Rahm Emanuel, meet Ras Baraka.
For those not following New Jersey politics, Baraka is the political progressive who won the 2014 mayoral election in Newark, the state’s largest city. To win, Baraka beat Shavar Jeffries, who many political observers in Jersey saw as the candidate of the state’s political establishment. Baraka’s victory is seen by many across the country as a significant victory for a progressive candidate in a big city mayoral race.
For Chicagoans, the 2014 Newark election may be of some interest. While every election has its own dynamics and, more importantly, its own backstory and political intrigue, a number of key similarities exist between the 2014 Newark race and the upcoming Chicago mayoral election.
For one, the Newark mayor's office had for years been occupied by Cory Booker, a major player in national Democratic politics just like Rahm Emanuel.
For another, the 2014 election was widely seen as a referendum on Booker’s particular brand of big donor, corporate-friendly politics that dominated Newark during his reign. For many here in Chicago, Mayor Rahm is seen more as “Mayor 1%”, more focused on the welfare of the city’s elite than everyday citizens.
As well, Newark’s education system had been gutted by powerful political interests. In 2013, Newark schools superintendent announced plans to consolidate, relocate and re-configure more than one-quarter of the city’s schools, including transferring neighborhood schools to charter school operators. As a result, education issues dominated the 2014 race, helping to define the candidate’s profiles in the minds of many voters.
Just like Chicago.
So why does what happened in Newark, New Jersey matter to Chicagoans? It’s simple. Boiled down to its essence, the 2014 Newark race represented an important and somewhat unexpected victory for a progressive politician facing big money interests all too eager to paint him a “too radical” for the mayor’s office.
Baraka won by gathering together a coalition of old-school neighborhood activists, union supporters, and high name recognition as a community organizer, public school teacher and champion of the dispossessed. He also gained key support from the Working Families Party, who helped propel New York progressive mayor Bill de Blasio to victory.
And today, such a pathway to the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of Chicago’s City Hall suddenly doesn't seem like such a long shot as it has in the past.
There’s clearly a growing progressive movement taking shape in Chicago, and for the first time in a long time, it’s starting to set its sights specifically on the mayor’s office. Coupled with the current mayor’s abysmal poll numbers, a citywide violence crisis, the closing of 50 public schools, a pension debacle in the making and a mayor seen as out of touch with everyday citizens, and you’ve got a whole lot of Chicagoans ready to find an alternate to the current administration.
Throw in two potentially strong, deeply progressive candidates—Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti—and you’ve got a significantly different playing field than even a few months ago.
Not to mention a newfound sense of optimism among the city’s progressives and activists that is starting to turn from “what if” to “why not now”?
In response, it appears Rahm Emanuel is doing the one thing he knows how to do better than anything else: raise money.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Emanuel is “fighting sagging Chicago polls with [a] fundraising blitz.” And there’s little doubt Rahm will have the ability to flood the campaign with millions of dollars in donations.
But it may not be enough. After all, Baraka’s opponent Jeffries spent as much as three times the amount of his opponent, much of it coming from corporate donors and charter school advocates.
Chicago may be seeing for the first time in a long time—at least since the election of Harold Washington in 1983—a real battle between grassroots activism and big-money campaign donations.
If I were Rahm, maybe I’d want to ask Ras Baraka how that turned out for him.