Citizens United: The Elephant in the Room in Rahm Emanuel’s Mayoral Reelection

James Thindwa

Maybe it's time for labor to rethink its stance on Citizens United. (Stephanie Barto / Flickr)

Rahm Emanuel’s reelection on April 7 was not a conquest. Despite the millions he spent, and the much longer lead time he had to prepare and run for reelection, the mayor managed simply to survive. And he did so by buying the election, period.

Jesus Chuy” Garcia, who entered the race much later and was outspent 4 to 1 — not counting the Emanuel-aligned corporate super PACs — forced the arch-neoliberal incumbent into a run-off and only lost the general election by 66,000 votes. Emanuel’s victory was a testament not to the triumph of ideas, but to the distorting role of money in politics. 

Much is being made of the Garcia campaign’s mistakes, and there were many. But for any candidate who comes into the race with so many disadvantages, glitches and errors are par for the course. What is clear — and what progressives cannot ignore — is that this election is ultimately a symbol of the post-Citizens United electoral terrain.

I watched in bewilderment as super PACs aligned with Emanuel — and the mayor himself starring in his own ads — carpet-bombed the airwaves with false, fraudulent and misleading ads. They bought ads in the priciest primetime television spots and ran ads on CNN and NBC, clearly targeting Chicago’s liberal demographic.

In one ad, Emanuel claims to have pushed back” when business complained” about the $13-per-hour minimum wage. But Emanuel inhabits the wing of the Democratic Party that has become so captive to corporate interests that they no longer seriously champion workers’ interests. He is not a believer in raising the minimum wage. But raising the minimum wage is a widely popular issue. On March 18, 2014, voters in each of the 103 Chicago precincts where it was on the ballot overwhelmingly approved an Advisory Referendum” to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour — by a whopping 87 percent!

Therefore, Emanuel’s decision to invoke the minimum wage is understandable as a matter of politics. When I canvassed door-to-door in the overwhelmingly African-American West Englewood neighborhood, many residents expressed support for the mayor’s willingness to stand up” to big business by raising the minimum wage. But when I pointed out that Emanuel opposed the overwhelmingly popular proposal to raise the wage to $15, and in fact pressured the city council to reduce it to $13 and to wait until 2019 to do so—effectively acting as a lawyer for big business — they were surprised, and quite upset.

Why did he do that?” one irate woman asked me, as she explained how her neighborhood was falling apart because ain’t nobody making any money.” 

Emanuel’s misleading pronouncements exemplify how neoliberal Democratic leaders are managing their increasingly complicated relationship with their more progressive urban voters. They campaign rhetorically as progressives, but govern as pro-business economic conservatives, touting fiscal discipline, budget cuts, low taxes for corporations and the wealthy and a willingness to gut pensions for public sector workers and degrade their unions. It is not surprising that Emanuel’s first target upon his election in 2011 was a full-blown assault on the Chicago Teachers Union.

Like other politicians, Emanuel knows that voters don’t pay attention to such details, especially during off-year elections. So he cynically exploited them. The impact on economically desperate voters of repeated — and unanswered — claims made in television ads cannot be underestimated.

Another claim Rahm Emanuel and his super PACs made repeatedly, and to similar effect, was that Chuy Garcia did not have a specific” budget plan; that he was proposing too many costly programs” that would necessitate raising property taxes” or cutting social programs.” At certain moments, it was not possible to distinguish Emanuel’s protestations about the budget from a Republican playbook. He and his super PACs claimed, with more than a hint of racism, that Chuy was incapable” of deciding what to do about the budget deficit, implying this person of color was not smart enough.

Emanuel’s ads were irrevocably devastating to Garcia, who did not have the resources to counter. The election was also emblematic of the dubious role of the corporate media in aiding corporate candidates. The devastating charge that Garcia was not being specific” was never challenged by reporters, who failed to ask what Rahm Emanuel’s specific” financial plan was. The fact is he didn’t have one.

Bruce Rauner did not run for governor on a platform to eviscerate unions, yet this was the first thing he attempted upon taking office. Similarly, GOP governors in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio never ran on an anti-union agenda, but that’s what they prioritized upon being sworn in. Garcia himself didn’t help when he didn’t ask Emanuel for his specific” plan during the debates. Thanks to an effective strategy to portray Emanuel as a competent technocrat, it was just assumed in the media that he had a plan.

Garcia also failed to capture the public backlash against privatization. For reasons unknown, he did little to expose the racket Emanuel and private contractors are running. A company gets a contract, then pays a kickback in the form of a campaign contribution.

The Chicago Tribune ran a surprisingly hard-hitting expose on this corruption. Earvin Magic” Johnson got an $80 million custodial contract with Chicago Public Schools, then promptly donated $250,000 to the Emanuel campaign. Aramark similarly got a custodial contract with CPS, then, as reported in these pages by Rick Perlstein, immediately fired 450 workers. As a consequence, teachers and parents at several schools have had to clean up toilets because the company’s smaller work force can’t keep up with the workload. The Garcia campaign missed an opportunity to highlight this graft and corruption and tap into a growing public restiveness about privatization.

But the overall takeaway from Chicago’s mayoral elections is that when progressive forces organize and mobilize, we can significantly alter the political terrain. The billionaires and their candidate have lost the debate on all key issues, whether it’s workers’ rights, raising minimum wage, strengthening public education — Emanuel never mentioned school closings in this campaign, instead touting his early childhood programs — and progressive taxation that extracts revenue from the wealthy, and more.

But the post-Citizens United environment exposes the limits of just being correct on the issues. It exposes the limits of even the broadest and most robust progressive organizing (more than 5,000 people volunteered for Garcia). Here’s a sobering reality: The hundreds of thousands of dollars that CTU, SEIU locals and other unions poured into this election are not sustainable. How often can this kind of spending be done?

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told me on election night that the Chicago experience confirms the negative and undemocratic role money plays in politics.” Stressing the need for meaningful limits on campaign spending,” he said, we simply cannot go dollar for dollar with the billionaires.” Public financing, Sharkey asserted, is fundamentally a democratic demand.”

Perhaps labor needs to rethink its reticence about joining the national campaign to reverse Citizens United via constitutional amendment. As long as a couple of billionaires can outspend labor in local and national elections, how much of a fighting chance do we really have? 

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James Thindwa is a member of In These Times’ Board of Directors and a labor and community activist.
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