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Rahm Emanuel faces uphill battle to be Chicago mayor

By Roland S. Martin, Special to CNN
  • Rahm Emanuel is leaving White House with ambition of becoming Chicago's mayor
  • Roland Martin says it won't be as easy as some people think
  • He says Emanuel faces a challenging field and has some handicaps
  • Martin: Emanuel will have to work to win confidence of Chicago's black population

Editor's note: Roland S. Martin, a CNN political analyst, is a syndicated columnist and author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith," and "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable Network and host of a Sunday morning news show.

(CNN) -- It's laughable to watch political prognosticators on the various TV shows weigh in on Rahm Emanuel's chances of becoming the next mayor of Chicago, Illinois. If you trust any of them, you swear President Barack Obama's outgoing chief of staff sees the position as a birthright that he is about to assume now that Richard M. Daley is stepping down.

Folks, don't buy the national media hype. As they say, all politics is local, and in this case, Emanuel has a long way to go before he can even think of moving into the fifth floor mayoral suite.

Chicago has long been called a city of neighborhoods, and as a resident of the city for the last six years, I have witnessed the territorial views of its residents live and with full effect.

River North. Bronzeville. South Loop. Hyde Park. Beverly. Bridgeport. You name it, Chicago is a city that is all about its neighborhood boundaries, and when you ask someone where they were born and raised, they are likely to give you the street address rather than just the South Side, North Side or West Side. And those boundaries are often defined by race.

With that being said, the issue of race will be a major obstacle for Emanuel, and not because he's white and Jewish.

Video: Emanuel to run for mayor?
Video: Source: Emanuel leaving Obama

First, it's assumed that because he was a Chicago congressman for six years, he's well known in the city. Not true. Yes, he did represent a Northwest Chicago district, but there are political strongholds all across the city, and he's going to have to navigate them.

The Chicago Sun-Times commissioned a poll shortly after Daley announced he wasn't seeking re-election, Emanuel placed fifth with 7 percent, within the margin of error. Those topping the poll: Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart (12 percent); state Sen. James Meeks (10 percent); Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at 9 and 8 percent, respectively.

Chicago has never had a Hispanic mayor, and African-Americans are still champing at the bit to revive the legacy of former Rep. Harold Washington, who stunned the nation with his election in 1983 when he bested a younger Richard M. Daley and Mayor Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary.

No one thought he had a chance because race has loomed large in heavily Democratic Chicago, and that was on full display when Washington eked out a victory that November against Bernard Epton, a white Republican who no one gave a shot and who some say subtly stoked the fears of white residents about a black takeover.

His death in 1987 still resonates in the city, and with Daley reigning supreme for two decades, running everything from the schools to public housing to the rail system and the city college system, that enormous constituency sees this moment as an opportunity to finish what Washington started.

African-Americans dominate five of the city's top 10 wards. And of the top 23 wards with registered voters, African-Americans control a majority in 12. Don't assume that Emanuel, being a Democrat, can easily win those. And if you're one of those folks who think it's wrong for me to focus on race, then you clearly don't get Chicago politics.

It is an open secret in Washington that the Congressional Black Caucus despises Emanuel. A longtime caucus member told me that normally when they meet with the president, the chief of staff attends the meetings. But in the time Obama has been in the White House, Emanuel didn't attend one meeting, and has always given a cold shoulder to black members of Congress. And if you ask black political operatives, pollsters and insiders, they all have a "why-I-can't-stand-Emanuel" story.

If he wants to win the mayor's race, just having the public support of Obama isn't enough. He is going to have to deal with Reps. Danny Davis, Bobby Rush and Jesse Jackson Jr. All three have massive ground troops, and if they are willing to rally around someone like the Rev. James Meeks, also a state senator (I attend his church, Salem Baptist Church of Chicago), who can also pull white social conservatives to his side, Emanuel can forget about getting a significant share of the black vote.

Then there is Chicago's Hispanic community. The population is substantial, but to count, they need to be registered voters, and Hispanic voters do not dominate a large portion of the 50 wards. Yet winning their votes is vital to building a winning constituency. And with many blaming Emanuel for no progress on immigration reform over the last 18 months, and with Emanuel facing brutal scrutiny from Gutierrez, a major immigration reform proponent, he's going to have to do a lot of politicking in order to win.

Of course, there are the city's white voters. You have the Lakefront liberals and the city's blue-collar workers, who are strong union supporters. Emanuel has been at odds with unions in his time as chief of staff, notably over health care and the primary bid of Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and the national labor leaders will be quick to remind their supporters in Chicago just how good a friend Emanuel was or wasn't.

Emanuel will also have to stare down Dart, a white man who won office with a multiracial coalition and has gained high marks, especially for refusing to follow through on serving residents with eviction notices from their foreclosed homes. If he is in the race, along with Alderman Robert Fioretti, a savvy politician from the West Side of Chicago, they will be able to win a sizeable portion of the white vote, thereby leaving Emanuel on the outside looking in.

Emanuel rightfully gets praise for his tough-as-nails approach to politics. But in a city that is used to Daley running the show with an iron fist for so many years, frankly, this might be the wrong time for someone with Emanuel's style to seek the city's top post.

We can expect a bruising battle in February for the job, and as many as 15 candidates could be on the ballot. The top two vote getters will go to a runoff, and there is a strong chance that Emanuel may not be one of those two. His run is certainly a gamble, and suffice it to say this could be the riskiest political decision he has ever had to make.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.