With a little interpretive help, an empty lot can tell quite a bit about a city. In his failed bid to oust Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in their April 7 run-off election, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia incorporated many “empty lot” stories into his tale of two cities — a thriving Chicago for the rich, a city of people struggling to survive — or wasting away — for the majority.
One March day, Chuy walked with a retinue of reporters around two typically grim square blocks in Englewood, a poor, black, depopulated and crime-plagued neighborhood on the city’s South Side — suffering from near-death blows from the last recession and the excessively high unemployment and foreclosures for its residents. Roughly a third of the lots were vacant and another third were occupied by boarded-up, abandoned homes and stores. The only governmental presence was a school Emanuel closed last year; a single church represented the nonprofit institutions of civil society.
It could have been different: the Chicago Housing Authority could have chosen not to hoard several hundred million dollars and instead put the local jobless to work rehabbing rather than demolishing many of Englewood’s foreclosed homes, thus providing customers to sustain local businesses. Now the only noticeable legal enterprise on those blocks is a rundown but sadly busy storefront: Illinois Casket Company.
Days later, Garcia stood before an empty lot near the lakefront McCormick Place convention center, at the south edge of the Loop, where construction was underway on a new Marriott Hotel. The city contributed $55 million from a special account (tax increment financing) that diverts increases in tax revenue from the general fund supposedly to eliminate “blight.” In practice, it’s a slush fund for the mayor to provide “pinstripe patronage” to cronies.
Two big investors in the hotel (and in Marriott itself) were private equity fund managers, including the richest man in Illinois, Citadel CEO Ken Griffin. Together, the two men gave Emanuel at least $1.5 million in March alone (while also generously funding many conservative Republicans).
Garcia’s focus on these two empty lots helps tell the story about how politics in Chicago has changed — and could change yet again. First, Garcia’s candidacy became the first sustained challenge to the new Chicago machine, the “money machine.” Second, it shifted urban politics that have been deeply defined in racial terms for decades towards debate more focused on economic policy and class interests.
“This was the most class-based election I recall in Chicago,” says veteran political analyst and strategist Don Rose, who advised Garcia.
Chicago’s fabled old machine was based on elected or party officials providing patronage — government jobs, contracts and services — for political support (work and votes primarily, but also money). The machine controlled conflicting demands of ethnic groups by parceling out favors. But the system reached a crisis in the late fifties and after when it — and its white constituents — were unwilling to give blacks their share in the spoils (and even basic services) or the opportunity to move outside their segregated community.
After Daley’s death, infighting weakened the machine and emboldened opponents and their independent political operations, opening a path for U.S. Rep. Harold Washington to win the mayor’s race in 1983, vowing to smash the machine, to provide public services fairly to all parts and people within the city, and — in language that serves as an expression of class differences in Chicago — to give as much attention to neighborhoods as to the Loop. Washington’s coalition consisted of a massively mobilized black community, a slim sector of progressive whites and a large part of the Latino community (under the leadership of young Chuy Garcia and friends) that supported a civil rights movement model for Latino advancement, not a machine model of the earlier immigrants.
But after Washington’s death and a chaotic interregnum with fights among remnants of the irreversibly weakened old machine, Richard M. Daley (“Richie”) took power from 1989 to 2011, initially by inverting Washington’s coalition to win with overwhelming white support, substantial Latino backing and enough black support to avoid appearing hostile to African Americans. Unlike his father, Daley had little affection for government and government workers. He began a massive process of privatization: janitors, recycling, charter schools, and a widely despised lease of the parking meters for 75 years (thus filling a budget hole without tax increases for only a few years). The old-style patronage politics was preserved to control Latinos through the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a key ally of Daley’s, but Chicago’s politics became more money-focused, its operations more privatized, its management and policy outlook more corporate.
Emanuel intensified the corporate outlook, even as he criticized Daley for financial mismanagement, sought budget and pension cuts and continued some key Daley strategies like free market policies on education. Rahm rammed much of his plan through against widespread uproar (and in spite of the fact that many school closings were not justified even by the Mayor’s own criteria such as underutilization). His approval ratings collapsed last fall; and even in the April run-off, exit polling showed only 51 percent of voters approved of his performance as 56 percent voted to re-elect him.
And in February’s first round of mayoral voting, nearly 90 percent of voters were in favor of an elected school board, a dramatic repudiation of mayoral control of schools under both Daley and Emanuel. Thus on issues of school control, neighborhood neglect and favors to rich contributors, there were signs that large numbers — probably super-majorities — of Chicagoans were at odds with Emanuel.
So why didn’t the candidate associated with the views and interests of the working and middle class win?
First, Rahm’s large and early fundraising advantage (of at least four to one) permitted him to define Garcia as unable to tackle the city’s massive fiscal challenges, a process largely reinforced by news media that reiterated endlessly that Garcia had no plan for the city’s finances, but implying Emanuel did — until the day after the election, when the tune changed to challenge the just-elected Emanuel for not having a realistic plan, either. The sub-text and real message from the elites was that Emanuel, but not Garcia, was willing to take on the public sector unions and force concessions on major issues like pensions.
The wealthier, whiter voters overwhelmingly supported Emanuel as the tough manager, implicitly rejecting Garcia as incapable of handling such a big job. Most weren’t aware that the county government was making more progress than the city towards resolving its financial problems under Board president Toni Preckwinkle — whose floor leader and right-hand man, of course, has been Chuy Garcia. Emanuel beat Garcia by just 51 to 49 percent among voters in precincts with households earning less than $39,999 a year, and by 56 to 44 among those earning $40,000 to $99,999, but he won in precincts with an average annual household income of more than $100,000 by 71 to 29 percent. There was a clear class divide, but even if just the working poor had voted, Garcia would not have won.
Looking at maps of the vote, it becomes obvious that Garcia did well (or at least did his best) in Latino areas, winning 70 percent of the vote in the city’s five most heavily Latino wards; in some “white ethnic” working class areas and often in recent immigrant wards (as well as the most diverse wards); and in some areas popular with young people. Garcia won the under-30 vote 57 to 43 percent, but lost to their elders. Emanuel won white voters by 64 to 36, but that vote was very concentrated in the north lakefront and far northwest side wards that are also the most affluent.
Although there are no figures available on the recent European immigrant/white working class voters, there was strong support from those neighborhoods for progressive aldermen. (All incumbent members of the progressive caucus who ran for reelection won, and at least four new members of the 50-member city council may join. They are disproportionately from white or mixed ethnicity working class wards that used to be Democratic machine strongholds.)
While there was a fair degree of unity among unions in supporting progressive council members, they were divided sharply on the mayoral race. A few important unions, such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), sat out the election; a significant bloc of unions, including many service and public sector unions, supporting Garcia (such as the two biggest SEIU locals, the Chicago Teachers Union, National Nurses United, Amalgamated Transit Union locals and others) backed Garcia; and a large bloc of building trades, the hotel workers union UNITE HERE and others backed Emanuel.
This lack of unity undercut the message that working class families and neighborhoods had a common interest in supporting Garcia. Indeed, most of the unions backing Emanuel thought they owed him support for favors. That patron-client political relationship — which in some cases can bring real benefits to workers, such as Emanuel’s anticipated support for making it easier to organize hotel workers at hotels receiving public funds — often trumped broader issues, such as Emanuel’s attacks on the teachers union or likely demands for cuts in pensions. For example, even though most big buildings go up without public financial help (and most that get it do not really need it), the building trades attribute their high employment to the mayor in power.
But the two-city, class-sensitive message did not find a welcome home in much of the black community, where Emanuel’s strong showing seemed at odds with the perceived widespread African-American discontent with Emanuel’s policies. There is one overwhelmingly popular explanation: Barack Obama came to Chicago to endorse his old chief of staff, and his visit was quickly turned into commercials for the mayor. And immediately after the first round, the Emanuel campaign placed robo-calls throughout the predominately black South and West sides accusing Garcia of opposing the construction of the Obama presidential library in Chicago. It deliberately misrepresented his position that park land available for already underserved black neighborhoods should not be turned over to the private University of Chicago for the library as other land was available.
Some black leaders complained that the Garcia campaign did not give their neighborhoods any special attention or promises. Indeed, some members of the Garcia campaign who ask not to be identified agreed that top campaign strategists decided not to mount a special campaign appeal to the black community, but instead hoped to win with Latino and white ethnic votes.
But many observers argue that there is also an underlying unease between black and Latino voters, as members of each group see themselves as competing for the same scarce jobs. “I don’t think of it as tension,” says Timuel Black, an author and progressive African-American political activist for most of his 95 years, “but in the lower half of the black working class, they see Mexican workers taking jobs that blacks might have had before. Then there’s the feeling, ‘Why elect a Mexican mayor when those people are taking our jobs?’ ”
Even as class appears to play a bigger role in Chicago politics, racial, ethnic and other identities will impact elections as long as keep impacting everyday life. But campaigns like those for Garcia and for many of the council members are already forging a shared progressive politics. New groups, such as the labor and community group alliances Reclaim Chicago and United Working Families, are likely to help keep such issues alive in between elections and strengthen the support for class-focused movements against the new “money machine.”
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.