Somehow I get the feeling that somewhere in the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Alsip the body of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley is spinning around like the proverbial top. In yesterday's mayoral election, two African-American women emerged as finalists for the single most powerful position in Illinois politics. For a man whose relationship with the African-American community was tumultuous at best, this outcome would have totally blown his mind. Needless to say, so were a great many other people's minds, especially among Chicago's political pundit class, your friendly neighborhood blogger included among them.
Now I must admit that I don't follow Chicago politics all that closely. It's not that I don't care about the city. I was born and raised on the city's South Side. But my interest in the political machinations of the city has waned over the years . My political perspectives have expanded, taking on a more state-wide and national point of view. When you get right down to it, Chicago's importance as a political power center has also waned over the years. Chicago's mayor is no long a national king maker. Not only that, the office of Chicago mayor has pretty much turned into a dead-end job. It certainly isn't a stepping stone to higher office. You don't go from Chicago mayor to Illinois governor or United States senator. Its power and prestige has ebbed considerably and so has my interest in the position.
And yet, for all its trial and troubles, you can't just ignore Chicago. It's still an economic, financial, architectural, political, musical, media, and yes White Sox fans, sports center of power and influence. So a wise person would do well NOT to inadvertently place Chicago in some darkened corner and just let it sit there and vegetate. And the beating heart of Chicago is still the fifth floor of City Hall. That's what has made this contest for Chicago's mayor so compelling.
In many ways this year's contest reminds me of the race between Alderman Bill Singer of the 43rd Ward and the late Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1975. It was a match between Change Agent Singer and Establishment Incumbent Daley. Richard J. Daley looked impregnable. Mayor. Party chairman. Presidential king maker. Singer, on the other hand, was the embodiment of the snot-nosed newcomer. New to the city. New to politics. And yet he wanted to run things. HIS way. The outcome was entirely predictable. Daley won going away and in the end Singer disappeared into oblivion, like so many of Daley's political opponents. But Singer's campaign pushed Boss Daley, made him work for every vote he got. There were a lot of free garbage cans given away on the Northwest and Southwest sides, just like there were a lot of twenty dollar bills dispensed on Skid Row. Yes, Daley won and stayed in office until the day he died, but I think he and a great many in the Chicago Machine could see the handwriting on the wall. For one thing, Daley never did pick a logical successor, content to let the city sink into chaos when he was gone. In the end, Harold Washington took on the mantle of anti-Machine leadership and managed to piece together an uneasy truce between Chicago's black community and its Latino neighbors. Which brings me back to the Preckwinkle/Lightfoot contest. Once again we have the outsider taking on the Political Establishment, not unlike 1975.
The odds seem to favor Boss Preckwinkle. She controls the city's political apparatus. She has the unions under her thumb or perhaps that's vice versa. She's sitting on a tremendous political bankroll which can buy enough television time to define Lori Lightfoot in the minds of the many undecided voters. And yet, for all those advantages I still think Lightfoot has a chance. The fact is that every voting bloc in the city is angry and frustrated. The city doesn't work the way it used to. So the question is whether Lori Lightfoot can tap into all that political angst and pull out enough votes to pull off the upset. I think she can. It won't be easy. Toni Preckwinkle, for all her faults, is a seasoned political operator with a gut instinct for an opponent's weaknesses.
It all comes down to the power of new ideas versus the impact of years of experience. Lightfoot sure does talk a good fight. But political fights in Chicago aren't won with mere words. It takes a lot of money, even more guts and a tremendous ability to organize the precincts on Election Day. That's where Preckwinkle has it all over Lori Lightfoot. But there is such a high level of anger and frustration with the status quo. Property taxes are way too high. City services are at an all time low. Lightfoot is adept at making promises but can she come up with the funds to pay for those promises without increasing an already onerous tax burden on Chicago's rapidly declining middle class? Preckwinkle is an expert at finding ways to pay for the short list of promises that she's been willing to make, but all of them involve raising punitive taxation even higher than it already is. Who will win? At the moment I think it looks like Preckwinkle but Lori Lightfoot has a way of making gossamer promises appear both concrete and attainable. That could be a combination that even Boss Preckwinkle can't beat!
Filed under: Politics