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Why Chicago Needs a Mayoral Runoff

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Why Chicago Needs a Mayoral Runoff
Why Chicago Needs a Mayoral Runoff

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Today is Groundhog Day for Rahm Emanuel. If he sees a shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of campaigning. If not, Chicago’s brief experiment with democracy will be over.

I’m rooting for a runoff, and not just because it will give me more to write about. Whether Emanuel has to keep running will affect how he governs the city for the next four years -- maybe even for his entire mayorality.

If Emanuel wins outright today, he will be a little boss standing all alone on a balcony, answerable to no one.

If he doesn’t win outright, he’ll have to acknowledge his opposition in ways he’s avoided so far. He may have to make deals with losing candidates, to push his support over 50 percent. And he’ll be forced to appear before community groups he’s ignored all winter.

Just as importantly, Emanuel won’t be able to spend his remaining campaign money in the City Council runoffs, buying the loyalty of this large class of freshman aldermen. If there’s a runoff, Emanuel won’t be able to dominate the Council the way Mayor Daley does -- at least not right away.

I’m also rooting for a runoff because I want more debate. This election season has lasted exactly three weeks, since the Illinois Supreme Court confirmed Emanuel’s spot on the ballot. Emanuel needs to give us more details on his luxury tax. He and Gery Chico need to give us more details on the concessions they’ll request from city workers’ unions.

Emanuel has been trying to run out the clock, hoping his name recognition advantage survives the public’s scrutiny of his stands on the issues. This is why it’s so important for Emanuel that he wins today. If he can’t hit 50 percent, with $12 million in campaign contributions, an endorsement from the president of the United States and support from the Daleys, his aura of invincibility will dissipate.

A runoff may be a whole new ballgame, and not one that plays to Emanuel’s strengths.

He already looks shrunken and exhausted from his daily regimen of handshaking, which he pursues as avidly as swimming laps. The campaign finance laws changed on Jan. 1, meaning he can no longer collect $50,000 checks from the likes of Donald Trump and Steven Speilberg. Since the new year, Emanuel and Chico have been roughly equal in fundraising. And he’s been a weak, detached debater, repeating his campaign platform rather than engaging his opponents.

We’re about to make a decision that may determine the course of Chicago for the next 20 years. Let’s spend another six weeks making sure we get it right.

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