No Surprises: Rahm Wins in Chicago

The suits remain firmly in control of the Windy City. What does Emanuel’s victory mean for urban progressive politics?

David Moberg

Making it look easy: Rahm Emanuel celebrates winning the Chicago mayoral race on February 22, 2011. He'll take office in May.

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In the first round of Chicago’s municipal elections on Tuesday, former Obama chief of staff and Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel handily defeated his three major opponents, avoiding a run-off with 55 percent of a low-turnout vote.

Emanuel's victory sheds light on how Chicago politics has—and has not—changed with regard to key issues: race, the fabled Democratic machine and the future of urban progressive politics.

Emanuel won the race to succeed Richard M. Daley, the city’s longest-tenure mayor, in part because he raised so much more money than all of his opponents combined (most from big out-of-state donations). He then spent the money effectively on ads turning his notorious abrasiveness into the toughness needed for the job. And unlikely as it once seemed, he became a sympathetic victim figure as unclear opponents tried to knock him off the ballot.He had the implied but never openly expressed support from Daley (whose name Emanuel virtually never mentioned until his victory speech), open support of former president Bill Clinton, and the power of association with President Barack Obama, which was extraordinarily persuasive with voters – especially African-Americans – in Obama’s home town. And he faced a modest roster of opponents, who weakened themselves as they campaigned.

Emanuel’s victory sheds light on how Chicago politics has – and has not – changed with regard to key issues: race, the fabled Democratic machine and the future of urban progressive politics.

Race: Chicago remains a highly segregated city, but there’s been a decline in the raw racism that characterized much of post-World War II city politics and erupted in the 1980s in white Democrats’ rebellion against the city’s first black mayor – and first significant reform mayor in many decades, Harold Washington. The city has also undergone a demographic shift in the last decade with a large loss of black residents, an increase in Latinos, and maintenance of the white share, so that the population is now roughly evenly split among the three groups.

But since the council wars” of the 1980s, white voters in the city and beyond have helped elect African-Americans to top political positions in the state and other jurisdictions, such as Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama as U.S. Senators and last fall Toni Preckwinkle as county board president. And black voters, long accustomed to voting for white politicians, have shown they will both pursue more black representation but not under any circumstances. 

Emanuel won majorities in 40 of 50 city wards, including every black majority ward. He failed to get a majority or plurality in remaining wards, most with significant Latino constituencies, as well as working class whites. Braun, who was named the black consensus candidate late last year by a self-appointed group of political, business and community leaders, ran a disjointed campaign with little clarity of message and many gaffes. She ran fourth overall, behind two Latinos – lawyer and former Daley aide and appointee Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle.

Schoolteacher Shirley Johnson may be representative of black supporters of Emanuel. She sees him as dedicated, no-nonsense” and bringing with him so many connections,” including Obama, which she hopes will bring more money to the city. But as a union activist she worries about his support for merit pay and ideas for education that play to Republican talking points” about teachers and public employees as the problem. She rejects Braun as having made too many poor decisions” in previous positions, and found the call to black unity demeaning to black people. We’re not all of one mind. We’ve moved beyond that.” 

The lesson to black leaders is that race politics does not work as well for black candidates or voters as coalition politics on behalf of progressive goals – a lesson that Washington’s victory demonstrated even at a time when race-conscious voting was more intense. Daley himself eventually won over many black leaders, then voters, by judiciously distributing favors and through the power of incumbency against flawed campaigns. But Daley did not have a lock on black support, since he failed to address adequately so many black community issues. And blacks are likely to measure Emanuel as well based on what he delivers.

The machine: Richard J. Daley, the boss of the last potent big city political machine, built his power on a blue-collar patronage army, but it was under assault in his last years. And despite the machine’s working class base, and his belief in government, Daley I always supported business interests in the city. 

By the time his son took power, the old machine only persisted in some wards, and Daley II relied on pin stripe” or contractor patronage to fund campaigns that were more like TV-oriented mayoral campaigns in other big cities. He still depended on and even helped create some of the ward machine-like operations, struck deals with the machine aldermen, and tolerated pandemic corruption in city contracting.

As budget problems grew, worsened by diversion of money into tax-increment finance districts that helped downtown business interests, he increased fees and taxes but never enough to cover all obligations, and instead shortchanged public employee pension funds and relied on one-time measures, especially selling off city assets, like its parking meters. He admired business and seemed to disdain government, even when he was in charge.

Emanuel as a campaigner was the more typical American mayoral politician, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg but with millions, not billions, in personal wealth. He relied heavily on advertising, rather than the northwest side machine aldermen or committeemen who supported him (and often fared worse with their candidacies in their own wards). He faced opposition from southwest side machine Democrats, like long-time council powerhouse Ed Burke (who supported Chico), and received few union endorsements. None of the big public employee unions endorsed him, because they expect him to demand concessions, try to cut pensions, to threaten more privatization of services (though he said both public opinion and current capital markets make privatizing more assets unlikely for now). AFSCME even encouraged members to vote for anybody but Rahm.”

Nobody knows for sure how he will govern. Despite a formal division described as a weak mayor/​strong city council, Emanuel has indicated he wants to re-organize the council, taking power from Burke. The council, which will have many new members and potentially a larger progressive bloc, could turn more independent (it would be hard to be more of a rubber stamp), but Emanuel could easily use his strong electoral showing and money thrown into remaining races to put together a bloc – maybe even a majority – loyal to him. 

But the old machine is virtually dead. Emanuel is a more conventional urban politician than Daley II has been but not a self-conscious progressive reformer like Washington, willing to challenge business interests. Emanuel, more than even Daley II, represents both business interests and a business mentality. The suits are in control.

Progressive urban politics: Reformers in Chicago in the 60s and 70s called themselves independents,” un-bought by and opposed to machine rule. With the Washington movement, progressives identified as fighting for the interests of neighborhoods and communities, a proxy for working class interests as well as geographical areas and non-white residents suffering neglect while the unraveling machine took care of downtown business. 

But under Daley II the progressive forces – political reformers, community organizations, neighborhood development groups, civil rights organizations and others – weakened, more often soliciting modest help from Daley than posing real challenges. Unions increasingly became independent and critical of Daley, especially when he sided with Wal-Mart against them. Most did not endorse Daley (or anyone) in the last election, and some became deeply involved in cultivating aldermanic candidates, but the victors did not always turn out progressive in office. The weakness showed in this election.

Miguel del Valle, part of a progressive Latino leadership group that supported Washington, was initially the favored candidate of the left, but he ran a poorly financed, lackluster campaign, not even pushing progressive initiatives he had proposed, such as a financial transactions tax. Perhaps his most energetic speech of the campaign came as he conceded, vowing to lead a progressive movement. Building such a movement is possible, especially with many unions politically independent of Emanuel and likely to be seeking allies in confronting his demands. Partly the success depends on making race and ethnicity of candidates less important than clarity of vision, concreteness of plans, and a strategy to win.

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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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