Feb. 24 marks the mayoral elections for Chicago, but early elections have already begun at various voting locations. This election works a little differently than elections elsewhere, so here is your guide to how it works, the candidates and the biggest issues.
Why is this election different?
Mayoral elections in Chicago are nonpartisan, meaning there are no official parties behind each candidate. You won’t be seeing Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or another party next to anyone’s name on the ballot.
Chicago election law also allows for a runoff –– a second round of elections. In Chicago, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the popular vote, a runoff election is scheduled for the first Tuesday in April. The top two candidates face off in a second election, while all others are dropped. Ordinarily this might not be significant, but this year one candidate, Jesús Garcia, is banking on the runoff as his ticket to the mayor’s office.
Who are the candidates?
Emanuel, who was elected in 2011 and is the current mayor of Chicago, is seeking a second term. He has served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff. Recently, Emanuel received endorsements from Obama, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, amongst other publications. Emanuel leads with 42 percent support among likely voters, 24 points more than Jesús Garcia, his nearest competitor, according to recent polls.
Fioretti is a civil rights attorney who has worked on more than 500 civil rights cases. He serves on the city council and received Legislator of the Year award in 2009 for his work as city alderman in the 2nd Ward, which includes parts of Wicker Park, Gold Coast, Ukrainian Village and Bucktown. Fioretti almost ran for mayor in 2010, but was diagnosed with tonsil cancer and campaigned for alderman re-election instead.
Having served as a 22nd Ward alderman, Cook County Commissioner and Illinois State Senator, Garcia is the man who could force a runoff election after Feb. 24. Recent polls have Garcia second to Emanuel with about 18 percent of support. Garcia also has the support of Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who was running against Emanuel until she was diagnosed with brain cancer in October 2014.
Entering his third bid for the mayor’s office, Walls is no stranger to campaigns. He chaired Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s Rainbow and Operation People United to Save Humanity campaign for civil rights and headed John Kerry’s 2004 White House campaign in Illinois. A Chicago Tribune poll from last month placed Walls behind the other four candidates with only 2 percent support.
Wilson has gone from penniless to owning five McDonald’s franchises. He founded the first national African-American gospel television program, and is now the chief executive officer of a medical supply company. With $2.1 million of his own money invested in his campaign, Wilson is pulling 7 percent of votes, according to a Chicago Tribune poll.
What are the issues?
The pension crisis that looms over the city will be the most pressing issue for whichever candidate wins the election. Chicago, like many large cities in the United States, owes a great deal of money to current and future public employees in the form of pensions –– $19.5 billion to be exact. These retirement packages were promised to firefighters, police officers and other government employees years ago.
At the time, the pensions allowed Chicago to hire more public employees because the city could pay each worker a smaller salary while promising a retirement package for later. Now that retirees are living longer and the baby boomer generation is leaving the workforce, there is not nearly enough money to pay out these benefits. No matter who is elected mayor, dealing with these pensions will come center stage in the coming years.
After the 2012 teachers strike, education was bound to be central to the 2015 mayoral election. This year, the debate surrounds the school board, which is currently appointed by the mayor. Emanuel opposes changing the school board to an elected body, but the entire field of candidates disagrees with him. Furthermore, Emanuel has come under fire for his defense of charter schools and the closure of 50 schools under his administration in 2013. Walls and Wilson have specifically have said they would reopen those closed schools.
Whether the city should add 1,000 more police officers to its payroll is a major topic this year. Those in favor of the increase (Fioretti and Garcia) cite public safety concerns. Those opposed (Wilson and Walls)assert that the added salaries would cause financial burden to the city. Emanuel does not propose an increase because he already has increased the number of police officers.
In order to deal with the complex financial challenges that Chicago faces, particularly unfunded pension plans, the city needs more revenue. Emanuel proposed a luxury sales tax, which would tax luxury goods such as limo rides and pet grooming, and a property tax. Fioretti wants to tax commuters to the city and install a tax on financial trading in the city, called the LaSalle Tax. Garcia voiced support for an income tax that would tax wealthy residents more, but this method would also require implementing a state constitutional amendment.