CHICAGO — Rahm Emanuel won re-election Tuesday as voters in Chicago’s first mayoral runoff decided that, despite his brusque management style, the former White House chief of staff was best equipped to deal with the many dire challenges facing the nation’s third-largest city.
Emanuel was forced to campaign furiously across the city to beat Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia after failing to capture a majority against four other candidates in a February election. The mayoral runoff was the first since the city changed the way it conducts elections about 20 years ago.
“To all the voters I want to thank you for putting me through my paces,” Emanuel told supporters Tuesday night. “I will be a better mayor because of that. I will carry your voices, your concerns into … the mayor’s office.”
With nearly all voting precincts reporting results, Emanuel had about 56 percent of the vote compared to around 44 percent for Garcia.
“We didn’t lose today, we tried,” Garcia told supporters gathered at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We fought hard for what we believed in. You don’t succeed at this or anything else unless you try.”
The incumbent highlighted tough decisions he’s made since succeeding former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2011, but admitted that his management approach too often rubbed city residents the wrong way. He portrayed Garcia as too inexperienced to handle the city’s financial crunch.
Many of those heading to the polls Tuesday said the election should be a signal.
“Hopefully he (Emanuel) takes heed of the runoff when he should have been a shoo-in,” said Richard Rowe, a 50-year-old, who planned to vote for the incumbent.
Jesus Fernandez, a 44-year-old window washer who voted for Garcia, had the same view.
“If he (Garcia) gets close, we might push Rahm to do something,” Fernandez said. “At least we push him a little bit.”
Emanuel raised far more money than Garcia, plastered the airwaves with ads and had support from his former boss, President Barack Obama, who cast an early ballot for him from Washington.
The mayor faces huge obstacles in his second term, from fixing the worst-funded pension systems of any big U.S. city to stemming stubborn violence and confronting labor unions that just spent millions trying to defeat him.
Chicago’s four pension systems are about $20 billion in debt, and the fund for Chicago Public Schools teachers is short about $7 billion of what’s needed to pay benefits as promised.
If Emanuel can’t work a deal with labor unions or get the Illinois Legislature to approve relief, the city is on the hook for an additional $550 million payment to the retirement accounts, bringing the total payment to about $1 billion. He’s said that would be roughly equal to the annual cost of having 4,300 police officers on the street or raising property taxes by 150 percent.
Emanuel also must deal with ongoing concerns about crime, one of the areas Garcia hit him on repeatedly during the election. After a spike in homicides early in his first term, the number fell to the lowest level in a half-century though the number of shootings has climbed 12 percent.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in these past four years, but I understand the challenges we face will require me to approach them differently and to work in a different fashion,” Emanuel said. “The only way to meet these challenges is to bridge the gaps between the things that divide us and start focusing on the things that unite us and bring us together.”
Garcia, a former community organizer, alderman and state lawmaker, ran a campaign focused on the city’s neighborhoods, with support from teachers and unions upset with Emanuel. He accused the mayor of being out of touch with voters and blamed him for the fiscal problems, while playing up the mayor’s push to close about 50 schools and a gang violence problem that spiked during Emanuel’s first term.
He also vowed to end Chicago’s troubled red-light camera system, which some residents believe is discriminatory and focuses more on revenue than safety.
Election officials said more than 142,300 Chicago voters cast early ballots for the runoff, far outpacing early voting turnout in February and four years ago. Estimates Tuesday afternoon showed light voter turnout at roughly 28 percent, but election officials later predicted the final number would hover closer to 40 percent once all ballots were counted.