A Mayor Daley has ruled Chicago since 1955, except for a memorable twelve year interruption, resulting mostly in chaos. When the current Mayor Daley, Richard M., announced his decision not to seek a seventh term in September, Chicago newspapers deemed it a “political earthquake,” and headlines ranged from “Daley a father figure for Chicago” to “Daley’s decision means the time is now for democracy.” Daley’s 21-year tenure has been marked by the city’s revitalization and new-found status as a ‘world class city.’ While Daley is oft criticized for his bulldozing tactics (literally—he once bulldozed an aviation strip that bordered the Chicago Bear’s football stadium in the middle of the night, without permission from the Chicago City Council or the Federal Aviation Administration, in order to pave way for natural grasslands and a bandstand), nobody denies—or would dare to deny—his ability to get things done.
When Daley shocked the city with his announcement to retire, he opened the floodgates to a series of candidates eager to stick their toes into a Chicago mayoral race. After the initial rush, however, the pool has thinned significantly. The popular Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, and Illinois Congressmen, Luis Gutierrez and Danny Davis, were leading candidates, but they dropped out. Now, former Obama chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, appears to be the most formidable contender.
To people elsewhere, this may have been obvious. Emanuel represents Chicago in a White House full of Chicagoans. But within the city itself, his roots are slightly more complicated. He spent most of his childhood in Wilmette, an affluent Chicago suburb. He has also spent a large portion of his adult life in Washington, D.C—making him sensitive to accusations of carpet bagging. Additionally, he arrives in Chicago without an obvious coalition to form the base of his support. Most candidates start with one or more blocs: the black vote, the labor vote, the Hispanic vote. He does not immediately possess any one of these blocs, except for possibly the notorious “lakefront liberal.” Also, as several newspapers have been quick to point out, Emanuel does not appear to have any sincere affiliation with a Chicago baseball team. In a city that loves politics and sports and politics as sports, this seemingly minor detail weighs heavily on the minds of voters who already see him as an outsider.
But in the words of one unhappy alderman, there seems to a strong chance that City Hall could “go from a Daley dictatorship to a bully dictatorship.” There are the stories: the dinner after Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, Emanuel rattled off the names of everyone who had wronged them during the campaign. After each name, he lifted his steak knife, brought it full force into the table, and screamed, “DEAD!”; the two-and-a-half-foot decomposing fish he sent to a pollster; the expletive-laden invective directed at Senator Lindsey Graham, loud enough to hear through the phone, while the senator was touring the Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem. Despite these horror stories, Emanuel’s boundless energy and relentless campaigning led him to become one of the top engineers of the Democrats’ takeover of Congress in 2006, and, as President Obama’s chief of staff, he orchestrated the passage of the stimulus package and health care bill. He is a recognizable and strong—if sometimes polarizing—figure. In Chicago politics, this can only work to his advantage. James Morone, Professor of Political Science and Urban Studies at Brown University, said “Emanuel’s style is just business as usual in the Windy City… In fact, Rahm’s probably going to have to toughen up.”
His main opponents appear to be former Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill), Illinois state senator Rev. James Meeks, and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle. Moseley Braun became the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate when she was elected in 1992, and her name is recognized throughout the city. The group formally known as the Chicago Coalition for Mayor—an assorted collective of over 60 African-American groups, including elected officials, religious leaders, lawyers and businessmen throughout the city—chose her to be the African-American “consensus candidate.” However, she is still tainted by a scandal during her term as U.S. Senator. In 1996, despite US sanctions against the country, she made a clandestine trip to Nigeria where she met with dictator Sanchi Abacha. She subsequently defended his human rights abuses in Congress. Not long after, it was revealed that her fiancé was a lobbyist for the Nigerian government.
Rev. James Meeks polled well in September. At ten percent he came in second behind Tom Dart, who has since dropped out of the race. However, he was snubbed as the African-American “consensus candidate.” Until Tuesday he also had insisted that if elected, he would remain pastor of his church, which hurt his legitimacy. He then handed over his church duties to a man who has filed for bankruptcy twice, owns three cars, has a second mortgage on a Chicago house, and has timeshares in the Bahamas and another vacation area in Illinois. Meeks has called homosexuality an “evil disease,” but assured the gay community, “Now, if I were sitting around bored with nothing to do, that stuff might come up. But I expect to be so busy with schools, crime, and budget problems during my first term that I won’t have time.”
As for City Clerk Miguel del Valle, he is by far the most prominent Latino candidate in the mix. He is coming from a position of obscurity, but he could capture a significant vote share from the city’s Latino community. Although Latinos make up about a fourth of the city’s population according to the 2000 census, they are only 15 percent of the city’s voters. They are underrepresented at the polls partly because they are younger than most Chicagoans—40 percent under 18—while many are not U.S. citizens or eligible to vote but have not yet registered.
All candidates must reckon with a key issue: how to successfully mount a citywide effort without the political machine that propelled Daley successfully through six mayoral elections. This matters especially for Emanuel. Not only did Daley endorse him in 2002, but he also supplied him with his army of patronage employees, who knocked on doors up and down the 5th Congressional District. In less than ten years, the old political machine is now a shadow of what it once was. The increasing cosmopolitanism of the city and its elites, the growing influence of the media, and the very public conviction of Daley’s patronage chief, Robert Sorich, in a city hiring scandal, have contributed to weakening the machine’s power.
Money will play a bigger role than in the past. Emanuel and Moseley Braun have the advantage here—they are the only candidates who are likely to raise money from across the country. Complicating matters is a $10,000 limit on donations from corporations and unions that will take effect on January 1. In a better financial atmosphere, there would be a mad dash to raise money before the end of the year. But in a down economy, corporate donors are less inclined to give large sums of money until the race narrows significantly.
Aside from the issue of money, candidates must also figure out how to find their foot soldiers and best put them to use. At one time, Mayor Daley and other political leaders were able to deploy armies of people to work on behalf of individual candidates. That is no longer the case. Now, as happens in other cities not dominated by machine politics, people working to get votes in their wards must find volunteers enthusiastic enough to spend their time and energy on a candidate.
All of these factors point to an Emanuel victory. He has money, name recognition, and a chutzpah that could inspire volunteers. But the election is not until February, and in a city with politics’ as volatile as Chicago’s, anything can happen.
MEL WHELP B’12 is Chicago 4 lyfe.