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Politics & Government

Chicago Race Exposes Progressive, Wall Street Wings Of Democratic Party

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now for some context on the Chicago mayoral race. I'm joined by NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, welcome.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Well, four years ago, Rahm Emanuel won handily in Chicago. The other candidates didn't even come close. We're looking at a really different story this time. Why?

MONTANARO: Right. And as we heard in the piece, he's the first Chicago mayor to ever be forced into a primary runoff. And he finished ahead of Chuy Garcia 44-36 in the primary, which was much better for Garcia than most really expected.

BLOCK: And what's behind this? Why is Emanuel so vulnerable this time around?

MONTANARO: Well, and a big reason, as was talked about in the piece as well, is what he's been doing with shutting down schools and school reform and really didn't seek a lot of community input - at least people on the ground feel that way.

And - but it's really even bigger than that. I mean, if you look at what's happened with several of these national progressive groups coming into the city, they've banded together to take the fight to Emanuel. They really rallied around Garcia to see if they could force Emanuel into a runoff. They have, and they really feel like that this is a huge win for them.

Groups like Democracy for America, moveon.org, The American Federation of Teachers - which is the largest teachers union in the country - Netroots, the popular blog Daily Kos - they've all come in. And one person I talked to from Democracy for America, which is Jim Dean's group, who's the brother of Howard Dean, called this a fight really between the progressive Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party and the Wall Street wing.

BLOCK: Rahm Emanuel has a reputation as being a real lightning rod for criticism, a big personality, ruffled a lot of feathers along the way, and certainly that's playing out in this campaign.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. And for these groups, it goes well beyond Chicago. Remember, I mean, Emanuel had a very high profile when he was here in Washington, D.C., obviously as President Obama's Chief of Staff. And, you know, this is not someone who worked at the State Department. He's no diplomat, that's for sure.

He was in charge of the group the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that's in charge of getting House Democrats elected. And he was known for kind of whispering to conservative Democrats that they should tailor their message to that district. If that meant being anti-abortion rights, fine. If that meant being anti-gay marriage, fine. As long as you win, that's all that was important.

But doing that really made some of these groups on the left feel like he'd sold out the party. The healthcare law - for example, when he was the White House Chief of Staff, famously or infamously, behind-the-scenes had told progressive groups in a way that's not really safe for radio that they were, let's say, mentally challenged for wanting the public option in there because it couldn't get through.

BLOCK: The split that we're seeing in Chicago - the progressive center split - does that echo a broader trend you're seeing with Democratic politics around the country?

MONTANARO: It does, really. And I think that Hillary Clinton, in particular, if she does decide to run in 2016, is already having to deal with some of this, where you see progressive groups trying to move her a little bit more to the left. She's never been beloved by these groups because she voted for the Iraq war. It's part of why Barack Obama was able to win. They also see her as too tied to Wall Street. And if she doesn't win the White House - if she does decide to run, you're going to see this split in the Democratic Party much more front and center in the way the you see the tea party versus establishment split on the Republican side, because if Democrats aren't able to take back the House - and that's a very tough hill to climb for them - they're going to have maybe the fewest number of seats there since World War II and be in the minority in the Senate and be out of power in the White House.

BLOCK: Domenico Montanaro, NPR politics editor. Thanks so much.

MONTANARO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.