Hispanic voters, a huge shift from his predecessor. That would seemingly benefit Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, but his political career was once derailed by Daley’s Hispanic allies.

Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Yesterday, the Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart took the temperature of Rahm Emanuel’s campaign for re-election, beginning with a subdued scene from a rally that mirrors the risk Emanuel is running of a runoff election and a “national political embarrassment.” He’s still got a substantial lead, according to a Tribune poll, one from Odgen & Fry, and internal campaign polls. And he’s got momentum, up from abysmal numbers last year.

Most of the attention has gone to Emanuel’s drop in support among black voters—a mere 40 percent give him a favorable rating, even though in 2011 he won almost 60 percent of the vote in majority-black wards.

A 40-percent approval rating among black voters is not, in and of itself, particularly unusual or devastating for Emanuel. It’s pretty similar to his predecessor’s numbers, in fact. Take 2003, when Mayor Daley scored his biggest victory, with 78 percent of the vote—shortly before the election, a mere 48 percent of black voters said they’d vote for him, compared to 83 percent of white voters and eighty-nine percent of Latinos. In 1995, when Daley had a marginally competitive race against Roland Burris, his favorability among black voters was just 30 percent.

Daley could easily survive ambivalence among black voters because his support from Hispanic voters was immense, going back to his 1989 election. Ten years after that:

Daley enjoys overwhelming support in the city’s white-ethnic wards on the Northwest and Southwest Sides, 86 percent to 3 percent, and had an 89 percent to 3 percent advantage along the lakefront. Among Hispanic voters, Daley had a decisive 84 percent to 4 percent edge.

His opponent, Bobby Rush, echoed current concerns.

Rush had hoped to use the city’s response to the snowstorm to advance his campaign theme that there are “two Chicagos,” the city of rich development and the city of the underprivileged that he says the mayor ignores.

Daley won 72 percent of the vote that year.

But according to the Trib’s January poll, Emanuel has a lower favorability rating among Hispanics than whites or blacks: 29 percent among Hispanics, compared to 53 percent among whites and 39 percent among blacks.

Good news for Chuy Garcia? It’s not bad news, certainly. But Garcia has a rocky past with Chicago’s Hispanic vote, due largely to Mayor Daley’s dominance of it.

In his book Nothin’ But Blue Skies, Ted McClelland vividly describes the rise of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which was built in the shadows of Chicago’s falling steel mills among a voting bloc desperate for good jobs.

After Harold Washington died, Richard M. Daley, son of the Old Man, prepared to run for mayor. Young Daley recognized that Latinos were the swing vote in Chicago. They had joined a black-and-brown coalition to elect Washington, but if Daley could entice them into a white-and-brown coalition, he could take over the city. In the back room of a South Chicago tavern, one of Daley’s henchmen made a promise.

“We need you guys,” he said. “We’re glad you left Vrdolyak. We’re going to take you. And we’re going to give jobs, jobs, jobs… Jobs for you and all the Latinos you can bring with us. We want you guys to be our minority, because we’re already sick of that other minority. We don’t want that other minority.”

As McClelland reported when HDO leader Al Sanchez went to prison in 2011, Sanchez went overboard on getting those jobs, jobs, jobs, leading to the collapse of his organization. But the HDO was powerful for two decades. And one of the pols it took down was Chuy Garcia.

In 1998, Linda Lutton wrote a lengthy, essential piece on Garcia (h/t Steve Bogira), whose political career went from a ceiling at City Hall to seemingly over after being beaten by a neophyte for his state senate seat—and he left politics for a decade, running a Little Village nonprofit and studying at UIC. (Ironically, Garcia’s loss came after he’d earned some enmity for battling the school on its southward expansion.)

There are some compelling political theories as to why Garcia was upset by an unknown Chicago cop in the election—that Garcia’s Harold Washington-esque coalition-building was viewed skeptically by Hispanics, that he focused too much on issues of displacement and gentrification in Pilsen and Little Village at the expense of economic development. As Lutton put it, “Garcia’s politics might be most attractive to constituents who can’t even vote.” But HDO pushed back hard against his campaign:

For Daley and his Latino allies it was perhaps the biggest, sweetest victory since Daley’s first win. “I’m sure they’re hailing the end of the independent progressive movement,” says Larry Gonzalez, Garcia’s press secretary.

[snip]

Several reports suggest that HDOers working north-side precincts were pulled off those races to work the First District, an indication of the importance placed on defeating Garcia. One campaign worker for Lisa Madigan, who was running for the senate on the north side, said the HDOers there “weren’t pulling their weight. They told me a week going into it that that’s because they were told that they needed to be on the south side. Eventually they told me that they would not be available for election day because they already committed somewhere else. . . . There were some people that only worked part of the day that went down there. Even some of the people that did stay were in constant communication with the south side.”

Shortly before his 1998 loss, Garcia had been talked about as a potential mayoral candidate. It only happened after a ten-year sojourn in community development and his political return as Toni Preckwinkle’s floor leader, and he still has a lot of ground to cover just to push Rahm Emanuel into a runoff. (Carol Marin argues that such a runoff would benefit the city, as a challenge to the kind of concentration of power that derailed Garcia’s career in the 1990s.)

With the HDO long gone, it’s possible. But both candidates are still moving within the shadow of Daley, finding out how far it still reaches, or has ceased to reach.

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