Chicago's Progressive Movement Rallies to Defeat Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Re-Election

Posted March 11, 2015

MP3 Interview with Micah Uetricht, web editor with In These Times, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


The surprisingly strong showing of Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in the Chicago mayoral election Feb. 24 deprived incumbent Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel of an outright victory and forced him into a runoff on April 7. Garcia came late into the race after Chicago Federation of Teachers President Karen Lewis had to drop out due to illness.

In the first round of the election, Democrat Garcia had very little campaign funds compared to Emanuel’s large war chest, who some call Mayor One Percent, charging that he supports the agenda of the city's elite and focuses on downtown development, while neglecting the neighborhoods. Garcia won 34 percent of the vote compared to Emanuel's 45 percent. Garcia has a long history of progressive activism in Chicago and was an ally of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, who served from 1983 until he died in office in 1987.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Micah Uetricht, web editor with Chicago-based In These Times magazine and author of “Strike for America,” a book about the historic 2012 Chicago teachers' strike. He says Garcia's strong showing was a surprise to just about everyone, but now money is flowing into his runoff election campaign from unions and national groups such as Democracy for America, as well as attracting campaign volunteers from the American Federation of Teachers. Many Chicagoans now believe that in the April 7 election, they can make Rahm Emanuel a one-term mayor.

MICAH UETRICHT: The biggest factor, which has not been discussed a great deal in the aftermath of the election, is the strength of the city's grassroots social movements in producing this victory. People talk about this race sort of like they talk about Bill DeBlasio's win for mayor in New York City, or maybe the fight in the Democratic Party about whether we'll have Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren running for president, as this sort of fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, and there's a sizable and growing number of people who are opting for a much more progressive wing of the Democratic party. And that's certainly true, but the bigger story is not just that they're opting for this more progressive version, but that social movements in this city like the Chicago Teachers Union and the movement they have helped anchor around educational justice in the city – the neighborhood level community groups in the city – they are the ones who made this runoff happen over the course of several years. This runoff never would have happened if the Chicago Teachers Union hadn't gone on strike in 2012, for example. That's really a pivotal moment in this city, where people moved from being sort of incoherently angry about some of these policies like school closures and defunding of public schools and closing of mental health clinics and all these things intro having a clear enemy, being able to say "Rahm Emanuel is responsible for these closures and defunding and all these things, and he needs to go."

BETWEEN THE LINES: I just read an article that said some independent body found that 90 percent of the kids whose schools were closed ended up in better schools, even though some were only very marginally better. That was Rahm's rationale all along, that he made a tough decision that was better for the kids. What do you think of that?

MICAH UETRICHT: I think to answer that question, it's useful to look at the data about what happened in the election in those areas were schools were closed. Wenton Moser, who writes for Chicago magazine, had an interesting blog post where he overlaid where the school closures in the city happened over voting data, who voted for Rahm versus Chuy or other candidates. And he found pretty much across the board that in the areas that were immediately surrounding these 49 schools that were closed – and presumably these are voters whose kids were attending these schools that were closed – Rahm Emanuel lost votes almost across the board in every single one of those areas immediately surrounding those schools. If the school closures have produced better results for their children, I assume these parents would be showing their gratitude to Rahm Emanuel by voting for him. But instead, the closures and the other educational cuts that haves happened in the city became a central issue in the mayoral race.

I should also mention that one of the measures that was on the ballot in addition to who was going to be mayor of Chicago was in almost 40 wards the question of whether the city should have an elected representative school board – a school board that's chosen by the people of Chicago. And overwhelmingly, by 89 percent, it was a non-binding referendum so they were just indicating they want a representative school board. And the reason they want that and the reason the Chicago Teachers Union and other organizations in the city have pushed for this is because the school closures happened despite community groups moved heaven and earth to try to stop them from happening, from nearly unanimous participation in public meetings, saying "We don't want these closures to happen; they are really pillars of our communities." And they were all closed anyway; 49 of them were closed anyway.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What about going forward? What do you see happening over the next year or so?

MICAH UETRICHT: The big story in Chicago is this election between Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia. But the story that's flying under the radar is sort of the different way that these elections have been done, both at the mayoral level and the city council level. Chuy Garcia is very open about the fact that he only ran for mayor because he was asked to by Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers' Union. He all but admits that he wouldn't even be a candidate if it weren't for the city's social movements pushing him to do it. And likewise at the city council level, the races were extremely interesting in that it was not just a number of progressive candidates that sprung up and were trying to seize the momentum from a mayoral ally or right-wing city council members. What set the election apart is that there were grassroots activists – rank and file teachers, community organizers or community activists – who actually ran for city council seats and in a number of cases forced runoffs, and in addition to the city's progressive caucus, which is extremely small, about half a dozen people out of the 50 council members – almost all of them won re-election. But a number of these political nobodies, who were, like I said, high school teachers or teacher's aides, ran and actually forced runoffs. So I think it'll be interesting to see what happens in Chicago over the next couple years and if there's a continued growth of this kind of bottom-up politics where you have rank and file teachers running for office.

For more information about In These Times, visit For Micah Uetricht's blog, visit or his bio, visit

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