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 March 1, 2019

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 reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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