Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Jesus Garcia
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel sat through the second of Chicago’s three runoff debates looking as if he needed to pinch himself while trying not to look as if he wanted to punch his opponent’s lights out.

He wasn’t supposed to be there. All bets were on Emanuel brushing aside his four much lesser-known challengers in one fell swoop during the Feb. 24 general election.

Why wouldn’t he?

Emanuel had promise that turned into a portfolio. He was the finance director for mayoral candidate Richard M. Daley in 1989 and presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. He became a multimillionaire Wall Street investment banker before returning to Chicago to win Rod Blagojevich’s U.S. House seat. In 2009 he resigned his congressional post to become President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff.

Five days before last month’s general election, Obama returned the favor by cutting a radio ad endorsing Emanuel and flying into Chicago to stump for his former badass buffer while designating the city’s Pullman Historic District a national monument. Mayoral candidate Emanuel also had a campaign war chest that was in the double-digit millions.

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None of that was quite enough. Emanuel was too much the unlikable mayor, so the city’s voters didn’t like him back. He fell 4.4 points short of the 50 percent-plus-one votes needed to avoid a runoff.

So there Emanuel sat at Thursday night’s debate, side by side with challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, taking incoming flak from the man he’d bested in the first match 10 days earlier. There he sat, in this second debate, watching Garcia make a comeback by interrupting him, deriding his first four years as the city’s chief executive and even laughing at his carefully crafted mayoral message.

Garcia’s credentials were not nearly as impressive as Emanuel’s. Garcia was not even a millionaire and had no prospect of becoming one. He was a mere Cook County commissioner, a former Illinois state senator and city alderman. He was basically a community organizer daring to challenge the up-and-comer who had definitely become … da mayor.

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In the runup to last month’s general election, the Emanuel campaign spent nearly $7 million on 4,600 TV attack ads defining Garcia as the not-ready-for-the-big-time candidate. The heavy barrage has continued with TV spots attacking Garcia’s nonspecific solutions to Chicago’s $20 billion in unfunded pension debt. The mayor’s positive TV ads presented Emanuel all dressed down, wearing a Mr. Rogers sweater while admitting that sometimes he’s been a jerk but that he’s been a jerk for the good of Chicago.

The TV ads were worth every million. Polls indicate that Emanuel has shifted from a too-close-to-call status to a double-digit lead.

And yet the mayor still had to debate this interloper. Garcia, who comes off like the guy you give a big hug to right before he asks you to all hold hands and sway as you sing “Kumbaya,” was being annoyingly on the offense. The commissioner stuck with his populist rallying points, insisting that he would be a mayor who listened to the people, while Emanuel hadn’t a clue what the voters wanted or needed. Garcia charged that Emanuel wasn’t nearly as good a financial manager as his campaign claimed: If so, why was Chicago’s bond rating downgraded last month to two notches above junk status?

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Emanuel still possesses all the no-nonsense, show-me-the-money charm of the Wall Street banker he once was; therefore, he is nothing if not disciplined. So he sat there, attentively listening as Garcia charged that his allowing movie mogul George Lucas to build an interactive museum on 17 valuable acres of free lakefront land was a “monument to Darth Vader.”

It had to bug Emanuel, framing a smile and acting civil throughout much of the debate, that like Garcia, the progressives in his political party were characterizing him as a mayor who could not care less for the little people, simply because he quid-pro-quoed his corporate contributors big privatization contracts. Too many in Chicago were beginning to refer to him as Mayor 1 Percent, just like the book with the same title.

Rahm sat during the hourlong debate, methodically sticking to his script. Sure, he closed 50 schools in poor black and Hispanic neighborhoods, but “our kids have a full school day of kindergarten,” he said. Sure, he closed half the city’s mental clinics, but “we added more spaces through federally qualified entities.”

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Between the school and health-clinic closings, Chicago’s black voters aren’t as crazy about Emanuel as they were four years ago. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and many of the city’s other black leaders are going with Garcia. Fortunately, Emanuel invested wisely in some key black ministers, politicians and businessmen. They may well balance out the decisive black vote that will determine the winner.

When the debate ended, it was two down and one to go. The last one is tomorrow. The election is April 7. After that, the mayor can wave goodbye and become himself again.

Cybercolumnist Monroe Anderson is a veteran Chicago journalist who has written signed op-ed-page columns for both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times and executive-produced and hosted his own local CBS TV show. He was also the editor of Savoy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.