In September, voters booed Mayor Emanuel at a public event at Saint Sabina, a Catholic church on the South Side of Chicago. Mayor Emanuel received 60 percent of the vote from the 17th Ward, the neighborhood that contains Saint Sabina, in the last election. What has changed? Why are Mayor Emanuel’s poll numbers dropping, especially among African-Americans?
Though Mayor Emanuel has made strides on a number of issues—including crime and joblessness—he failed to anticipate the blowback over the school closures and has not demonstrated enough empathy with residents of the South Side who feel that their neighborhoods are plagued by crime.
The uproar over the closing of fifty-four failing schools, primarily ones on the South Side, hasn’t helped the mayor’s approval ratings. Mayor Emanuel closed the schools because enrollment rates and graduation rates were miserably low, but the action infuriated parents, teachers, and schoolchildren. Some charged the mayor with insensitivity towards the needs of the residents of the South Side.
“I don’t see any Caucasians being moved, bussed, or murdered in the streets as they travel along gang lines, or stand on the steps of a CPS school,” said activist Wendy Matil Pearson, as opponents of school closings protested outside Horatio May Elementary Community Academy, in the Austin neighborhood.
Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, has already vowed to replace the mayor—with whom she feuded during an eight-day teachers’ strike in September 2012—one way or another. The Union announced last year that it is setting up training sessions for candidates who are interested in running against Mayor Emanuel. Perhaps Lewis will toss her own name in the ring; she gained national recognition during the strike, which 47 percent of Chicago’s registered voters backed, according to a poll by the Chicago Sun-Times.
On the issue of crime, Mayor Emanuel has made considerable strides—but not everyone is happy. Emanuel and his handpicked Chicago Police Department superintendent, former Newark police director and New York City deputy police commissioner Garry McCarthy, have deployed bold strategies to combat the rampant crime particularly on the South Side. These include reassigning two hundred officers from desk duty, putting two hundred additional veteran officers on the overtime payroll by having them work on their days off, bringing new recruits onboard to replace those overtime hours and concentrating rookie officers in particular on foot patrols in some of the most crime-ridden parts of the city.
Apparently, McCarthy’s new approach is working. Homicides dropped by 17 percent between 2012 and 2013. Experts hailed the Chicago Police Department’s new strategies; a study by a Yale sociologist found that Chicago appears to be on track to have both the lowest violent crime rate since 1972 and the lowest homicide rate since 1967.
However, it doesn’t appear that many residents of the South Side feel like their neighborhoods are safer. Alderman Carrie Austin, representative for the 34th ward, which includes the neighborhood of Roseland, criticized the mayor’s focus on statistics as myopic.
“Don’t tell me about no statistics of McCarthy’s. You say, `Well, statistically, we’re down. That means crap to me when I know that someone else has been shot,” she said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Emanuel hurriedly voiced his support of her remarks the next day.
But will Mayor Emanuel’s problems on the South Side affect his chances for reelection? The first mayor following the six-term tenure of Richard Daley, he may become another dynasty in office if he successfully seeks multiple terms. With no formidable opponent emerging in the contest for the mayor’s office—especially considering that he steamrolled his competitors in the 2011 election, with a 31-point gap between him and the second-place finisher—Emanuel doesn’t seem to be bending over backwards to placate residents of the South Side. He has a proven record of accumulating a war chest, with a formidable $1.9 million available as of April 2013. As President Obama’s former chief of staff, he also has an established national profile.
A lot can change over the course of the thirteen months before the next mayoral election, but Mayor Emanuel has all the advantages of incumbency. He will need to repair ties with South Side aldermen and community leaders in order to maintain a strong legislative coalition, but in terms of the more immediate future, the rift between the Mayor and community leaders on the South Side will likely not matter in terms of his reelection chances.
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