Mayor Emanuel clinches re-election in Chicago

Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY9:49 p.m. EDT April 7, 2015

(Photo: M. Spencer Green, AP)

CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel won re-election on Tuesday, fending off an insurgent challenge from Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in the most contentious Chicago mayoral race in a quarter-century.

Emanuel was forced into a runoff after he finished first in a field of five candidates in the city's February general election, but failed to win a majority of the vote. The mayoral runoff was Chicago's first since the city switched to the current non-partisan format in 1995. The last competitive mayoral race Chicago saw was when Richard M. Daley won his first term in 1989.

With more than 75% of precincts reporting, Emanuel held a 56%-to-44% lead over Garcia, who conceded defeat.

"It's your future that's on the ballot, and I want to thank you for going out and fighting for it," Emanuel told supporters on Tuesday before polls closed. "This city, our neighborhoods and communities, are worth fighting for."

Emanuel, who raised about $23 million during this election cycle and also got help from a supportive political action committee, hit Garcia with a barrage of negative advertising during the runoff campaign that helped condition the landscape for voters.

In the ads, Emanuel managed to effectively define Garcia as a politician lacking the chops to deal with Chicago's myriad problems. The city faces $20 billion in unmet pension obligations, a sinking credit rating and persistent violence.

Garcia didn't help his cause with uneven debate performances in which he offered few particulars on how he would go about fixing the city's financial mess.

In making his case for re-election, Emanuel pointed to his work at expanding the school day for Chicago students, establishing full-day kindergarten and improving the overall crime rate.

Earlier this year, he unveiled a plan to offer free community college to any student in Chicago Public Schools that earns at least a "B" average.

Emanuel framed himself as a seasoned hand up to the task of leading the city through its financial crisis, while characterizing Garcia as out of his depth.

"With today's election result, it is clear that the people of Chicago support his focus on middle class economics and the direction he is taking the city," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee.

Garcia, meanwhile, argued that Emanuel exacerbated the city's financial problems. He criticized the mayor's decision to close dozens of schools with low enrollment in predominantly Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods, and made an issue of the city's expansive use of red-light cameras. Emanuel also tangled with the Chicago Teachers Union, which called its first strike in 25 years early in the mayor's term.

Rahm Emanuel faces runoff in re-election bid

In recent days, Garcia stepped up criticism of Emanuel's handling of violent crime in the city. After recording the fewest murders in five decades last year, Chicago saw homicides surge by 29% and shootings by about 40% in the first three months of 2015.

Emanuel faced criticism for his brusque personality. During the runoff campaign, the mayor addressed the issue in television advertisements and acknowledged he can sometimes rub people the wrong way.

Garcia became the darling of national liberal groups, including Democracy for America (DFA) and the Working Families Party, after he was able to force Emanuel, a centrist Democrat, into the runoff. Former presidential candidate Howard Dean endorsed him, and liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., campaigned for him in Chicago.

After Garcia's loss, DFA chairman Jim Dean said the Chicago race has "strengthened, unified and trained an army of grassroots activists who stand ready to hold the Mayor accountable at every turn."

In the end, a majority of voters appeared to embrace the Emanuel campaign narrative and felt it a safer bet to stick with him.

"Our city is facing some tough problems in terms of the budget," said Carrie Davenport, 37, a resident of the city's Ukrainian Village neighborhood who voted for Emanuel. "I think he has the skills and ability to make difficult decisions when they need to be made even when they are unpopular."

Red-light cameras create red hot furor in Chicago

Garcia, who won 34% of the vote compared with Emanuel's 45% in the first round, was a late entrant into the mayoral race.

He agreed to throw his hat in the ring after being urged to run by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. She considered making her own run to unseat Emanuel but opted not to after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

Garcia remained publicly steadfast until the very end that he could pull off an upset, even as the polls showed Emanuel pulling away.

In an interview with USA TODAY on Monday, Garcia said that his campaign was a victory for progressive Democrats no matter the outcome.

Sen. Kirk: Chicago could end up like Detroit if Emanuel loses

"We gave people a sense of hope, that their voices matter," Garcia said. "We stood up for accountability and that will continue."