PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday February 23rd, 2015, 7:28pm

Election 2015: Will Emanuel Avoid A Runoff?

Progress Illinois provides an election preview of Chicago's mayoral election, in which incumbent Rahm Emanuel could be forced into an April runoff contest.

The big question mark ahead of Chicago's municipal election Tuesday is whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel will secure the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.

A poll conducted Sunday by Ogden and Fry showed Emanuel holding his lead in the race with more than 48 percent of the vote, though the survey has a margin of error of 3.68 percent.

It remains too close to determine whether the four mayoral challengers -- Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, community activist William Walls and businessman Willie Wilson -- will pull Emanuel, a former congressman and chief of staff to President Barack Obama, under the threshold he needs to win re-election outright, according to the polling firm's memo.

If the race is forced into a runoff, the two top candidates will go head-to-head in an April 7 runoff. Garcia, who entered the mayoral contest with support from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis after she opted against running due to health issues, has been placing second in the polls.

The possibility of a runoff hinges on voter turnout, polls have suggested. According to the Chicago Election Board of Commissioners, 90,000 Chicagoans took advantage of early voting this year, a 23 percent increase compared to the 2011 municipal election, in which Emanuel was elected to his first term.

Some background on Emanuel's challengers: Garcia is a former Chicago alderman and state senator who has "advocated vigorously for progressive politics and political reform," his campaign website says. Garcia, who is Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's current floor leader, founded and formerly served as executive director of Enlace, a neighborhood development organization in Little Village.

Fioretti, a civil rights attorney, is a member of the Chicago City Council's Progressive Reform Coalition. He was first elected to represent Chicago's 2nd Ward in 2007 and is one of the few outspoken critics of Emanuel on the city council.

Walls, a former aide to the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, previously ran to be the city's steward in 2007 and 2011. He is also a former National Political Director of the Rainbow Push Coalition.

Wilson, a philanthropist and producer of a nationally syndicated TV gospel program, has owned five McDonald's restaurants and is the founder and CEO of an international medical supply company. Wilson grew up in poverty in Louisiana and is now a multimillionaire. 

Fioretti, Walls and Wilson spoke last week at a forum sponsored by the Chicago Housing Initiative, in which the three mayoral challengers discussed a range of housing issues, including vouchers, single room occupancies and oversight of the Chicago Housing Authority. Read Progress Illinois' coverage of the forum here.

During his first term, Emanuel lengthened the city's school day and year, took action on the city's pension crisis, attracted businesses to Chicago and balanced for the budget four years straight without a gas, property or sales tax hike, an accomplishment the mayor has noted many times during the campaign, specifically during the five mayoral debates in which he participated. Since taking office, Emanuel has also taken steps to create affordable housing and boost public transit, including a revamp of the Red Line's southern branch.

But also under Emanuel's watch, Chicago gained national headlines over the teachers' strike, crime and homicides, and the closing of 50 neighborhood schools, the largest single round of school closures in the nation's history. The 2013 school closings were met with fierce opposition from parents, teachers, students and others.

Due in part to these and other contentious events, Emanuel has struggled with his approval ratings over his first term.

In an apparent effort to boost his image, Emanuel -- who has maintained a massive financial advantage over his four opponents -- has flooded the airwaves with TV campaign ads since November. Emanuel's final TV commercial ahead of Tuesday's election features Obama, who also gave the mayor some extra kudos for providing "extraordinary service" to the citizens of Chicago during last week's national monument designation of the Pullman factory district.

Another TV ad put out by Emanuel's camp touted the mayor for backing an ordinance approved in December that will lift Chicago's minimum wage to $13 by 2019, up from the current $8.25. Fioretti and Garcia have both made a point to highlight their support for a $15 minimum wage during the campaign.

The mayor's role in shuttering two coal-fired power plants in the city was also the subject of an Emanuel re-election campaign commercial, which drew the ire of community activists and environmentalists, who endured a long fight to close the facilities and slammed the mayor for taking credit for the victory.

The mayoral challengers have accused Emanuel of "pay-to-play" politics and say he has prioritized Chicago's downtown area over its smaller, struggling neighborhood communities.

The candidates vying to unseat the mayor have all blasted Emanuel for the 2013 school closings, saying they support an elected, rather then the current mayoral-appointed, school board that has okayed charter school expansion and other controversial proposals. 

The elected school board issue has been a focus in the mayoral race, as well as many aldermanic contests. Emanuel rejects the elected school board idea, saying he doesn't want to put more "politics" in the system.

Voters in 37 wards will weigh in tomorrow on whether Chicago should switch to an elected school board via advisory ballot referendums. The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature must ultimately change the rules.

"Whether it's his undemocratic school closures or cronies like Deborah Quazzo raking in millions of taxpayer dollars, Rahm Emanuel's rubber-stamp school board has been a total disaster," Kristen Crowell, executive director of the progressive group United Working Families, said in a statement Monday.

"We expect the people to reject Rahm's status quo Tuesday and then we'll go to Springfield to show lawmakers that Chicago taxpayers want to elect their school board members."

Image: AP/Nam Y. Huh

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