By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 11:00 PM
CHICAGO - Former Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (D) was elected mayor of Chicago on Tuesday, surpassing 50 percent in a six-candidate field and thereby avoiding an April 5 runoff.
His sweeping win in a city whose politics have so often been defined by its racial, ethnic and economic schisms is "a victory for all those who believe we can overcome the old divisions and the old ways that have held Chicago back," Emanuel declared in his victory speech at a union hall on the city's near west side.
Emanuel will replace Richard M. Daley (D), who is retiring after 22 years. Tuesday's election was the first in 64 years that an incumbent's name wasn't on the ballot.
Those facts alone were supposed to have made this the most wide-open mayoral race in more than half a century. But Emanuel cruised to victory, gathering more than double the vote of his next-closest rival, Gery Chico, a former chief of staff to Daley.
With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Emanuel had 55 percent of the vote to Chico's 24 percent, the city's board of elections reported in unofficial returns.
Though Emanuel's margin was enormous, no one had seriously doubted that he would come in first. He had run a polished campaign and had the benefit of a $13 million war chest.
Polls just before Election Day suggested that he would come excruciatingly close to the 50 percent he needed to avoid the runoff. But as Emanuel lunched Tuesday on a heaping corned-beef sandwich with his two daughters at Manny's, a popular delicatessen on the city's near-South Side, he professed to have "no idea" whether he would get over the top.
The other leading contenders included Democrats Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate; and City Clerk Miguel del Valle. But no one managed enough political momentum to pose a serious threat to Emanuel. Del Valle and Moseley Braun each had about 9 percent of the vote in late returns.
Emanuel, who got his start in politics working for the Daley machine and who also represented a Chicago-area district in Congress for six years, resigned his White House job to run for mayor, and he dominated the field from the outset. Even a court challenge over whether he met the legal candidate requirement of one year's residency seemed to work to his advantage.
Emanuel won that challenge, which went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court - and in doing so with discipline and equanimity, he overcame some of the skepticism that had arisen from his reputation for arrogance. The episode also helped establish Emanuel's bona fides as a Chicagoan, despite the many years he spent as the ultimate Washington insider.
"They made a terrible mistake challenging his residency," said David Axelrod, a longtime Chicago political consultant who recently left the Obama White House, where he served as chief strategist. "Rahm isn't often a sympathetic figure, and they made him a sympathetic figure."
Emanuel will bring yet another in a long line of larger-than-life personalities to occupy the office of big-city mayor - and of this big city in particular.
But the challenge of the job will be very different.
Daley reshaped the city, including its grand Millennium Park, ambitious downtown construction projects and miles of planters gracing the streets. The next mayor's success will be determined by how a deficit that is projected to exceed $650 million this year is handled.
Emanuel has promised he would cut $75 million in spending within his first 60 days in office.
Although President Obama did not officially endorse a candidate in his hometown mayoral race, his tacit support for Emanuel was thought to have given his former chief of staff a boost, particularly among African Americans. Obama had described Emanuel as "extraordinarily well qualified" for the job, and in a statement Tuesday night, he said, "As a Chicagoan and a friend, I couldn't be prouder. Rahm will be a terrific mayor for all the people of Chicago."