Heavy-spending Wilson could force April runoff
by RUSS STEWART
Some years ago, there was an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie titled "End of Days." That’s an appropriate description of Chicago’s 2015 mayoral election, especially as it applies to the Emanuel Administration.
When do Rahm Emanuel’s days as mayor end? He may eke out a second term on Feb. 24, but there is no way he’ll be able to win a third term in 2019. The forces of doom, gloom and fiscal catastrophe are gathering.
Another apt description would be "Free Willie," about a kid saving a cuddly killer whale. Next year in Chicago could be scripted as "Freebies from Willie," a description of Chicago businessman Willie Wilson’s chaotic, unfocused and still-problematic mayoral campaign.
A source close to Wilson’s campaign said that he is going to spend $60 million to get elected. That’s triple what Mayor Rahm Emanuel expects to spend, and it’s all self-funded. Chicago’s predominantly black wards will be awash with cash, and the black-market radio stations will have a Wilson ad every five minutes.
Wilson is following in Bruce Rauner’s footsteps, subscribing to the philosophy that while money cannot necessarily buy happiness, it usually can buy public office. Wilson surely could be elected alderman in some ward, but like Rauner he wants to start at the top.
Wilson owns nine McDonald’s franchises, all in black-majority areas, which generate an income of about $3 million, and he owns a medical supply company which has annual sales of $60 million. His gross annual income is $10 million. Over the past 30 years Wilson has donated roughly $1 million per year to South Side and West Side churches. While he is unknown in the white and Hispanic communities, he is Santa Claus in the black community. "He’s got a built-in campaign structure — the churches," the source said.
Wilson is enmeshed in a nominating petition challenge. He filed approximately 47,000 signatures, considerably more than the 12,500 minimum required to get on the ballot. How did a nobody like Wilson manage to get so many signatures? Are the black Democratic committeemen behind him? Did he have an army of volunteers scouring the precincts? Not at all. Wilson did it the Donald Trump way: He bought them. He assembled $200,000, hired former state senator Rickey Hendon as coordinator, and paid circulators $2 per signature procured, and he got his money’s worth.
To Emanuel’s strategists, Wilson on the Feb. 24 ballot would be a catastrophe, ensuring an April 7 runoff. If the contest consists of just Emanuel, white Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd), Mexican-American county Commissioner Chuy Garcia and black former Board of Review commissioner Bob Shaw, Emanuel wins without a runoff.
The reason: The black vote will crater. Emanuel will dump upwards of $5 million into the coffers of the black committeemen, who will in turn spread around oodles of cash. It’s not actually buying votes, which is illegal. Here’s how it works: The committeemen each hire 100 to 200 precinct coordinators per ward and pay them $2,000 to $3,000 up front. Their job is twofold: Deliver the votes of all their friends and family and find and hire another 50 to 60 people in the precincts, pay them $100 a day to identify controllable voters, and then hire as many of them as possible. Add to that contingent the election judges, as well as all the city, county and state payrollers in the ward, who may need the committeeman’s aid some day, and Emanuel would get well over half the black vote. In 2011 Emanuel got 135,878 votes (59 percent of the total cast) in the 20 black-majority wards.
Wilson’s candidacy upsets that equation. There will be a bidder’s war, with every committeeman for sale, and Wilson will pay better than Emanuel.
As a result, Emanuel’s campaign challenged Wilson’s petitions. Just before Christmas, with half the signatures having gone to a records check — the process of comparing the petition signatures with the digitized Chicago Board of Elections voter records — Wilson had roughly 9,000 valid signatures. Further checks have put him over the top, but Emanuel’s lawyers will persist, demand board reviews, and if necessary appeal to the Circuit Court and the Illinois Supreme Court. The point is to bog down Wilson legally, make him spend money, and delay his focus on the campaign.
If you don’t know whether you’re going to be on the ballot, it’s impossible to hire staff and media consultants, begin creating ads and buying media time, and physically campaign. It should be remembered that Emanuel’s 2011 campaign was in limbo until mid-January, when the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court reversed a Circuit Court finding that Emanuel was not a resident of Chicago. That’s why Mike Madigan and the Democrats spend millions to control the judiciary.
If Wilson’s case winds its way to the Supreme Court, he should call his travel agent and start booking a February vacation.
The current consensus, based on hard polling and political observation, puts the mayor at about 50 percent, Garcia around 30 percent, Fioretti at 7 to 15 percent, and Wilson and Shaw at 6 to 10 percent. Many voters view Emanuel as arrogant, unfeeling, untrustworthy and egotistical. He has a political agenda, and it’s not, like Rich Daley, to be mayor for life. Tough times loom. The city’s unfunded pension deficit will necessitate huge property tax increases, beginning with the 2016 budget. The mayor just wants to survive 2015, and then he’ll be bailing out as expeditiously as possible. Four more years in City Hall, and Emanuel will be damaged goods. Forget about a third term in 2019.
Emanuel better hope that his good buddy Hillary Clinton wins the presidency. Then he can get a powerful cabinet position, such as secretary of Health and Human Services. There’s no way he can win Mark Kirk’s U.S. Senate seat in 2016 or the governorship in 2018.
It should be remembered that Rauner tried the pay-per-vote stratagem in 2014. He hired a bunch of organizers, who in turn hired a bunch of $10-per-hour canvassers. Rauner showed up at black churches on Sundays. He was endorsed by James Meeks, a former state senator who is the pastor of Salem Baptist Church, the South Side’s biggest congregation. It was a waste of time and money. Rauner got the usual Republican 5 percent of the black vote. Money does not beget motivation.
Which begs another question: Are black voters, who make up about a third of the city electorate, really that hostile toward Emanuel? In 2011, against three black contenders, Emanuel got 59 percent of the vote in the 20 black-majority wards, where turnout was an anemic 229,948. Is there a Harold Washington-like surge in the offing in 2015? Not likely. According to police statistics, crime was down 12 percent in 2014, but drive-by shootings and gang slayings remain an everyday occurrence in black neighborhoods. Emanuel closed 50 underperforming public schools, many in black neighborhoods. There is a definite disconnect.
However, it is the "Obama Factor" which rescues Emanuel and makes Wilson’s candidacy implausible. When Washington ran in 1983, facing incumbent Jane Byrne and State’s Attorney Rich Daley, "black empowerment" was the issue. Byrne had "offended" blacks with some of her appointments. With two credible white candidates running, Washington, then a congressman, sensed an opportunity. In a huge Democratic primary turnout of 1.12 million, Washington triumphed with 36.3 percent of the vote, topping Byrne by just 33,000 votes. In the ensuing election against Republican Bernie Epton, Washington won 668,196-619,926, getting 51.4 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 48,250 votes in a turnout of 1.3 million.
But over the past 30 years — a generation — everything has changed. There now is a nonpartisan election and a runoff, not a Democratic primary and an election. There now is a black South Side Chicago Democrat in the White House. So why is having a black mayor important? Emanuel was Obama’s White House chief of staff. That’s his trump card. Should Wilson surge, Emanuel, can summon an endorsement by Obama. That’s worth 40 to 50 percent of the black vote.
The bottom line: Emanuel must avoid a runoff. If an incumbent gets less than 50 percent of the vote, there is serious dissonance. In Chicago, there is no "minority solidarity." Hispanics are disinclined to vote for blacks, as are blacks for Hispanics. If Wilson stays on the ballot and spends his promised $60 million, an April Emanuel-Wilson runoff is a certainty. The mayor will win, but just barely; he will rely on white and Hispanic committeemen to deliver.
In sum, the 2015 election is really about 2019. Emanuel will be re-elected, but he won’t be on the ballot in 2019. Wilson and Garcia are positioning themselves for the succession. The post-Emanuel era is dawning.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.