By the time Chicago holds it's next Mayoral Inauguration, it will have been 84 years since the last Republican left that office.
While the 2015 Chicago municipal election is unlikely to break this dubious streak, it does offer a unique set of conditions from which a Republican could emerge as a relevant player in city politics.
According to a recent poll, Mayor Emanuel's re-election is anything but a guarantee.
Not only does the Mayor enjoy the firm support of only 29% of likely voters, but he is also facing an electorate that is so viscerally opposed to his 2nd term that 10% are willing to support Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teacher Union President who is among the least likable people to ever set foot in the public arena.
The poll also revealed an electorate that is far more liberal than the one that gave Emanuel a 2011 victory and one where nearly half do not feel safe in the city.
More polls will come out soon that give us more insights into Emanuel's political strengths and weaknesses. One thing is clear, Emanuel's piles of campaign cash and Hollywood connections won't win him this election by themselves. Municipal elections are all about getting your people out to vote while most citizens sit on their hands.You need die hard political foot soldiers to make that happen, not just a group of political mercenaries in it for the money.
Based on these facts, you might not immediately see a space for a Republican to emerge. However, there is a path. First let's examine the Democratic competition.
The reigning Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle does not face a challenge for re-election to her current office so she could easily pivot to a city race and mount a serious challenge to Emanuel. If anyone can overcome a financial deficit and cobble together a community coalition, it is her. Add the potential for the city to make history by electing it's first black, female mayor and you have a recipe for a change in power.
While Karen Lewis is unlikely to run, consider her a placeholder for a far left wing challenger. That person could be anyone with an activist background and some charisma. They won't win, but they will be able to lambaste Emanuel during debates and media interviews.
Alderman Bob Fioretti has nothing to lose in running. If you listen to his recent speech in front of the City Club of Chicago, he sounded like an old school Chicago politician from "the neighborhoods" who had taken a few pages out of New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio's playbook. Fioretti is a formidable campaigner and if unions put some money behind him, he might be able to tap into the outrage that exists in many Chicago neighborhoods and mount a serious campaign. Fioretti has plenty of city council experience and a good personal story. If he can tap into the conscious of the city and articulate the frustrations of the citizenry, he will have a chance.
There are other Democrats who might ponder a mayoral run as well; but, the opening for Republicans will come if at least one of the credible challengers listed above enters the race. The more the merrier, but if at least one serious challenger runs, the Republicans must find someone with citywide credibility to throw their name in the hat as well.
In Chicago, elections require the winner to gather 50% plus 1 of the popular vote. If there are multiple candidates in the initial round of voting and no one attracts the 50% plus one because of how diffused the votes end up, a run-off takes place between the top two candidates. With only two choices left, someone is guaranteed to win.
Throughout the city, 50 aldermanic races take place by the same rules. In several cases, incumbents have been defeated when they were forced into a runoff and the challengers rallied the opposition movement behind the first runner-up to defeat the incumbent. This is the scenario that Rahm Emanuel is hoping to avoid in 2015.
If Toni Preckwinkle or Bob Fioretti enter the race, a Republican can join the field to further fragment the vote. With Emanuel and a serious liberal challenger in the race, a business-minded, fiscal conservative could serve two purposes. First, he or she can present new ideas for confronting the fiscal, safety and educational challenges facing the city, forcing Emanuel away from his leftist leaning to respond to them and making those ideas part of the larger policy conversation for the long term. If the ideas get attention, the Republican campaign can then accomplish its second purpose: to introduce a real opposition agenda to the Chicago Democratic monopoly.
If this sounds like a long shot, I admit that it is. Mayor Emanuel has the support of most of Chicago's business community (the group most likely to support Republicans) and polls well among many white voters on the near north and northwest sides where Republicans have some small base of support in the city. However, a self-funded candidate who positions himself as an independent or libertarian can force his or her way into the political conversation and prevent Emanuel from winning without a runoff.
As conservatives, we do have to be careful what we wish for and this could be playing with fire. While the mayor has neglected city neighborhoods, backed off meaningful school reform and displayed cold indifference to the violence plaguing the city, he has maintained a good relationship with the business community and made Chicago slightly less hostile to small businesses who just want to get a license and some permits. Emanuel has also shown a willingness to push back against union demands that would increase the crushing tax burden on residents while sparing them any givebacks.
If Mayor Emanuel loses to a fellow Democrat, he will likely be replaced by a liberal "true believer" who is openly hostile to private enterprise, investors and school reformers. That winner would have achieved victory because of an army of bitter union activists who would then call the shots in city hall. The new mayor's left wing base would consist of activists who often blame the police for neighborhood violence and would not support any aggressive crime fighting tactics or even defend cops who have to defend themselves in violent situations.
The preferred outcome would be for a self funded Republican or independent (even if they are a closet Republican) to emerge as a viable candidate to join a crowded field and introduce a new voice into the old arguments that will be rehashed again in 2015. That may move the debate and the eventual winner into a more middle of the road political position. Perhaps the Republican could even make it into a run-off with the unpopular mayor and do the unthinkable: break the 84 year losing streak.
I know it is a long shot. But when policy problems hit crisis proportions, strange political realities can emerge. Perhaps there is a private citizen with leadership skills somewhere in this vast city who has been waiting for this moment to serve. Perhaps Rahm Emanuel's political paranoia and cold nature have created a vacuum that a Republican can fill.
For the good of Chicago and our future, I can dream, can't I?
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