Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Chicago Mayor Could Face Tough Re-Election Challenge

Frustration with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fueled speculation about a challenge from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
M. Spencer Green
Frustration with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has fueled speculation about a challenge from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Will Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served at President Obama's side during his first White House term, find himself facing a challenge from another politician who was once close to Obama?

Maybe, if the woman who is president of the Cook County Board, Toni Preckwinkle, decides to run to against the mayor next year.

It's still a big "if." Preckwinkle, who was an early political mentor of Obama's, hasn't said she'll run against Obama's former White House chief of staff. But she hasn't said she won't run against Emanuel either.

Fueling speculation about a possible challenge is a recent poll that showed Preckwinkle leading Emanuel by 8 percentage points, 40 percent to 32 percent, well outside the margin of error.

It's just one poll — and a robopoll at that. There was also a very large number of undecideds, 28 percent. But any incumbent mayor seeing numbers like those ought to be a little worried.

Emanuel is partly weighed down by a series of unpopular moves he has made. On Monday, he announced a plan to raise property taxes and cut city-worker pensions to reduce the city's pension debt.

In 2013, he closed at least 50 Chicago public schools, a decision featured in an eight-part Chicagoland docu-series on CNN. Many of the closed schools were in African-American neighborhoods, a factor that has unquestionably hurt him in those communities.

Preckwinkle, the first woman to be county board president and an African-American with roots in Chicago's South Side, one of the city's large black enclaves, would be in a strong position to tap into this unhappiness with Emanuel.

That Chicagoland documentary, for which Robert Redford was an executive director, is itself an issue. Reviewers have noted its mostly sympathetic portrayal of the first-term mayor, who gave the filmmakers much access.

While Emanuel's staunchest supporters have found plenty to like, his many critics see it as pro-Emanuel spin — albeit visually arresting spin, seeing how it was shot in HD.

Preckwinkle, a former Chicago alderman and "goo-goo" — the term the city's old-school politicians use as a derisive synonym for goody-two-shoes, good government types — is clearly someone for Emanuel to be concerned about.

She has name recognition from being on the countywide ballot and decades in city politics. And in a city that's about one-third black and more than a quarter Latino, she could conceivably put together a winning coalition by also attracting whites who are unhappy with the direction of the city under Emanuel — or with Emanuel's famously caustic personality, which hasn't mellowed during his mayoralty.

The mayor's advantage is money, however. He's been masterful at raising it ever since he played that role early in his political career for the man he succeeded, Richard M. Daley.

Emanuel could conceivably raise enough for his re-election next year — not just from the 1 percent in Chicago, but nationally — that it would keep Preckwinkle from challenging him.

If she does decide to run, it would put Obama in a delicate spot. He might want to follow the lead of Emanuel himself: When Obama and Hillary Clinton battled for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008, then-Chicago Congressman Emanuel tried to stay neutral as long as he could out of regard for Obama, who shared his hometown, and Clinton, whose husband Emanuel served as a White House aide.

At the time, Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune: "I'm hiding under the desk. I'm very far under the desk, and I'm bringing my paper and my phone."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.