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Pre-Election, Chicago Mayor Emanuel Loses African-American Support


President Obama heads to his hometown this week. He's declaring a neighborhood in Chicago's South Side a national monument. The neighborhood is famous for the Pullman rail car company. It's also home to the nation's first African-American labor union. The president is arriving in Chicago just days ahead of that city's mayoral election. His former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is running for a second term as mayor. He hopes the president can help woo African-American voters whose support has waned after Emanuel backed massive school closings during his term. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There has been a whirlwind of campaign forums and debates during this nonpartisan race for mayor. The winner must get 50 percent plus one vote or a runoff election is held in April between the top two vote-getters. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel knows the drill. He won 55 percent during his first election, and during a recent mayoral forum, he sounded confident.


MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I'm not going to ask you to vote for me. I want you vote because we have a great city if we all do our role in building this great city.

CORLEY: During the campaign, Emanuel stressed his four years of balanced budgets without increases of property sales or gas taxes. He's been endorsed by the city's major newspapers, and polls show him with a significant lead over four challengers. His big campaign war chest funds TV commercials that have dominated the airwaves.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Chicago's got big challenges, and Mayor Emanuel's up to the job - full-day kindergarten, college to careers, raising the minimum wage.

CORLEY: Until recently, only one of Emanuel's opponents, Willie Wilson, a wealthy African-American businessman, even had a TV ad running. Last week, another candidate joined in.


JESUS CHUY GARCIA: Chicago's had 10,000 shootings in the last four years. It's got to stop. I'm Chuy Garcia. I'll put 1,000 new cops on the street.

CORLEY: Cook County Commissioner Jesus Chuy Garcia's ad was a direct slap in Emanuel's broken campaign promise to add a thousand officers to the city's police force.

Chicago Alderman Robert Fioretti and political activist William Walls are also in the race. During his last campaign, Emanuel won with support from a coalition of whites, blacks and Latinos, but his support among African-Americans has waned. Laura Washington, a political analyst with Chicago's ABC affiliate, says while Emanuel gets credit for taking on tough problems, any success is isolated and hasn't brought much overall relief.

LAURA WASHINGTON: Unemployment rate is disastrous on the South Side of Chicago, dropout rates are still high, poverty rates are still high.

CORLEY: And Washington says Emanuel's style hasn't helped.

WASHINGTON: Very much top-down, a tad arrogant, not really connected to people.



UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: A trauma center.



CORLEY: Protesters like Veronica Morris Moore gathered outside the mayoral debate held last week. She and others complain that the mayor pays too much attention to Chicago's downtown.

VERONICA MORRIS MOORE: There hasn't been much investment into our communities other than policing and traffic stop signs.

CORLEY: Brandon Johnson with the Chicago Teachers Union, which supports Garcia, says many here are still incensed about Emanuel's decision to close 50 of the city's public schools in mostly African-American neighborhoods.

BRANDON JOHNSON: Those closings left scores and scores of children, mostly black and brown, without a neighborhood school.

CORLEY: Emanuel has tried to blunt the criticism, saying there's now a longer school day for all Chicago Public School students and all-day kindergarten. Professor Robert Starks, who teaches political science at Northeastern Illinois University, says the school closings and a perception of indifference hurts the mayor.

ROBERT STARKS: The largest registered voting block in the city is African-American. The problem is African-Americans are not at this point - that I can see, are not motivated to come out to vote.

CORLEY: And perhaps that's what the mayor had in mind when he asked the president to record this ad for him.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And let's be honest, at times, the guy can be a little hardheaded. But there's a reason Rahm fights as hard as he does - he loves our city.

CORLEY: But few here expect the president's push for Emanuel to have much influence. They see next week's election as a referendum on Rahm Emanuel's first term as Chicago's mayor. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.