Chicago Mayor Emanuel looks to avoid runoff for 2nd term

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Posted: Feb 23, 2015 4:12 PM
Chicago Mayor Emanuel looks to avoid runoff for 2nd term

CHICAGO (AP) — In a city where the voters like tough-talking politicians, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's pugnacious style is being put to the test Tuesday as he tries to win a second term without having to go through a runoff.

After raising more than $15 million, or roughly quadruple the combined total of his four rivals, the former White House chief of staff is the clear favorite.

But the 55-year-old Emanuel has been campaigning like a first-timer, hoping to get the more than 50 percent necessary to win re-election outright. Otherwise, he will have to face the runner-up in April.

Since taking over for longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley four years ago, Emanuel has won praise for bringing about a longer school day, luring companies to the city and taking steps to address the worst-funded pension system of any major U.S. city.

But his challengers have put him on the defensive over his handling of a contract dispute that led to Chicago's first teachers' strike in 25 years, over the closing of nearly 50 neighborhood schools, and over a spike in violent crime. They have also criticized his sometimes-combative style.

But in almost half a dozen debates and a barrage of campaign ads, including an endorsement from his former boss, President Barack Obama, Emanuel at times seems to revel in his tough-guy reputation, cracks jokes about it and insists his just-get-it-done approach is what Chicago needs after decades of "failed politics" that have "shortchanged this great city."

A Chicago Tribune poll released last week showed Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia running second. He has accused the mayor of catering to downtown businesses and neglecting neighborhoods, where the school closings and the violence resonate most.

The field also includes an outspoken alderman, Bob Fioretti, wealthy businessman Willie Wilson and perennial officer-seeker William Walls. Some prominent potential candidates opted out, including Karen Lewis, a charismatic teachers union leader who clashed often with the mayor. She took herself out of the running after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Although Chicago's major newspapers endorsed Emanuel, they all noted his gruff management style, which has turned off swaths of neighborhood residents.

He pushed for the school closings despite protests and many anguished hearings, and angered activists further when he took a Utah ski vacation during the announcement.

He has been accused of bulldozing ahead on other issues. Last year, he announced the naming of a North Side school after Obama, irking aldermen and community members who insisted Emanuel should have considered the president's ties to the South Side, where he got his political start and owns a home.

The neighborhood issues — especially the school closings — have led to particular discontent among minority voters. The vast majority of Chicago's public school students are black and Latino. Emanuel says the schools were underused; opponents say the closings haven't saved the promised money and have created more safety concerns.

"He's a bully," said Jacob Karni, a parent casting an early ballot last week for Garcia.

But that same approach to the job has won the mayor praise. Jackson Adams voted early for Emanuel, singling out his attention to transportation projects such as new bike lanes.

"He's not afraid to ruffle feathers," said Adams, who works for a health care software company.

Emanuel has tried to counteract that perception with neighborhood-focused campaigning, participating in five debates compared with just one in 2011. His commercials portray a softer side, with footage of him spending one-on-one time with an environmental activist and helping a minimum-wage-earning mom. In December, he successfully pushed to raise Chicago's hourly rate to $13 by 2019 from $8.25.

Emanuel's administration has also scrambled to reduce violence, running up roughly $100 million in overtime each of the last two years to flood high-crime areas with officers. Yet even as Chicago has seen an overall drop in crime, some of the most dangerous neighborhoods saw homicides climb in 2014.

"People feel that they've been left behind and that the neighborhoods are left behind," Garcia said.

The key for Emanuel could be turnout. To help Emanuel, especially with black voters, Obama paid a visit last week to the South Side, where he praised the mayor as passionate and dogged after calling him a "hard-headed" fighter in an earlier radio spot.

Emanuel has embraced the persona. At one forum, when his lapel microphone needed adjustment, he quipped that he had never had trouble being heard before. The crowd, including critics, laughed.

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Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen

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Associated Press writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.