Emanuel’s battle-of-the-ballot trumps all issues in Chicago mayoral race

Just when it looked like the Chicago news media were fixing to focus on the issues – wham! – the Illinois Appellate Court tossed the frontrunner in Chicago’s mayoral race off the Feb. 22 primary ballot.

True, that appellate decision only laste

d for three days—on Jan. 27 the state Supreme Court restored Rahm Emanuel to the ballot. But the off-again, on-again battle of the ballot has made it hard for everyone—press and public—to re-focus on the stuff that really matters.

So much for sober-sided stories about the worrisome city budget deficit, needed pension reforms, the imperiled expansion of O’Hare International Airport or the abuse of tax increment financing.

Which is too bad, because until the surprise Appelate Court decision on Jan. 24 the Chicago dailies had been doing some quality interpretive pieces on the real issues and where the four major candidates stand. The question now, after the fire drill, is whether teacher can settle down the class and get back to the math lesson.

That’s a tough assignment because Emanuel’s struggles have been nothing if not entertaining. Beginning last fall the big running story on the race to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is retiring after 22 years in office, had been whether Emanuel is a legal resident of Chicago. His residency, and hence his standing to run for the elective office, had been challenged in that Emanuel has been living in Washington for the past two years where he served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.

Late last year the press pack had a field day—make that a field week—covering public hearings held by the city’s Board of Elections to go over the facts of the case. Emanuel had rented his house on the Northwest Side to an odd fellow who not only refused to move out upon Emanuel’s return but circulated his own petitions to get on the mayoral ballot. How bizarre is that?

Next, platoons of election lawyers for and against Emanuel made their case to the Election Board’s puffed-up, bow-tied hearing officer who moonlights as a conservative talk-radio pundit. At one point testimony centered on what, exactly, was inside the storage boxes the Emanuel family left in a basement of their North Side house. Was it trash or family heirlooms? Did not the contents, including Mrs. Emanuel’s wedding gown, speak to intent-to-return? Just how is a candidate’s stand on pension reform supposed to compete with that?

Then it was the public’s turn to testify, whereupon a parade of civic cranks, including a homeless lady calling herself “Queen Sister” and wearing a crown described in one story as a “golden donut,” tore into Emanuel for transgressions less real than imagined, from complicity in the Waco, Texas, conflagration to being a secret agent for Israel.

It all made for titillating television and colorful print sidebars, but after all was said and done the hearing officer ruled for Emanuel on Dec. 23 … and a Cook County Circuit judge affirmed that finding on January 4. Finally it was time to get back to the things that mattered. And the focus was made even clearer that first week in January when another major candidate—Congressman Danny Davis—opted out of the race, leaving ex-U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun as the only substantial African-American still in the running.

Substantial? This time around the media has pretty much ignored the “marginals”—political amateurs who collected sufficient signatures to get their names on the ballot but have few followers and fewer campaign funds. Several were “challenged off” due to deficient signatures. At this writing there are four majors—Emanuel, Moseley Braun, former schools and parks board president Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle—plus two marginals: perennial candidate William “Doc” Walls III and community activist Patricia Van Pelt Watkins.

Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell reasonably complained that the exclusion of any on-the-ballot candidate from civic- and media-sponsored debates “smacks of elitism. Even the most qualified candidate can’t get very far if their campaign is marginalized by the media.” Mitchell has a point. The Chicago media need some sensible, transparent guidelines about how such decisions will be made in the future.

That issue aside, news coverage of the race improved substantially once it was generally presumed Emanuel would be on the ballot. Perhaps editors and news directors took to heart an unusual op-ed in the Chicago Tribune by former Fox News Chicago political editor Jack Conaty. Under the headline “Are we ever going to get to the issues?” Conaty complained the ballot brouhaha was getting so much press that “Rahm” has “already been branded as a one-name sensation, like Cher or Madonna or Sting.”

So as if observing a New Year’s resolution, the Tribune and Sun-Times began in January to produced full-page, issue-oriented profiles of the four majors. Even daily stories off the campaign trail focused on this issue or that. Then again, what is considered an important issue by political reporters isn’t necessarily all that important. There’s a tendency to keep hitting the hot buttons. Example: Newspaper stories and TV field reports slavishly echo the candidates’ bashing of the privatization of city parking meters. In truth, the only serious problem with the meter deal was that the Daley administration did not get full value from the investor group that leased all 36,000 curbside spaces for 75 years … and then began charging $5-an-hour (downtown) and $1.50 (neighborhoods) using hi-tech meters that accept all major credit cards. People are outraged at the higher rates and the candidates have taken up the cry. But the concepts behind the meters – privatization and market-driven user fees—are sound, which is why enlightened governments around the country are leasing away everything from toll bridges to airports.

Then there’s the ever-present issue of race. One of the biggest challenges covering politics in Chicago is not to be naïve about race while not over-emphasizing the city’s enduring racial and ethnic divides. Chicago’s population breaks down roughly one third white (non-Hispanic), one third African-American and one third Hispanic. But Hispanic voter turnout lags, so the voting breakdown is more like 45 percent white, 40 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic.

A mid-January Tribune poll showed Emanuel running well ahead with 44 percent. Carol Moseley Braun was running second at 21 percent with Chico at 16 and Del Valle 7 percent. This surprised many because Moseley Braun failed to impress as a one-term U.S. Senator and more recently has had well-publicized personal financial problems.

But her strong showing doesn’t surprise Don Rose, dean of the city’s political consultants, who says virtually any black candidate can depend on 20 percent of the vote when matched against any combination of whites or Hispanics. Same goes vice-versa, with whites having an even larger racial “base” vote. So much for post-racial politics in the Age of Obama.

What this means is that Emanuel may well fall short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election on April 5 against the second-place finisher. That portends a likely Emanuel versus Moseley Braun runoff , with Emanuel expected to win handily. Why? Because a majority of Chico and Del Valle voters are expected to shift to Emanuel in the runoff.

Then there’s the sympathy factor. He may have a reputation as a hard-nosed politician—a guy who once sent a dead fish to an opponent and who tosses around the “F” bomb at staff meetings—but three months of “will-he-or-won’t-he” be allowed on the ballot has made Emanuel seem more victim than Visigoth.

This was especially true during the orgy of front-page headlines triggered by the appellate decision to throw him off the ballot. Turns out a key supporter of Gery Chico is Alderman Edward Burke, longtime boss of the South Side’s 14th Ward and chair of the city council’s powerful finance committee. Burke is also longtime chair of the county Democratic Party’s judicial slating committee. That means hundreds of judges in the state’s court system—including the two Appellate jurists who ruled against Emanuel in the 2-1 decision—owe their black robes, however indirectly, to “Eddy” Burke.

So as the city waited for the Supremes to affirm or overturn, news analysts wondered aloud whether Burke would dare lean on a sitting judge for a ruling favorable to Chico? Meanwhile, reporters flocked to the Supreme Court chambers of Justice Anne Burke, who happens to be the alderman’s wife, to ask whether she would recuse herself from deliberations. (She didn’t, siding with the 7-0 majority for Emanuel.)

But all that’s history. The campaigns now can get back to the issues … although, even this policy wonk must admit this has been more interesting than tax increment financing.