Emanuel's election ushers in a new kind of "them versus us" in Chicago

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( Tribune photo by Abel Uribe / February 22, 2011 )
Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel acknowledges the crowd during his victory rally at a Near West Side plumbers union hall Tuesday.

Following Rahm Emanuel’s election as Chicago mayor, the city has found a new definition of “them versus us.”

Used to be that “them” and “us” were racial and ethnic differences, particularly white versus black. But a look at the election results reveals new sides. On one are white liberals in the lakefront wards and African Americans on the West and South sides. On the other are the wards representing much of the old-time Chicago politics, mostly on the Southwest Side.

African American voters especially seemed to reject the threadbare race-based politics by dumping the “consensus” black candidate chosen for them by the likes of Jesse Jackson, whose head still is in the old time politics of the ‘60s. Good riddance to them.

I suppose we'll have to wait for polling to find out why, but I'll hazard a guess. As the old divisions have faded, new divisions are being created along lines of substantive issues. As the Harold Washington racially based foolishness has abated, Chicagoans are more interested in fixing things--not in the old sense (as in the "fix is in') but in the sense of finally digging into the massive problems bedeviling the city.

So, if the old-style parochial blinders have been set aside, what explains Emanuel's victory? Some guesses:

His style. Some credit Emanuel's display of control and calmness during his grueling questioning at an elections board hearing as the turning point in his campaign. All doubts raised about his legendary temper were cast aside; Emanuel demonstrated that he can govern. But I demure. From the beginning, the people who wanted to change how the city does business understood that they needed someone tough enough to stand up to the usual interests. They weren't fooled by Emanuel's display of equanimity. Under it, they knew boiled the blood of a determined--dare I say? --reformer.

The issues. While all the candidates discussed issues, Emanuel went in the direction that his constituency may have wanted. Challenge the public employee unions, most of all. But, quite frankly, clean up the mess that departing Mayor Richard M. Daley and his rubber stamp City Council have created. The reality of Emanuel's direction was confirmed for those who weren't convinced when some of the toughest public employee unions started saying nasty stuff against the him.

Those unions knew what they were facing. If Emanuel's promises of reform are to be taken seriously and not as empty clichés, everyone in city government will indeed "share" in the pain necessary to right city government.

Particularly encouraging is his promise to conduct a forensic audit of all city departments. By definition, it's an investigation into corruption and criminality--something that shouldn't be so hard to discover. I'd be more impressed with a functional audit that goes beyond corruption and into why we even have this or that department. What are its goals? How effective is it? Are the resources sufficient or is the department bloated with retainers and political appointees?

Viewed nationally, Emanuel's victory may represent, as Carmeron Joseph said in the National Journal, "...underscores the changing politics and demographics of a city famous for its racial and ethnic divisions." As the New York Times called it, "Chicago, City in Transition, Picks a Big Personality."

Chicago abandoning racial politics? Perhaps, and, if true, that change was coming for a long time. More earth shattering though, is the possibility that Chicagoans themselves yearn for a real change, not just in politics, but also in government. Though politics and government are linked, they are really two different things, you know. 

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  • The "consensus" process shows the problems with the "consensus anointers." That process started when WVON and the Sun-Times reported that the 3 Black candidates each polled 9% and none would get to a runoff. So, the remaining one ends up polling 9%. At least Meeks stood for something.

    We'll have to see how much Emanuel actually does, given that he yesterday walked the tightrope (on Roe and Roper) about not dissing Daley but needing reform. At least he appeared there; I doubt that Daley ever showed up for talk radio.

    And as far as a forensic audit, maybe you should clue in your friend Zorn, who besides mocking Rahm for saying forensics audit, linked back to his prior post that indicated that Zorn didn't understand what one was. He has become so clueless that I no longer help his click count. (Don't tell me he doesn't have one.)

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