Rahm Emanuel and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia prepare for the last televised mayoral debate before the April 7 runoff election. Credit: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

You might have heard something about a runoff election for mayor between incumbent Rahm Emanuel and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Or maybe you’ve heard far more than you’d like and wonder if anything they’re saying is true. Here’s a primer on what’s really going on.

Wait, I thought we already had an election. Why are we doing this again?

Because the people demanded it! Or at least the fraction of the people who bothered to vote—34 percent of those registered. But since none of the five candidates won more than 50 percent, the top two vote getters are facing off on April 7 for all the marbles.

I thought Chicago had mayors for life. Why didn’t Rahm win in the first round?

The short answer is that a lot of voters don’t like his style, which is often seen as imperious, dictatorial, arrogant, nasty, vindictive, shallow, deceitful—

Wait—I thought this was the short answer. What’s the longer one?

They don’t like his policies either, like cuts to schools, red-light cameras that don’t always work fairly, and privatization deals. Lots of folks think he’s all about selling off the city to the highest—or best-connected—bidder.

So who’s this Chuy guy?

A commissioner on the Cook County Board. Previously he served as an alderman, a state senator, and the director of a nonprofit community development agency.

What made him decide to run for mayor?

The short answer is that hardly anybody else had the guts to run against the mayor.

And the longer answer?

He was plucked from relative obscurity by Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who was looking for someone—anyone—to challenge Emanuel.

In other words, Chuy’s a tool of the unions?

Depends on what you mean by “tool”—and which unions you’re talking about. Garcia is backed by CTU and units of the Service Employees International Union. But Emanuel has been endorsed by the firefighters’ union and a bunch of trades.

Why should anyone give a shit about who has the unions’ back?

Because the next mayor has to figure out how to make good on the roughly $20 billion the city owes its pension funds, including a $550 million hike in payments due to the police and fire funds later this year.

Wow. Good thing we ousted the mayor who got us into this mess.

Right—except we didn’t. The pension debts exploded under former mayor Richard M. Daley, who coasted to reelection five times in a row and probably would have won again had he not retired in 2011. Then he essentially handed the office to Emanuel, who was once his fund-raiser.

So what’s Emanuel done about the pensions?

He negotiated a deal to reduce pension benefits for some workers, but that plan is on hold until the courts decide if it’s constitutional. The mayor also proposed hiking property taxes to cover the obligations, then backed off—at least until after the election.

So he punted?

Pretty much.

And what’s Chuy’s plan?

We’re still waiting to hear it. Garcia says that if elected, he’ll form a commission to review the city’s financial books and then figure out the best way forward.

So he punted too?

Obviously, these guys have more in common than you’d think. Neither wants to alienate any voters. They’re following a conventional strategy that’s been laid out by political gurus like David Axelrod.

Didn’t Axelrod say Chicago will become Detroit if Rahm’s not re-elected?

No, Axelrod said it more politely—that Chicago is too “fragile” for someone who’s not a “big personality.” The Detroit comment was from U.S. senator Mark Kirk.

Mark Kirk? Doesn’t he live in the northern suburbs?

Yes—but so do many of the mayor’s top supporters and donors. For example, Michael Sacks, the manager of Grosvenor, a Chicago-based hedge fund firm, serves as one of Emanuel’s top advisers. Sacks, his wife, other members of his firm, and their families have donated $2.3 million to Emanuel’s campaign funds since 2010.

I thought the law limited how much you can donate to political campaigns.

Sort of—but state law allows candidates to essentially buy their way out of contribution caps by donating large sums to their own campaigns. Thanks to a candidate who ended up not even running, the limits were lifted in the mayoral race, helping Emanuel raise more than $19 million for this campaign. In March alone, hedge fund manager Ken Griffin—the wealthiest man in Illinois—gave $950,000 to Emanuel and his affiliated political action committee, Chicago Forward.

What’s he done with all that money?

The mayor has run lots of commercials, including one in which he wears a V-neck sweater, owns up to being a jerk (“I can rub people the wrong way”), and pretends to be a regular guy.

And what’s Chuy done with the money he’s raised?

Unfortunately for Chuy, he’s raised a lot less—$4.6 million, most of it from SEIU and teachers’ unions. He’s used the money to pay for commercials in which he wears sharp suits and silk ties.

So Rahm wants to look an ordinary Joe in his commercials, which are paid for by rich guys, while Chuy wants to look like a rich guy in his commercials, which the unions paid for?

No one said democracy is perfect.

What about other issues, including that TIF program you two are so obsessed with?

That would be tax increment financing, which siphons at least $400 million a year in property taxes into accounts the mayor controls. Then he spends the money on things he wants, such as helping Marriott build a hotel in the South Loop.

Didn’t Rahm reform the TIF program?

Apparently not. But he did form a commission to study it after he was elected four years ago.

A commission? But isn’t Rahm mocking Chuy for proposing to create a commission on the budget?

We told you these guys have some things in common.

What does Chuy want to do with the TIF money?

What doesn’t he want to do? He’s talked about using it for pensions, hiring cops, and putting a chicken in every pot. Or maybe that was pot in every chicken. OK, scratch that last one.

This is all great, but tell me this: Which one of the candidates loves Chicago’s children?

They both tell us they do—repeatedly.

So if they love children so much, what are they going to do about the $1 billion deficit the public schools are facing?

Emanuel wants you to know that on his watch, graduation rates have gone up in Chicago.

That’s not what I asked.

Yes, but that’s how he’s answered. In other words, he’s not sure—or not telling us.

OK, what about Garcia?

He will make sure that money isn’t flowing to Rahm’s cronies.

But will that get us through a $1 billion deficit?

No, but it’s how Garcia’s getting past the question.

Chicago is also known for its crime problem. What would these candidates do about it?

Emanuel says he’ll keep fighting gangs and illegal guns. Garcia has promised to hire 1,000 cops.

Wait—didn’t Emanuel promise to hire more cops?

Yes, four years ago when he was first running for mayor. He said he was going to pay for it with TIF money. That was before he decided that Marriott needed help building that new hotel.

I can see that whoever’s elected is going to have his hands full. Can I just pretend nothing’s wrong?

Given how that worked over the last couple decades, maybe it’s time for a new approach.  v