CHICAGO (AP) — Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the stage in an ornate hotel ballroom in downtown Chicago one day this week where roughly 1,400 African-American women had gathered for a lunch and campaign rally. Playing to the crowd, he stressed the important role women had played in his life, his voice cracking when he got to his immigrant grandmother. He nodded to his mother, seated in the audience.
"My mother taught me to fight for what I believe in," he said to cheers.
Later that night the former White House chief of staff was in a union hall several miles to the south, talking up his family's immigrant roots and the value of Chicago's diversity before Latino voters.
With a runoff election between Emanuel and challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia set for Tuesday, Chicago voters are being treated to something they haven't seen in a long time: a mayor actually having to work to win re-election.
Emanuel's predecessor, Richard M. Daley, barely broke a sweat during most of his campaigns over more than 20 years in office. But Emanuel failed to win a majority in a five-candidate field in February, prompting the first mayoral runoff since Chicago switched to nonpartisan elections two decades ago. Since then he's spent more shoe leather and millions of dollars trying to avoid another embarrassing election day showing.
A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed Emanuel with a more than 20-point lead over Garcia. Yet even Emanuel's supporters offer endorsements that sound a little like they're swallowing a dose of medicine that tastes bad, but they know is good for them.
"He may not be right on everything, but he is necessary," Tanya Hunter, of Grandmothers for Rahm, told the crowd at Wednesday's women's luncheon, where speaker after speaker defended Emanuel's decision to close about 50 schools largely in minority neighborhoods as beneficial for student achievement in the long run.
Garcia, a county commissioner from a working class neighborhood, was recruited by the Chicago Teachers Union to challenge Emanuel, with whom the union clashed during a 2012 strike. He is backed by several progressive organizations who say the mayor is too cozy with big business. Garcia has criticized Emanuel for his top-down approach, saying the mayor doesn't listen to people and isn't connected to day-to-day life in Chicago's neighborhoods.
Garcia scoffed at the latest polls, saying his volunteers will mobilize supporters for a strong showing again.
Voters are "tired of the wrong priorities of this administration," Garcia said. "People are excited that there's a runoff in the city of Chicago, and that's contagious."
Emanuel, who has raised millions more than Garcia for his campaign, relied heavily on an expensive television advertising campaign in the first-round election. Now, a surge of volunteers makes phone calls and knocks on doors each weekend, and has made contact with voters more than one million times, campaign spokesman Steve Mayberry said.
A union representing airport and convention workers has cut ads in which workers thank Emanuel for bringing more convention business to the city — what they describe in the ads as "Rahm Love."
The mayor, known for his sometimes abrasive personality, acknowledges there's room for improvement in his leadership.
"Chicago is a great city, but we can be even better," Emanuel says. "And yeah, I hear you - so can I."
Emanuel's criticism of Garcia has centered on his lack of a plan for dealing with Chicago's huge financial problems, which include the worst-funded pension systems of any major U.S. city. Garcia has said he needs to audit the city's books before he can say how he'd fix things, and wants to appoint a commission to help find a solution.
The mayor also has questioned whether Garcia could stand up to the labor unions that have backed him.
Some voters say regardless of what happens Tuesday, the runoff has been good for Chicago.
William McNary, 62, who voted for Emanuel in 2011 but is backing Garcia this time, points to Emanuel's announcement that he'll remove 50 of the city's red-light cameras, a controversial and unpopular program the mayor previously had defended.
Before Garcia's surprisingly strong challenge, "This is a mayor who's never admitted he made a mistake before," said McNary.
Both candidates have focused heavily on winning minority voters. At the luncheon for African-American women, Emanuel framed his decision to close schools against what he said were student gains in test scores and attendance.
Still, some in the group weren't convinced.
"I like that he does what he says he's going to do," said Afrieda Dockery, who said she's "on the fence" and bothered by the school closings and the possibility of a property tax hike. "But I don't always agree with what he does."
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