Illinois, the nation’s fiscal basket case, has been full of political surprises lately. Yesterday, Chicago, the home of the political machine that nurtured Barack Obama’s career, saw Mayor Rahm Emanuel forced into an April runoff against Councilman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, had every advantage in the race: $7 million in TV ads, a personal visit from his former boss, and the backing of a business community that’s been able to make special side deals with “da Mayor.” But Garcia showed the muscle of two powerful forces in the city’s politics: its growing Hispanic population and the Chicago Teachers Union, furious at Emanuel’s closing of 50 public schools. Two years ago, Emanuel retreated after a brief teacher’s strike and signed a new, generous contract with the union hoping to buy peace. That never works, and now the union is out to get him.
Garcia has no realistic plan for dealing with the city’s perilous financial condition: The Chicago public schools are $1 billion in the red and a $550 million city-workers’ pension payment is due later this year. But Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, my favorite conservative Chicago curmudgeon, says the runoff will be “fun and compelling. Because every day of it means that ideas and values and arguments will be made about the future of the city and where the people — not the insiders — think Chicago should go.”
Elections rarely matter in the Windy City. We’re about to have one that does.