Chicago's first-ever mayoral runoff election nears end

By Mary Wisniewski
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Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel attends an opening ceremony for the Yelp Inc. offices in Chicago, Illinois

Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel attends an opening ceremony for the Yelp Inc. offices in Chicago, Illinois, March 5, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicagoans headed to the polls on Tuesday in a mayoral runoff election pitting well-funded incumbent Rahm Emanuel against underdog Jesus "Chuy" Garcia in a race to lead a city on the brink of financial crisis and plagued by violent crime.

Emanuel, 55, has spent millions of dollars on television and radio ads in his bid for re-election over challenger Garcia, 58, whose strong showing in February made Emanuel the first incumbent mayor to be forced into a run-off election.

Polls close at 7 p.m. CDT (0000 GMT).

Emanuel had 51.3 percent to Garcia's 33 percent in a poll conducted April 4 and released Sunday by Chicago-based company Ogden & Fry, though polls for the Feb. 24 election did not predict a runoff. The poll of 972 likely voters had a margin of error of 3.2 percent.

A former aide to former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Emanuel finished first among five candidates in February, but did not get the 50 percent of the vote needed to win the nonpartisan election outright. Garcia, a Cook County commissioner and a former state senator and alderman, finished second.

Emanuel, who has been criticized for closing 50 public schools, as well as for violent crime and for what some call an arrogant manner, has fought to rehabilitate himself with voters. He acknowledged in television ads that he can be abrasive, but said he fights for Chicago.

The city reported 407 murders in 2014, while the much larger New York had 333, though Chicago's crime rate is not the highest in the nation.

"Rahm may be a jerk but this is not a personality contest. It's about who can lead this city forward," said Alison Street, 46, a manager at a nonprofit organization, who had just voted. "Rahm has a plan."

Emanuel has attacked Garcia, a fellow Democrat, for lacking a plan to deal with the city's fiscal problems, which include a budget deficit expected to grow to $1.2 billion by next year due to public pension payments.

Alice Twitty, 49, said many people she knew planned to vote for Garcia because of school closings, but she made her mind to vote for Emanuel on her way to her west side polling place.

"I don't know Chuy. I don't really know what he's going to do. At least we know Rahm and what to expect from him," Twitty said.

Garcia, a Mexican immigrant, has knocked Emanuel as a mayor for the rich focused on the downtown business district, and has said he would listen to concerns of residents in the city's low-income neighborhoods.

Nikki Williams, 55, said her neighborhood faces a tough job market, school cutbacks and inconsistent city services. She supported Garcia, but was not confident of improvement if he won.

"I hope for change. I do what I can to help that change. But it feels like the more things change, we still get more of the same," said Williams, who works at a daycare program.

Political analysts have said Emanuel seems poised to win, but the election could be close and a big turnout would favor the challenger.

Garcia has banked on the powerful Chicago Teachers Union and other unions to get out the vote. Turnout was strong in pre-Election Day voting - more than 142,300 compared with less than 90,000 for the February election.

"The mayor is still running negative ads. Often you run positive ads in the last days," said Thom Serafin, a political analyst. "He wants to be certain. They're both battling it out until the last minute."

Republican analyst Chris Robling said Garcia hurt himself by not having better answers on budget questions, and Emanuel was able to exploit it.

"It looks like Rahm has weathered the storm," said Robling. But he added: "Anything can happen. Lightning can strike."

(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski and P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Lisa Shumaker)