A Historic Election in Chicago Cracks the Machine

The old guard is on the way out, and a progressive future for the city is coming into focus.

Kari Lydersen

Chicago just saw a historic election. (Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Chicago’s population has decreased by about a quarter-million Black residents since 2000, with Latinos passing African Americans as the city’s second-largest demographic. So it was notable that on Chicago’s mayoral ballot February 26, six of the 14 candidates were Black. Two Black women, Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, finished at the top and will face a runoff April 2.

The results say a lot about a growth in race and class consciousness and a hunger for change in Chicago.

A number of progressive challengers ran for City Council — many of them people of color — and took down incumbent aldermen or made it to runoffs.

The results say a lot about a growth in race and class consciousness and a hunger for change in Chicago after eight years under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, dubbed Mayor 1%.” This election could be seen as a rejection of Chicago’s once all-powerful Democratic machine, a vast system of political patronage; of the Daley dynasty, with the loss of mayoral candidate Bill Daley (son of Mayor Richard J. Daley and brother of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who served a combined 43 years); of a Council in lockstep with the mayor; and of Emanuel’s autocratic, corporate style of governance.

Bill Daley came in third despite his $8.65 million in campaign funds, almost double the next candidate’s. Many see Lightfoot and Preckwinkle as representing reform, social justice and more diverse leadership.

Emanuel was long criticized for focusing on Chicago’s wealthy neighborhoods and power players while ignoring or undermining poor and working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods. His record includes the closing of almost 50 public schools, the shuttering of public mental health clinics, the slashing of city jobs that were long a staple for Black communities and the layoffs of public school teachers, with Black and Latino teachers disproportionately given the ax. Emanuel’s problems were only exacerbated by the revelation that his administration covered up the police murder of Black teen Laquan McDonald, and Emanuel announced in fall 2018 that he would not seek re-election.

Bill Daley, a former U.S. commerce secretary and White House chief of staff, was perhaps the candidate who most mirrored Emanuel, with his Washington and financial sector ties; billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, a key Emanuel backer, donated $2 million to Daley’s campaign. But voters also rejected a number of other high-profile establishment candidates, including Gery Chico and Paul Vallas, former public school officials; Garry McCarthy, former police superintendent; and Jerry Joyce, the son of a powerful Democratic machine politician.

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor appointed by Emanuel to oversee a police reform process after McDonald’s death, was an outspoken critic of Emanuel. She is seen by many, including residents of the largely white North Side, as an uncompromising good-government advocate and reformer, though many activists have concerns about her ties to law enforcement and say she should have been more proactive while heading Chicago’s police oversight body. If Lightfoot wins, she would be Chicago’s first openly gay mayor.

Preckwinkle, the County Board president, has long emphasized racial justice and reform of the criminal justice system, including by expunging juvenile records and curbing cash bail. Her opponents emphasize her ties to the Democratic machine and Ald. Ed Burke, who is facing federal charges of attempted extortion. That didn’t seem to dissuade voters who turned out for her, especially on the largely Black South and West sides. However, Preckwinkle was edged out in many of these wards by fourth-place finisher Willie Wilson, a wealthy Black businessman and gospel singer, who campaigned with populist demands for more jobs in Black neighborhoods.

Jobs, along with police accountability and gun violence, emerged as key issues and flashpoints for anger over the segregation and inequality that have long festered in Chicago.

Nearly all the candidates took relatively progressive stances on criminal justice and policing, and nearly all called for the legalization of marijuana, an overhaul of the police force and a halt to Emanuel’s planned $95 million police training academy.

The most detailed proposals for community investment arguably came from candidate Amara Enyia, a policy wonk and Nigerian-American community leader, who called for a public bank and a plethora of cooperatives and community land trusts. While revelations about Enyia’s own finances bedeviled her campaign late in the race, her prominence — including an endorsement from Chance the Rapper — signified the mood of many Chicagoans.

An insurgent spirit also animated a number of City Council races. Puerto Rican democratic socialist Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez — who has been referred to as the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” — is headed into a runoff against incumbent Ald. Deb Mell, a machine-linked candidate appointed to the Northwest Side seat after her father vacated it.

In the Far North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park, grassroots activist Maria Hadden unseated long-time incumbent Ald. Joe Moore, once a leading progressive voice who became increasingly unpopular because of perceived ties to developers and subservience to Emanuel. Hadden will reportedly be the first Black queer alderman.

Community organizer Byron Sigcho-Lopez led a broad field in the Mexican-American 25th Ward. Incumbent Ald. Danny Solis, a one-time Chicano activist turned right-hand man to Daley and Emanuel, announced in 2018 he would not run for re-election. Soon after, it was revealed that Solis wore a wire for the FBI’s investigation of Burke, and that Solis himself allegedly traded political favors for Viagra and sex. Sigcho-Lopez will face Alex Acevedo, son of a former state representative, in a runoff.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, another democratic socialist, easily won re-election, as did Sue Garza, a former Chicago Teachers Union member who unseated a long-standing incumbent four years ago.

While this election seems a victory for diversity, accountability and a fresh start, it also reveals that the cynicism and racism which have long plagued Chicago are not things of the past. Burke was re-elected despite the charge that he tried to extort fast food restaurant owners, allegedly using his vast political power for personal gain. Incumbent Ald. John Arena, in the majority-white Northwest Side ward, lost his seat after a tumultuous year that saw many residents furious about his support for affordable housing, a throwback to racially charged battles of decades past.

The 11-member progressive bloc of City Council won’t grow to a 26-member majority even if all the progressive challengers win their runoffs, but as we’ve seen in the U.S. House with leaders like Ocasio-Cortez, insurgents can have an outsized influence in shifting political debate.

Certainly, this election marks a historic moment in Chicago, with the city poised for its first Black woman mayor and an increasingly independent, progressive and diverse Council. But voter turnout was exceedingly low. No matter how fresh their ideas and fervent their commitment, Chicago’s new leaders will need the public’s input and energy to make lasting change. As hard as the challenge will be for the incoming mayor, the challenge for the public and for social justice movements is even greater: to seize this moment to demand the city meets the needs of residents forgotten by past administrations.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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