Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Tuesday that he will not seek a third term in office, stunning the city’s political establishment and upending a wide-open mayoral campaign where nearly a dozen candidates had emerged.
“I’m not shy and, together, we’ve never shied from a challenge,” Emanuel said at a hastily planned City Hall press conference with his wife, Amy Rule, at his side.
“Today, the time has come to make another tough choice. As much as I love this job and will always love this city and its residents, I’ve decided not to seek re-election,” Emanuel said. “This has been the job of a lifetime, but it is not a job for a lifetime.”
On my first day as Mayor, I promised to make tough decisions, even when it hurts. Today, the time has come to make another tough choice. As much as I love this job & will always love Chicago, I have decided not to seek re-election. https://t.co/bFlFuAxaPV https://t.co/R4IBJCArse— Mayor Rahm Emanuel (@ChicagosMayor) September 4, 2018
Emanuel: from the bottom of my heart, thank you and God bless you and God bless the people of Chicago.— Becky Vevea (@beckyvevea) September 4, 2018
After a tumultuous seven-and-a-half years as mayor, Emanuel had amassed more than $10 million for a re-election campaign and was generally regarded as a slight favorite for re-election.
But he faced perhaps his most difficult campaign as Chicago’s chief executive, hindered by a series of controversial tax and fee increases and fallout from his administration’s response to the Laquan McDonald police shooting.
Emanuel, 58, established himself as a major, behind-the-scenes player in Chicago and Democratic politics as the chief fundraiser for Richard M. Daley’s first successful campaign for mayor in 1989.
He went on to serve as a high-ranking White House aide to President Bill Clinton before getting elected to Congress, where he represented much of Chicago’s North Side.
Emanuel left his U.S. House seat to become chief of staff to President Barack Obama and only returned to Chicago after Daley’s shock retirement announcement in September 2010.
Longtime political strategist David Axelrod said of Emanuel’s decision, “The guy’s never lost an election. And I think he would’ve won this one as well. He had the resources. He’s deeply competitive as we all know. But what he didn’t have was that conviction in himself that, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go another four years.’”
I am proud of my friend @MayorEmanuel, who has given his all to Chicago for the past eight years. It takes a strong leader to govern a big, boisterous city. He has been that larger-than life figure, and our city is better for his tireless efforts. He will be missed.— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) September 4, 2018
Emanuel famously had to overcome a residency challenge just to get on the mayoral ballot. But he again showed his fundraising prowess and easily defeated former Chicago Board of Education head Gery Chico in the 2011 election.
In his first term as mayor, Emanuel struggled with the city’s financial problems, and he drew heavy criticism from the left of his own party for such budget-cutting measures as the closure of Chicago’s mental health clinics.
The mayor also came into bitter conflict with the Chicago Teachers Union, which went on strike in 2012.
The union’s charismatic leader, Karen Lewis, prepared to challenge Emanuel’s re-election bid in 2015, but Lewis was diagnosed with cancer.
The CTU and other unions who clashed with Emanuel instead recruited Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to challenge Emanuel.
Shoutouts to every rank-and-file CTU member who demanded better for our students and our union educators. You helped end this toxic regime: Rahm Emanuel not seeking re-election as mayor of Chicago https://t.co/4JOodHEEBw via @suntimes #ByeRahm— ChicagoTeachersUnion (@CTULocal1) September 4, 2018
Emanuel raised tens of millions of dollars to fend off Garcia in a runoff election.
But the unprecedented mayoral runoff exposed Emanuel’s relative weakness compared to Daley and other Chicago political bosses who rarely faced much dissent.
Emanuel’s popularity took another big hit just months after his re-election, when the city released a video of white police officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 bullets into McDonald, a black teenager. Perhaps not coincidentally, Emanuel announced he would not seek re-election on the eve of Van Dyke’s racially charged trial for shooting McDonald.
Praise for Emanuel’s tenure as mayor flowed from Illinois’ top Democrats.
“Rahm's record of public service spans Congress, the White House, and the fifth floor of City Hall in Chicago,” Sen. Dick Durbin said. “I have worked closely with him at every level of his public career. I always knew a call from Rahm was an invitation to join him in a bold, ambitious effort to make life better for those he served. It has been my honor to join him in these great ventures.”
House Speaker Michael Madigan, chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, also lauded the outgoing mayor.
“Mayor Emanuel offered steady leadership through difficult times,” Madigan said. “His efforts to balance the budget, stabilize pensions, and make tough decisions consistently reflected his commitment to do what was best for the future of our city, not what was easy. As Chicago continues to move forward and grow as an international city, we will remain grateful for Mayor Emanuel’s leadership.”
But critics of the mayor had a different take on his tenure and decision to not run again.
“Today -- for me, and many organizers across the city of Chicago -- is a day of celebration,” said Charlene Carruthers, founding member of the Black Youth Project 100. “As a born and raised Chicagoan and someone who’s organized throughout the city in the past several years against many of the mayor’s policies — be it the school closures, be it his role in the coverup of the Laquan McDonald video, over and over again his poor decisions as it relates to black and brown folks and low-income folks across the city — the time is well overdue.”
“I’m thinking that prayers can come true,” said Amika Tendaji, co-founder of UMedics, a group that gives workshops in Chicago to teach people what to do during a shooting. “Miracles can happen. I’m really excited. We were shocked but really, really happy.”
Emanuel’s stunning announcement shakes up the campaign for mayor, which has attracted more than 10 announced candidates including former Police Board president and ex-federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, former Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.
“This announcement obviously is important but it really doesn’t change much of anything in terms of our race,” Lightfoot said. “There’s still people all over the city who have great needs.”
“The problems that the city’s facing haven’t changed just because he decided not to run for re-election,” Vallas said. “Those problems are still out there. I think it’s going to really sharpen the focus on who’s got the ideas to move the city forward …”