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.


NEXT: Unlicensed Math

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  1. Good morning reason!

  2. If Mr “Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste” can turn out the dead vote, he is a lock.

  3. Good photo. Mr. Affable and Mr. Sinister as one – the yin and yang of sleazeballery.

    1. I’ll thank you not to sully my good name with reference to Rham.

    2. Two assholes missing are Daley and sack of shit with big ears.

  4. Who cares about Chicago politics? It isn’t like they can produce the next POTUS.

    Happy Valentine’s day! 😉

  5. Maybe we could expand the list to four so I can get a thanks as well?

  6. Chicago is bankrupt and they’re gonna elect another democrat who’s gonna tax and spend more? Yeah, real smart Chicago.

    Black Chamber of Commerce: Did Obama Lie to Us? Oh yes he did!

    1. Just like Illinoisans electing a tax raising Governor.

      1. And we all know what happens when they raise taxes, they stay high for awhile. I’ve been reading “Boardwalk Empire” and in Atlantic City they created a 5% “Luxury Tax” to finance the rebuilding of the boardwalk after a hurricane knocked it down. That tax has lasted 50 years.

        1. It’s just like the toll roads… When they were built, we were told they would only collect tolls until the roads were paid for. You had to be a real idiot to believe that.

  7. “Understanding the politics of the Windy City.”
    The motto is Fuck Everybody…..lie, cheat, steal!

    Chicago is a shit hole.

    1. The race to the bottom in Chicago is no different than the race to the bottom in other big cities, or the race to the bottom at the federal level for that matter. It’s a testament to Chicago’s business community that we’ve been able to thrive economically (relative to the rest of the country, of course) despite dragging the ball and chain that is city/county/state government.

    2. It’s just not, despite its politics.

  8. The sad thing is that Rahm really is the best candidate out there. Looking at the top four candidates, you have:

    1.) Miguel Del Valle, who I believe is the most principled candidate running. Unfortunately, his principles are borderline-socialist.

    2.) Carol Moseley Braun, whose candidacy is so inept that it will hopefully sound the death knell for the old school African American political machine that christened her the consensus candidate.

    3.) Gery Chico, who–despite not being endorsed by Daley–is the true machine candidate. While his upbringing in Daley’s inner circle should be enough to give voters pause, my real concern is his complete selling out to the unions (the single scariest special interest group in Chicago politics).

    4.) Rahm, who I think is an underqualified candidate and a loathsome human being, but understands business and is telling the unions to go fuck themselves. Sadly, in the context of Chicago politics that’s as good as it gets.

    1. Wow. I never thought I’d find myself rooting for Rahm Emmanuel.

    2. I am in complete agreement with your assessment. Del Valle seems like the only one that isn’t a complete dirtbag but he is a semi-socialist and is destined for fourth place. Rahm is a sleeze but is likely the best of a bad bunch. Chico is just a union suckhole. Carol Mostly Broke is a walking parody.

  9. Rahming speed!

    Voters should just write in Daley. Not Richie, but the Old Man.

    1. Only if they’re dead too.

  10. The first time I saw Rahm I thought he might be Persian or Indian. He’s on the brown end of the Jewish spectrum; if he won I don’t think I could talk about Chicago’s “white” mayor with a straight face.

  11. If a Republican was the only person on the ballot, they would still lose. Egypt has better elections.

    1. +5 (1 + 4 dead votes)

  12. Putting out an APB for Mrs. Catherine O’Leary.

    Mrs. O’Leary, would you happen to have a cow available for rent on a short term basis? Your city needs you now more than ever.

  13. 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.

    That is well-turned writing. Even if I didn’t know who Braun was, I think that paragraph would brought a smile to my face.

  14. High point of the campaign so far:

    Braun calling the other black woman in the field a crack addict. That’s some racial/gender solidarity for you, right there.

    1. Shit, RC, they refer to their “enemies” as “Uncle Toms”… when it suits the purposes of Keeping Team Blue in Power.

  15. “the city’s blacks and whites are in accord on one thing: the wisdom of electing Rahm Emanuel”


    Just goes to show how totally fucking stupid Democrats are.

    1. Clearly, you’ve not seen the the other candidates. Why don’t you look at Chico, Braun, and Del Valle and come back and tell me how they are better than Rahm.

  16. This is so much fun to watch. Democrats bitch about Rich White Men being in power, and here they are getting behind just such a person for a position of power.

    I would give a months’ pay to see some fistfights break out over this. Especially on C-SPAN.

  17. Good article, but I can’t agree with the sunny depiction of Daly Jr’s attitude toward black Chicago. I think you’re completely right that he did a good job ingratiating himself with the power elite of every neighborhood, and essentially went for a divide and rule strategy with Jackson Jr. But take a walk in Engelwood or Woodlawn and you will not be able to say that city services are distributed evenly. The main streets in Woodlawn are so beat up that it was hard for me, as a 20 something, to keep my footing on the sidewalks in the winter. In four years in Chicago, I did not talk to one black person who trusted the police, or, for that matter, who trusted Daly. I’m sure that Daly was leagues ahead of previous mayors, but I think that the lack of a credible black challenger is much more about Daly doing a good job of coopting, marginalizing or promoting up anyone promising.

  18. It occurs to me that voters from Illinois have the uncanny ability to always elect the worst persons the state has to offer. Obama, Rostenkowski, anyone named Daley, just to name a few, and it seems likely Rahm Immanuel’s name will soon be added. So. Here’s a novel idea that won’t help the foolish citizens of Illinois but sure would help prevent the voters in the other 49 states from electing lemons: Anyone running for any political office at any level anywhere in the USA should be put before the voters of Illinois in a mock election to see if he/she could be elected to office in Illinois. If he/she is indeed acceptable to the voters of Illinois it would be a reasonable conclusion that that particular candidate is clearly a lowlife scumbag and is therefore unfit to hold any public office anywhere.

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