A RUNOFF election next month to determine if Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets a second term appears to be close. His opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, is not as well known and has far less campaign money, but recent polls show him within single digits of Mr. Emanuel. Democratic Party purists and special interest groups have reached the startling conclusion that the able and decidedly liberal incumbent is not liberal enough, and they are intent on punishing him for not toeing their line. If there is no room in the party for a pragmatic progressive like Mr. Emanuel, who was President Obama’s first chief of staff in the White House, then the party, and by extension the country, are in trouble.
Mr. Emanuel last month became the first sitting mayor in Chicago history forced into a runoff when he failed to get 50 percent of the vote in a five-way nonpartisan election. On April 7, he will face Mr. Garcia, a Democratic Cook County commissioner who got 34 percent of the vote to Mr. Emanuel’s 45 percent and is being backed by labor interests and the left-wing groups allied with them.
It shouldn’t escape notice that Mr. Emanuel’s willingness to take on these very same unions as he tackled some of the city’s most pressing problems landed him in political trouble in the first place. Instead of ignoring, for example, the grossly underfunded pensions of government employees that threaten to drive the city into bankruptcy, Mr. Emanuel engineered sensible reforms to the municipal and laborers pensions and is intent on fixing the police and firefighter funds.
Where Mr. Emanuel was most fearless — and where, as the New York Times recently reported, he seems to be reaping the angriest payback from riled unions — is in school reform. He backed the closing of dozens of underused and underperforming schools, insisted on a longer school day and school year, toughened teacher evaluations and helped expand charter schools. These reforms have produced encouraging results: graduation rates up, suspensions and expulsions down, more African American students taking Advanced Placement classes. But success for long-neglected children appears immaterial to a teachers union focused on protecting its turf. Mr. Garcia got into the race at the urging of Chicago Teachers Union leaders, who along with their national affiliate are leading the charge against the mayor.
Mr. Emanuel is not the only Democrat who, faced with choices in governing, has opted for the general welfare over special interests and as a result incurred their wrath. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, for example, faced similar pushback, but happily voters in their states ended up backing their sensible approaches to government finance and services. What unites these progressive Democrats is not an allegiance to corporations, as the slurs might have you think, but a recognition that their predecessors made unaffordable deals that can’t be fully honored without harming people who lack powerful advocates: poor students, people who use city playgrounds, patients in public clinics.
We hope sufficient numbers of Chicago voters can look at that bigger picture.