While the national press continues to fawn over Mayor Emanuel—most recently for snagging Star Wars director George Lucas’s future museum—his local popularity is on the wane. In a May poll by the Sun-Times, only 29 percent of Chicagoans said they would vote for Rahm if the election were held at that point. In comparison, his approval ratings were around 70 percent in the summer of 2011, shortly after he took office.
Despite that popularity dip, there are few potential candidates who political observers say have a real shot at ousting the mayor when he goes up for reelection on February 24, and that pool just got reduced by one. The favorite by far was Toni Preckwinkle, the powerful president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners since 2010.
In a July poll by the Sun-Times, she actually beat Rahm, taking 55 percent of likely voters to his 31 percent, with 14 percent undecided. “She’s very well liked and well respected,” says Marilyn Katz, a political and public relations consultant.
For months, reporters pestered Preckwinkle about her mayoral aspirations, but the 67-year-old former alderman (who did not respond to interview requests) routinely defaults to Hillary Clinton levels of coyness: “I’m running for reelection for the job I’ve got.”
On July 15, she put an end to the rumors.
"I have decided to rule out a run for Mayor of Chicago in 2015 because I made a commitment to reform Cook County's criminal justice system, transform our health care system, and ensure the viability of our pension system," she says in a statement. "I appreciate all of those who have expressed confidence in me by urging me to run for Mayor, and I hope you will continue to support me going forward."
Preckwinkle is running unopposed for reelection as Cook County Board President in November. She says the $1 million or so in her campaign fund could go to support other candidates for mayor, but she has no plans to endorse any candidate in the race.
If a viable challenger to Rahm does emerge, he or she will need to pick up where Preckwinkle left off. She had slammed the mayor on the hot-button issues of crime and schools, winning the favor of those disappointed in Emanuel’s handling of these issues—particularly his decision to close 50 public schools.
Emanuel’s handling of crime, schools, and economic development has hurt him among black voters in particular. In 2011, 59 percent of them voted for Emanuel. In a recent Sun-Times poll, a mere 8 percent said they’d support him now. “Deep-seated discontent creates a movement,” points out Don Rose, an independent political consultant in Chicago.
Had she decided to run, Preckwinkle would have needed to stomach a race that would almost certainly get ugly. She and the mayor have never had a cozy relationship. (When Chicago contributor Mark Bazer asked her, on a recent episode of WTTW’s My Chicago, whether the two get along, Preckwinkle paused for an awkward few seconds before muttering, “We work together.”) And the Tribune reported in May that an Emanuel aide was already feeding the paper negative stories about Preckwinkle—nine months before the election. (The aide later said his e-mail was “inappropriate” and apologized for sending it.)
With the possibility of a Preckwinkle run ruled out, the Mayor’s office issued a statement praising his erstwhile political challenger. “Toni Preckwinkle has been a strong partner in tackling many of the challenges facing Chicago neighborhoods, and an outspoken voice for criminal justice and pension reform,” the mayor’s statement began. “I agree that we have more work to do together on these and other issues so that we can find ways to improve Chicago and Cook County for everybody.”
For whoever takes on Rahm now, says Rose, “[the] main obstacle is money.” According to the latest campaign filings, Emanuel's war chest is north of $8 million.
Other Chicagoans have expressed interest in a run and even found support in some polling (see below). Another declared candidate, community organizer Amara Enyia, hasn’t shown up in any polls yet. Any of these people could split the anti-Rahm vote.
The most likely opposition candidate to replace Preckwinkle as a presumptive challenger to Rahm might be one of her most vocal supporters: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Lewis has publicly sparred with Emanuel on a national stage, calling him the “murder mayor” and leading the city’s first schools strike in 25 years. Lewis, who beat out Rahm by 9 percentage points in a Sun-Times poll released July 13, revealed just before Preckwinkle bowed out that she already has an exploratory committee and intends to run.
“The Chicago Teachers Union has been vocal in its call for a credible challenger to take on Rahm Emanuel and his misguided policies,” says CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin. Preckwinkle’s decision is disappointing to the movement against Emanuel, she says, but not fatal. “This is low hanging fruit.” And Rahm's opponents have plenty of time to pick it.
These three could take a run at Rahm for mayor.
Recent polling: 10 percent of vote Status: Undeclared, but “seriously considering” a run. A spokeswoman says Lewis “is aware of the growing call for her to step into the race if no other credible challenger emerges soon.”
Recent polling: 5 percent of vote Status: Undeclared, but interested. “I’ve been meeting with people all across this city,” he said at a City Club of Chicago luncheon in April. “I will make the announcement at the appropriate time at the appropriate place.”
Recent polling: 3 percent of vote Status: Declared. In a March 13 speech, he ripped the mayor for school closures and high water rates. “The rate [Emanuel’s] going, in another three years, you can’t take no baths,” Shaw said.