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So This Is What Choice Feels Like, Chicago

I voted for Chuy Garcia

It’s the wee hours of the morning after what may be Chicago’s most historic mayoral election ever. The first runoff in Chicago mayoral history has just been triggered and I’m sure many in this city aren’t sure what to make of that. It’s obvious the moneyed business interests who threw astounding sums at Rahm Emanuel can’t be happy that the incumbent mayor didn’t achieve fifty percent of the vote plus one. But what about everyone else?

I’ve lived through four Chicago mayoral elections in my 12 years in Chicago. Coming from New York, a city that left behind the Tammany Hall machine and let Progressivism in more than a century ago, at first I wasn’t sure what to make of the theater that passed for mayoral campaigns in this town.

The first two contests, which I’m sure resembled many more before my residency, were essentially a machine-fronting emperor, the second Mayor Daley, and a handful of marginal, never-had-a-chance, running-for-fun opponents who could dare to oppose the machine because there was no way they could hurt it, much less win. (I clearly remember seeing my first Windy City mayoral debate in the early 2000s with Daley versus just such an embarrassingly motley crew of opponents,  and feeling distinctly and somewhat sickeningly like I’d gone back in time to the 1800s.)

My third Chicago mayoral was witnessing a candidate, Emanuel, who clearly maintained his main residence in another city (Washington D.C.), allowed by the Chicago machine, big money, and a bought judiaciary to ignore local law and run anyway, as unopposed by truly viable candidates as Daley ever was. (I’m still sorry, Bob Fioretti, that I didn’t let you have my birthday cake that fateful day in 2006, but you’ve never been viable in the mayorals.)

Granted, Chicago flirted famously with Progressivism with Jane Addams and the Settlement House movement at the opening of the 20th century and the Washington and Byrne years nearer the close of it. But unlike other major cities in America, it never seems to stick here.

And then there was this year’s campaign. The playing field resembled the other three Chicago contests I’ve lived through. An incumbent mayor positioned as if an emperor, sitting at the forefront of an aging but still powerful machine and very much not to be questioned. Three candidates who even they, themselves, knew were completely not viable. And a third-best main opponent, Cook County Commissioner and longtime local politician Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, standing in for a second-best main opponent, CTU President Karen Lewis who dropped out for health reasons, who herself only entered the race when the widely expected best main opponent, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, decided not to run.

Until today of course, when that third-best main opponent, Chuy Garcia, secured enough of the vote from Emanuel to block him from winning a second term outright, forcing that aforementioned first mayoral runoff in Chicago history. A two-candidate contest, Emanuel versus Garcia, in six weeks’ time on April 7. Garcia managed to do that with a campaign that highlighted all the ways that the incumbent mayor demonstrated responsiveness to major donors instead of average Chicagoans.

And it worked because, unlike Daley, when you get right down to it no one here really loves Emanuel. There are too many stories of his temper and his vindictiveness. And closing 50 public schools and causing the first teachers’ strike in 25 years didn’t help. That’s not to say Emanuel didn’t have strong support from diverse communities. Unite HERE and major black and Latino politicians were up there on the stage with him at Plumbers Hall tonight beginning the politicking for April 7.

But Chuy had something more. There was a Daley-ness about him in this campaign that the media seemed to miss. If I could put my finger on it, I’d say what he had tied up was love. Chicagoans could identify with Daley, so far removed from their individual lives, as someone who, like most of them, had a deep and abiding love of this town. More than the machine and the money and the iron will with which he ruled Chicago, what abided was his basic love of Chicago and Chicagoans. He loved his job. He loved his city. And his city loved him back.

I can’t for the life of me figure out who identifies that way with Emanuel.

Every mayor makes hard choices. Every mayor needs the backing of the private sector. People claim these somehow as unique traits of Emanuel, when of course they’re just necessities of the job. But what isn’t necessary is telling rank-and-file communities that you and monied interests know better than they do about what’s good for them. Shutting out local media until they agree to support you blindly (as the Chicago Tribune did in endorsing Emanuel after running a scathing deep investigative series on Emanuel’s donor relationships.) Cultivating a public image as a vindictive tyrant.

Or, of course, that long, drawn-out fight to get on the ballot the first time around, which signaled for a lot of us not how much Emanuel loved Chicago, but how much he wanted the mayoralty as a political stepping stone.

Chicagoans may not oppose their electeds very often, but they’re not stupid. Everyone wants a mayor who wants to be their mayor. Who loves their town as much as they do. They can smell that love from a mile away, and that is not Emanuel’s strong point. Lofty words about the American dream becoming real in Chicago shared from the election night stage tonight are fine to gain applause from a friendly crowd. But if they really mattered as more than words, it would show in demeanor. Yet people are more frightened of City Hall now than they were under the Daley administration.

And you know what? No citizen should ever be frightened of City Hall, and no City Hall should ever cultivate that kind of reputation.

Chuy, of course, will have to prove his words from tonight, too. From his own crowded stage he shared promises of a mayoralty for the 99% of this city, not the moneyed 1%. An open, inclusive style of governing. Respect for the perspectives of the regular families and communities that people Chicago. That’s pure populism that will need an economic basis to be fleshed out to really mean anything. But that’s hardly the point tonight. The real lede is the candidate’s obvious affection for Chicago and Chicagoans, something that after four years continues to evade the current City Hall incumbent. That’s what Emanuel will truly be up against over the next six weeks.

It has been several generations since Chicagoans have had a real choice to make for mayor of our city. Many younger voters will have no memory of choice at all. (Residents of other cities, just re-read that last sentence and think about it for a bit.) But for the next six weeks, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. Chicagoans without high six-figure salaries will have to do something that the machine has not wanted them to do for decades. That is, think. Really think–about the candidates and the future of Chicago. Because this time around, their vote will count like never before.

My old friend and former colleague, Dominican University’s Jacob Lesniewski said it best about this evening in a public post on Facebook:

 “It may be the post election party euphoria, but I keep thinking about what this runoff represents and it keeps coming up big. Looking over that ecstatic room full of young activists, woolly haired longtime fighters, Latino precinct captains from the 22nd ward, a diverse crowd of some of the folks I respect and admire the most in Chicago, I got the feeling that something opened with this runoff, something like an opportunity to recapture a progressive vision of this city…”

Hear, hear. In 12 years, I’ve never felt prouder to be a Chicagoan. That’s not to say that Ryan and I won’t still be moving to Los Angeles this year, nor that the reasons we (and many others) have for leaving Chicago don’t still apply. But a Chuy Garcia mayoralty and the Progressive change that that would entail?

That’s a Chicago I’d be very sad, indeed, to leave behind.

Categories: CHICAGO

Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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