Imagine this: If Rahm Emanuel were to win re-election in February, what do you think would matter more to him the morning after Election Day: defeating noted mayoral critic Roderick Sawyer in the 6th Ward, or seeing mayoral ally Michelle Harris re-elected in the nearby 8th Ward?
Opinion: Is Chicago Forward a Defensive Play, Too?
At this point in the election cycle, both Sawyer and Harris are considered reasonable bets for reelection. Both wards are relatively unaffected by the 2015 remap, although the 6th ward picked up a chunk of the old 9th Ward where Sawyer has to win over new voters.
As well, both incumbents have at least two announced challengers, although it’s a bit early to see who might be serious or who will even make the February ballot. And both Sawyer and Harris are incumbents facing relatively unknown candidates. In the end, while no race can be guaranteed before Election Day, both Sawyer and Harris are in a better position than other, more vulnerable incumbent aldermen.
So, with $2.4 million sitting around in a friendly super PAC designed to help influence aldermanic races, where does Mayor Emanuel and his allies decide to spend money in the heart of Chicago’s South Side?
If I were the mayor or one of his political operatives, I’ll tell you what I’d do: I’d pour every available dollar I had into making sure Ald. Harris was still in City Council on February 25th.
Much has been made in recent weeks about the motives and intentions of Chicago Forward, a super PAC aligned with Mayor Emanuel widely seen as intended to help the mayor throw political opponents in City Council out of office and elect a new class of more compliant candidates.
To that end, Chicago Forward has raised more than $2 million in just a few months, most of it from wealthy donors and friends of the mayor.
The prevailing narrative around Chicago Forward is that Mayor Emanuel, already looking forward to reelection, wants to eliminate any and all opposition in City Council to his administration and agenda.
While that may be true, what if it’s only half the story? The reality is, not winning reelection isn't the only worst-case scenario on the table for Team Emanuel. Another, less visible, negative outcome could well include winning reelection but seeing a whole bunch of mayoral allies in Council go down to defeat.
It’s not out of the question. Mayor Emanuel is currently wildly unpopular in black and Hispanic wards across the city, a political dynamic that could easily play itself out in City Council races instead of the mayoral race.
At the same time, there’s a lot of pent-up energy around a number of aldermanic races across the city in advance of February. While turnover in City Council is often low due to the advantages of incumbency, there’s no reason why more candidates running in more contested races against allies of an unpopular mayor can't increase the number of incumbents out of a job come February.
And many of those political upsets, if they happen, could come at the expense of staunch mayoral allies who’ve loyally supported the mayor’s agenda, right down the line. If Rahm Emanuel isn't able to show he can protect alderman who’ve stood by his side for the last four years, what kind of message does that send for his ability to govern Chicago for the next four?
Just take Michelle Harris as one example. While Sawyer has often fought the good fight against what he and others see as mayoral agenda that’s wrong for the city, his effectiveness is limited by the unwillingness of a majority of alderman to sign on to any opposition to the mayor.
However, Harris is chairman of the powerful Rules Committee in City Council, and wields extraordinary influence over whether legislation unfavorable to the mayor gets buried in parliamentary procedure for months and years at a time.
What would it look like if the Mayor’s chairman of the powerful Rules Committee in Council unexpectedly found herself in a run-off? Or, worse, going down to outright defeat?
That’s not to say any of this is going to happen.
But it is to say that if I were Mayor Emanuel, I wouldn't want to take any chances.