Chicago Progressives’ Mixed Results Against the ‘Money Machine’

David Moberg April 10, 2015

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia campaigns in Chicago during the final week of his campaign. (Stephanie Barto / Flickr)

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 senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. 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 has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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