Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declared Tuesday that she won’t run for mayor, leaving union and community groups angry over Chicago’s violent crime, school closings and teetering finances searching for a credible candidate to take on Mayor Rahm Emanuel next year.
The decision is a boost to Emanuel’s bid for a second term and ensures he won’t have to square off against a popular, countywide elected official capable of uniting disparate voters from the South and West Sides with lakefront liberals.
For months, Emanuel’s detractors had lobbied for Preckwinkle to become the movement candidate who would ride into office on a groundswell, overcoming Emanuel’s enormous campaign fund, political pedigree and support of the city’s elite.
In certain quarters, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis now steps into that “we hope she runs” spotlight.
Lewis, long an Emanuel nemesis, lately has toyed with the idea of running. On Tuesday, a CTU spokesman said the union boss was on vacation but would form an exploratory committee to consider a possible run against Emanuel because the city “cannot withstand another four years of error, disrespect and disregard.”
By contrast, Preckwinkle had been more tempered in her criticism of Emanuel, choosing to disagree with his decision to close dozens of schools but not engage the mayor directly. For his part, Emanuel in recent months sought to pressure Preckwinkle out of the contest by repeatedly telling reporters she had assured him she wouldn’t run, noting that he believed her because “she’s a person of her word.”
But until Tuesday, Preckwinkle had refused to rule out a run for mayor, repeating the same nine words: “I’m running for re-election for the job I have.”
Remaining vague may have helped her campaign fundraising — she collected more than $515,000 from April through June — but at a certain point, the coyness apparently took a toll on a politician known for a straight-ahead style.
Preckwinkle said Tuesday that she tired of the ever-quickening pace with which she kept hearing the same question over and over: Will you run? She noted a recent automated poll that showed her handily defeating the mayor in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup.
“Ironically, the Sun-Times poll at the beginning of the week made it clear to me that I was going to have a hard time talking about much other than the mayor’s race over the next few months if I didn’t make a stronger statement about my intentions,” said Preckwinkle, who added that she had contemplated a mayoral run.
“I gave some thought to what I might be doing over the next four years, and the more I thought about that, the more convinced I became that the job I took on four years ago is not yet complete,” Preckwinkle added.
Emanuel has enough money in his campaign war chest to make any challenger think twice. The latest campaign finance report filed Tuesday showed him with $8.3 million in the bank.
Still, some in Emanuel’s campaign likely let out a sigh of relief with Preckwinkle’s decision.
In May, Emanuel’s top political operative John Kupper was concerned enough about a potential Preckwinkle bid to email Tribune reporters to suggest several potentially negative stories about Preckwinkle, some of them based on rumor. Kupper later apologized to Preckwinkle and his boss, and Emanuel’s campaign hired a spokesman.
Had Preckwinkle run, Chicago voters might have seen lengthy debates on key issues of Chicago’s future at a time of slow economic growth and myriad financial problems. Earlier this year, Preckwinkle described a breakfast with Emanuel as a “pithy policy discussion.” The former longtime 4th Ward alderman may have lacked charisma, but the onetime teacher is known for having an educator’s style of competence.
A mayoral campaign featuring Emanuel and Lewis might be more of a scorched earth affair. Neither is known for biting their tongue, and the two have a contentious history.
After a newly-elected Emanuel got state lawmakers to pass a law requiring 75 percent of teachers to authorize a strike, more than 90 percent voted to follow Lewis out of the classroom for seven days. Ultimately, the union secured a deal that saw teachers’ pay increased, while Emanuel got the longer school day he wanted.
Lewis has dubbed Emanuel the “murder mayor,” given the violence that continues to plague parts of the city. She often uses another nickname invoked by liberals who dislike what they characterize as his cozy relationship with millionaire Wall Street types: Mayor 1 Percent.
It’s that very bombastic style that has some doubting whether Lewis could get enough traction as a unifier with the magnetism to draw together the forces unhappy with Emanuel.
For his part, Emanuel has tried to defuse the ticking-time-bomb reputation of his relationship with Lewis. He has said in recent weeks that he has reached out to meet with her.
Asked about Lewis three times at a news conference Tuesday, Emanuel again sought to frame any campaign talk as about the importance of the city’s future and not his relationship with Lewis.
“This is not about personalities,” Emanuel said. “It’s about the right priorities and the right progress and the right policies, and there will be a time in the campaign where people will lay that out.”
Asked if Lewis posed a serious challenge to his re-election, Emanuel launched into a long answer about the city’s future. He did not refer to Lewis, but seemed to tie the idea of her candidacy to the city’s past troubles.
“Now, we’re going to make a decision,” Emanuel said. “Do we stay on the road of making the type of progress we need to make, the type of priorities we need to have and stay on that road of reform, or are we going to return to the policies that nearly brought Chicago financially, educationally and otherwise to its knees?”
Lewis did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Michael Harrington, CTU’s director of union operations, said Lewis was out of town on vacation, but when she returned would begin forming an exploratory committee and eventually would file official paperwork with the state. That would allow Lewis to raise money for a potential bid before declaring whether, in fact, she will run.
It’s clear, Harrington said, that there is a movement in Chicago, looking for a leader to take on Emanuel, and Lewis is seriously considering it.
“She’s listening to what people have to say. There are lots of people expressing their discontent for the status quo, and they’re looking for someone to correct what’s been happening in Chicago and look to improve what’s been happening in our city,” Harrington said. “It’s coming from lots of different sectors.”
So far, Emanuel has no major challengers. The field of announced candidates includes 77-year-old former Ald. Robert Shaw, little-known municipal consultant Amara Enyia, Chicago police officer Frederick Collins and conservative and media gadfly William J. Kelly, a failed Republican comptroller candidate.
Enyia reported $3,352 left in her campaign fund, while Kelly reported around $2,900 left but did not disclose where it came from. Shaw has yet to file a campaign finance report and Collins has reported raising no money
Ald. Robert Fioretti said he has yet to decide whether to run for mayor. the 2nd Ward alderman said he was not sure how much money was in his political fund, and the latest report had not been filed. At the end of March, Fioretti reported having $257,000 in campaign money.
Fioretti, who was gearing up for a potential mayoral race four years ago but cut the effort short when he was diagnosed with tonsil cancer, said there is a clear desire for new leadership in Chicago.
“I think in this day in age, and what’s happened with the city, people do want an alternative,” Fioretti said. “They want to rebuild our neighborhoods. They want to quell the violence. And they want to rebuild the middle class. And they don’t want people who pretend to be progressive, yet do other things.”
Whoever ends up on the ballot likely will have an uphill battle when it comes to getting their message heard over Emanuel’s.
In his latest campaign finance report filed Tuesday, the mayor reported raising $1.1 million in the last quarter and ending the period with $8.39 million in the bank. Another Emanuel-aligned super PAC created in June reported having $1 million in contributions, almost all of it raised in a single day last month from seven top corporate executives.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun