For Chicago Mayor, A Race Against Race

Understanding the politics of the Windy City


Chicago has not had a Republican mayor since 1931, but it came close in 1983, when a state legislator named Bernard Epton attracted hordes of lifelong Democrats, only to fall just short.

You might assume Epton was a politician of rare gifts. In fact, he had only one. In a race against the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination for mayor, he was white—and that was almost enough to win.

In the 1980s, Chicago politics were a bubbling cauldron of racial antagonisms. Harold Washington won in 1983 by mobilizing black voters, who were resentful of their treatment by the white mayor, Jane Byrne, and hungry to gain a new role at City Hall.

They turned out in huge numbers, and 99 percent of them voted for Washington—compared to 19 percent of whites. Race was at the center of the acrimonious "council wars" of his first term as well as the stormy 1987 election, which Washington won shortly before dying of a heart attack.

In the 1960s, amid the civil rights movement, Atlanta called itself "the city too busy to hate." Chicago was not too busy to hate.

But this year's mayoral race has been a picture of racial calm. In fact, in the latest Tribune/WGN poll, the city's blacks and whites are in accord on one thing: the wisdom of electing Rahm Emanuel. With a big lead in the poll, Emanuel now commands nearly as much support among African-Americans (48 percent) as among whites (55 percent).

It was not clear at the outset that things would go this way. In fact, after three black candidates lined up to run, pressure from Jesse Jackson and others persuaded two of them to withdraw. The goal was to unify African-American citizens behind a "consensus" black candidate, who turned out to be Carol Moseley Braun.

When U.S. Rep. Danny Davis pulled out, he was not bashful about the reason. "The realities are that when our community comes together, as the song says, ain't no stopping us now," he said.

But the realities of Chicago politics have changed. It's not that race has disappeared as an element in voter decisions. It's just that other matters loom bigger. For that, we can thank three people:

Bill Clinton. Emanuel has benefited greatly from his association with the man known as "the first black president." It was not hard for black activists to portray Byrne as an enemy after she dumped blacks from the school board and the housing authority. Black voters needed no encouragement to detest Epton, whose unsubtle campaign slogan was "Before it's too late."

But Emanuel, whose former boss campaigned for him, gained immunity to such charges with his service to Clinton. Working for Barack Obama didn't hurt, either. Emanuel might evoke indifference among blacks. He could not possibly evoke fear.

Richard M. Daley. The outgoing mayor, it is often forgotten, also lost to Washington in the 1983 primary. But he would not be a Daley if he had missed the lesson of Byrne's defeat: A white mayor can survive many mistakes, but inflaming African-American voters is not one of them.

Daley lasted 22 years in office partly because he resolved to ingratiate himself with black Chicagoans. He appointed blacks to high positions, stressed his commitment to provide services to all neighborhoods, tore down scary public housing projects, and pushed reform of the minority-dominated public schools.

He was so skillful in defusing suspicion that no black challenger was ever able to gain traction. By the time he was ready to leave, the racial passions had cooled.

Carol Moseley Braun. A canny, able, and charismatic African-American candidate might have been able to overcome these factors. But Braun proved those adjectives do not apply to her.

She bridled at being asked to release her tax returns, bragged about being ambassador to New Zealand, and falsely accused a minor candidate of having been addicted to crack. She acted like the diva locals recall from her Senate days. Result: The anointed black candidate has 20 percent of the black vote in the Tribune/WGN poll.

Politics in this city have never been an elevating enterprise. But the receding of race is proof that even the Chicago way can travel a higher road.