Democrats must focus on swing suburbs to win elections, Chicago mayor says

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Democrats face years of work, focusing on “kitchen table” economic issues over several election cycles, if they want to regain ground lost to Republicans, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Wednesday.

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The Democratic mayor of the nation’s third largest city also said Republican President Donald Trump’s legal and political troubles give Democrats a chance to regain a large slice of the more than 1,000 seats Democrats have lost in Congress and state legislatures since 2008. With Democrats controlling cities and Republicans dominating rural areas, the battle will be fought among swing suburban voters, he added.

“It’s not going to be done in a singular election,” Emanuel told Reuters in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview.

“The real crux question to me as a party is what I call kitchen table economics,” Emanuel said. Home ownership, affordable college, job security, retirement savings and health care are key issues, he said.

Chicago has faced fiscal problems and untamed street violence since Emanuel first was elected mayor in 2011. The release in 2015 of a dashcam video showing a Chicago police officer fatally shooting an unarmed teenager led to street protests that hurt the mayor’s standing with voters.

Black Lives Matter sued the city Wednesday, seeking to force Emanuel to agree to federal oversight of proposed police reforms. Emanuel said the Justice Department under President Trump will not participate.

“I can’t wish a different Justice Department,” Emanuel said. Instead, he is focused on police body cameras, more training and the hiring of new cops in supervisory roles, he added.

Emanuel cited improvements under his leadership, public transportation in particular. “Eighty-five percent of our people in the city are happy with our public transportation system. In New York, I don’t think you could get 85 people, let alone 85 percent,” he said, citing not-yet-published data from an annual ridership survey for the Chicago Transit Authority.

Emanuel blamed Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner for gridlock that has put the state’s credit rating near “junk” status and helped bring the Chicago Public Schools to the brink of insolvency.

“There is a fundamental flaw here in the inability to find a way to say, ‘Yes,’” Emanuel said.

Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said the mayor and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan are to blame for the state’s budget stalemate and “saying no at every turn.”

In national politics, Emanuel is positioned to play a role as a leader of Democratic Party efforts to recover from the 2016 electoral defeat. He has served as White House adviser to President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton and led the 2006 mid-term campaign that returned Democrats to a majority in Congress.

With a 38 percent approval rating in a May Reuters/Ipsos poll, Trump’s unpopularity figures to be a dominant issue during the 2018 mid-term elections, Emanuel said.

He declined to predict whether Trump will finish his term. “It’s a parlor game right now,” he said.

Reporting by Dave McKinney; Editing by Lisa Shumaker