Chicago’s Mayoral Election

Black and white perspectival view of Chicago's City Hall taken from the southeast.

Tomorrow is Chicago’s mayoral election, with fourteen candidates vying to replace the incumbent Rahm Emanuel.  The large number of candidates and an unusually unsettled political climate make this a particularly exciting and unpredictable contest.  If one candidate among the fourteen pulls way ahead and receives a majority of all votes cast tomorrow, that candidate will be Chicago’s new mayor.  But, given the absence of a clear front-runner, it is more likely that no one will receive a majority, setting the stage for a run-off between the two highest-polling candidates.  (In fact, election-eve polling shows no one candidate getting more than fourteen percent.)

So, the most significant mayoral race in decades is coming down to the wire.  Three or four events have shaped the race and influenced the way voters are assessing the candidates.  The first of these is the Laquan McDonald shooting, which destroyed Mayor Emanuel’s reputation and chance of re-election.  One year into the mayor’s second term, it came out that he had been responsible for suppressing the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting in favor of covering up the police’s misconduct and buying off the dead teen’s family.  Since then, the shame of a colossal moral failure has dogged Emanuel’s administration.  But the fallout from this event has galvanized the electorate to expect more from the city and its police department, to demand better policing, and to look for leaders who will be on the side of citizens and have the courage to stand up to the police and to entrenched interests that do nothing but tolerate unacceptably high levels of violence in the city.

Mayor Emanuel’s disgrace has left him in too weak a position to ensure that his office will go to a chosen successor, even though he appears to hope the office will go to Bill Daley.  Bill Daley’s election would represent a terrible step backward, however, at a time when the city desperately needs an honest, fresh, independent guide.

The second event shaping the race is the feds’ recent sting.  In January, the FBI raided the offices of Alderman Ed Burke, who symbolizes the hermetic quality of Chicago machine politics, having enjoyed a controlling influence over local affairs while occupying the same seat in the city council for 49 years.  Burke is now, as Chicago Magazine put it, “facing federal charges for allegedly extorting legal business from the owner of a Burger King in his ward.”  Four candidates in the mayor’s race have “come up” through the machine and represent a continuation of politics as usual: Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, and Bill Daley.  The raid on Burke’s offices has been followed with the even more sensational revelation that Alderman Danny Solis wore a wire for the FBI for almost two years.  Solis chose to cooperate with the FBI rather than face charges of criminal misconduct himself.

As the FBI’s work opens up the happy possibility that more corruption will be exposed in Chicago, the prospects of many of the city’s erstwhile leaders are being recast.  Will Chicago voters finally turn against candidates such as Bill Daley, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, and Gery Chico, who are clearly creatures of the Chicago machine?  If voters do turn decisively toward “outsider” candidates, they may at last succeed in draining the swamp and liberating the city from “the Chicago Way.”

Identity politics is a third factor that makes the outcome of the contest hard to predict.  With so many candidates in the mix, including four women and many people of color, the contest will ultimately hinge on attributes other than the candidates’ skin color or sex.  It becomes nonsensical to talk about how “the black vote,” or “the female vote,” or “the white male vote” will go.  Will the upstart Amara Enyia and the solemn Lori Lightfoot split the black vote with Willie Wilson and Toni Preckwinkle?  Or will blacks simply vote for whomever seems likely to do the most for their communities and their pocketbooks, regardless of how they look?  In this day and age, what demographic is viscerally devoted to Bill Daley?  Looking at the contest in terms of superficial attributes seems particularly futile and nonsensical this time around.

It’s a momentous day for Chicago.  Personally, I hope either Lori Lightfoot or Gary McCarthy wins: either would make a fine, iconoclastic mayor.  Chicago needs to reject machine politics and all its creatures.  Peace, public safety, and honest governance: this, above all, is what Chicago needs.

Image: 1981 Hedrich-Blessing photograph of Chicago’s City Hall, taken from the southeast,
from this source.