Chicago’s Left Blows Its Big Chance

Rahm Emanuel appears to have made the best of a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Laura S. Washington

Above the fray, playing it safe: Mayoral candidate and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks after receiving the endorsement of gay community leaders during a campaign stop on January 28, 2011, in Chicago, Ill. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What’s a true-blue Chicago progressive to do? We are in a quandary.

The next mayor of Chicago is likely to be a progressive's worst nightmare: Rahm Emanuel.

On February 22, for the first time in generations, Chicago voters have an opportunity to fill an open seat on the 5th floor of City Hall. Just after Labor Day last year, Mayor Richard M. Daley gathered family and close advisers in his office to drop the blockbuster: He would not seek a 6th full term in office, voluntarily ending his 22-year reign.

The local left has been languishing in the political desert for more than two decades. Harold Washington, the only progressive mayor in the city’s history, was elected in 1983 by a coalition of blacks, Latinos and white progressives. When Washington’s died suddenly in 1987, his reform movement fractured and crumbled. 

For more than two decades, progressives have been chafing at Daley’s middle-of-the-road, downtown-centric, corporate style reign. His surprise retirement was a rare chance to restore ground-up municipal governing to the nation’s third largest city. Chicago’s minority groups, grassroots community activists and left-leaning unions have long clamored for more attention to festering gaps in education, economic development, affordable housing and public safety.

Now, it looks like the left blew it. The next mayor of Chicago is likely to be a progressive’s worst nightmare: Rahm Emanuel.

Last fall Emanuel, a former Chicago congressman and aide to President Bill Clinton, resigned his most recent post as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff to make a mayoral run. In progressive circles he is viewed as a coldly pragmatic, apolitical establishment operative. They accuse him of hostility to a host of their pet issues, from union solidarity to immigration reform to reproductive rights. They cringe at his track record as a hard-knuckled congressional enforcer, an investment banker who got rich trading on his political connections, and prodigious fundraiser for Daley.

Don Rose, a longtime Chicago-based political consultant to many progressive candidates, recently noted in Politi​co​.com that Emanuel has many enemies among progressives, especially those in his congressional district whom he evaded whenever they asked to meet about the Iraq war. Others on the left said he was too much the compromiser and blamed him for President Barack Obama’s tilts to the right.”

All good reasons for progressives to get behind anybody but Rahm. But that effort has foundered on the rocks of race, ethnicity, and ego. 

They forgot the fundamental arithmetic of all good politics. It’s addition, not subtraction. Chicago’s magic formula is a third, third, and third.” Its white, black and brown populations are split roughly evenly. A winning citywide aspirant must have a foot in each camp. The Washington strategy of 1983: Consolidate the black vote behind a charismatic, qualified candidate who could sell a reform agenda to white and Latino progressives, union activists, and disaffected Democratic party regulars. The progressives of 2011 failed to follow that playbook.

Some card-carrying Washington coalition members tried to take up the mantle: Former U.S. Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, who once served as Washington’s floor leader in the Illinois legislator; U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a close aldermanic ally who shored up the city’s West side for Washington; and Miguel Del Valle, an early Washington supporter and the first Latino elected to the Illinois Senate. 

After Daley’s announcement, African-American activists like Rainbow PUSH’s Rev. Jesse L. Jackson pronounced that to win City Hall, African Americans must choose a black consensus candidate.” An ad-hoc committee of several dozen civic, business and community leaders spent weeks of squabbling, posturing and headline grabbing before settling on Braun on New Year’s Eve. 

The choice was mystifying. Granted, Braun was propelled into national political stardom in 1992 when she was elected as the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, largely on the female and African American vote. She then proceeded to spend most of the next six years ensnarled in a series of controversies that led to her ignominious re-election defeat by Peter Fitzgerald, a little-known conservative Republican banker. After a stint as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, she abandoned politics and founded a small organic tea company.

Braun’s political re-emergence has been disastrous. She has raised relatively little campaign cash and her personal finances are in a shambles. Her intemperate mouth has turned off voters (to wit, she called one newspaper columnist a drunk and a wife beater” and accused an opponent of being a crack head). Meanwhile, she has paid tepid lip service to reaching out beyond the black vote, alienating white and Latino voters.

Del Valle is the only true progressive and coalition builder in the race. In his long political career as a state lawmaker and as city clerk, Del Valle has forged a solid record on liberal causes. He was the first non-African-American to join the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, where he served for 15 years. His authentically grassroots campaign has emphasized neighborhood-friendly postures on public education, community policing and economic development. 

Unfortunately, Del Valle has raised only $150,000 in campaign cash (he boasts that he is the poorest candidate – with the most to offer”). The Puerto Rican aspirant is competing for Latino votes with Gery Chico, a clout-heavy Mexican American attorney and longtime Daley ally. Del Valle is running in the single digits in the polls. 

Enter Emanuel, who has wooed a goodly measure of the city’s progressive leadership and institutions. While Davis and South Side U.S. Rep Bobby Rush are backing Braun, North Side liberal congressional stalwarts like U.S. Reps Jan Schakowsky and Mike Quigley are with Emanuel. In January, dozens of prominent LGBT activists turned out for a rally for him. If elected, Emanuel would become Chicago’s first Jewish mayor. That’s a potent lure for the city’s Jewish voters, usually a reliable liberal swing constituency. 

The liberal unions, like the Service Employees International Union and the Chicago Teachers Union, have so far stayed on the sidelines and endorsed no one in the race. Instead they are pushing City Council candidates, perhaps to create a loyal opposition to the next mayor.

At last count Emanuel had raised nearly $12 million, four times more than Chico, his closest competitor. He’s been consistently ahead in the polls. He’s run a relentlessly Rose Garden-style campaign, avoiding community forums, focusing on campaign commercials and courting a compliant press corps.

Short another blockbuster surprise, it’s back to the desert for the city’s progressives. Let’s hope it won’t be for another 25 years.

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Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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