In Runoff, Mayor Changes His Tone– For Now

Did Chicago voters really want to oust Mayor Emanuel from office last month, or did they simply want to serve a slice of deep-dish humble pie to the brash incumbent for catharsis?

Judging by the tone struck by the mayor’s first television ad since failing to garner a simple majority, and being forced into an April run-off with Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Emanuel’s campaign seems to believe that the latter is true.

The ad features the mayor sitting, speaking softly, looking into the camera and admitting that he doesn’t “always get it right.”

The ad’s language would seem to suggest that Emanuel’s campaign believes the mayor’s struggles to win over voters in this election have more to do with personality than policy. Chicagoans know that the city is a mess, the ad seems to acknowledge, and they can be forgiving of a mayor struggling to pull it away from the ledge in just one term, but perhaps not if he almost uniformly comes off as abrasive.

“They say your greatest strength, is also your greatest weakness. I’m living proof of that. I can rub people the wrong way. Or talk, when I should listen. I own that," Emanuel said in the ad. “Look, I’m not always going to get it right. But, when it comes to fighting for Chicago, and Chicago’s future, no one’s going to fight harder."

The flip-side of Emanuel’s famous temper and intractability, is the perception that he is strong, and committed to his beliefs. That strength was a big reason why he was able to swoop back into Chicago four years ago and take the mayor’s seat without so much as breaking a sweat.

Now, his campaign seems to believe, voters are less tolerant of an air of arrogance from their leader, as the city and many families struggle to meet basic needs. The implicit hope here is that changing the mayor’s tone as he addresses his constituents, will be as important or more important as policy history and plans, to people deciding how to vote next month.

There is also a bit of the familiar Emanuel argument that voters should reward him for doing things that they don’t want him to do, because it shows a strength of character in the municipal executive.

“But, I’m driven to make a difference," he said in the ad.

The mayor goes on that he charges ahead when politics stand in the way of things like full-day kindergarten and “tougher” gun laws. Of course, in Chicago, both stances are pretty popular ones.

“And, when business interests said that $13 minimum wage was too high, I didn’t back down,” he said.

Arguing that you don’t do what is popular in order to win a popularity contest is always a strange juxtaposition, especially when the examples you give are very popular issues.

However, Emanuel has benefited a great deal, politically, from his tough, unyielding reputation. Tough situations call for tough guys, and there’s only one guy tough and familiar enough for this job, we would be led to believe.

Though this ad touches on that, the real story here is the overall conciliatory and humble tone of the commercial. “Here I am,” a lay armchair political psychologist might translate Emanuel’s actual words as meaning.

“I get it. I wasn’t listening enough to you guys. I’m sorry, because run-offs stink, so please can we all get past this and go back to voting for me?”

It will be interesting to watch Monday's first head-to-head debate between the mayor and Garcia, and see if Humble Emanuel will show up, or if his love for the city and all of us will once again bubble up and out of control and turn him back into the Angry Emanuel we all know, and now only sometimes vote for.

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