Chicago Politics

Image: Justin Kern (CC by/nc/sa)

By John McCarronForget the civics books. Chicago runs on personal favors—granted and returned. Or at least it did, until the new mayor came along with an updated style of power politics.

The author:

John McCarron is a contributing op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune, an adjunct lecturer at DePaul University’s School of Communication and a freelance urban affairs writer.

Chicago did not invent the big-city mash-up of local governance and political patronage, but we more or less perfected the art … and continued its practice long after cities like New York and Boston opted for reform.

The rise of the Democratic Machine in the 1930s coincided with the national era of FDR and the New Deal. But locally it meant one’s chances of getting a city job for yourself or your son-in-law depended on your effort to get out the vote on election day for the Organization’s slate of candidates.

The Machine

A shadow government evolved in which Democratic committeeman in each of the city’s 50 wards and Cook County’s suburban townships often wielded more influence than the elected alderman or suburban mayor.

The ultimate master of this well-oiled mechanism, of course, was the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, who held a tight grip on both the mayor’s office and party leadership for over two decades.

The Machine’s high-water mark arguably came during the tightly contested presidential election of 1960, when “Hizzoner” pulled out all the stops to tip Illinois and its decisive electoral votes into the win column for John F. Kennedy, thereby sending America’s first Catholic president to the White House.

Media stories of ghost voting by the deceased and stuffed ballot boxes persisted for years. But Richard J. Daley was never indicted, much less convicted, of vote fraud or of any other patronage-related abuses. He was, in fact, unapologetic.

To this day local defenders of the so-called Chicago Way will argue—not without merit—that government-by-favors is far more responsive to the public than government by civil service bureaucracy. If you doubt them, they argue, try reaching the federal government on the telephone.

Jimmy Carter appears with Richard J. Daley, right, in 1976. (image: Wikipedia)

Sand in the Gears

Yet the Machine was showing its age by the time Daley died. The old federal New Deal largesse, and subsequent WWII and post-war manufacturing booms, both of which had larded City Hall’s storehouse of political favors, had begun to run dry.

In the private sector, the still-vexing era of de-industrialization had begun. Both jobs and residents were moving to the suburbs, and the new suburbanites tended to vote Republican, cutting into Chicago’s clout in Washington and Springfield. Like all major northern cities, Chicago was hard-pressed to provide basic services to its citizens, especially in minority neighborhoods hit hardest by the exodus of blue-collar work.

The period after Daley I’s death in 1976 brought Chicago’s very own Interregnum, a ten-year period of political volatility and change which saw the upset election of Jane Byrne as Chicago’s first female mayor (thanks to City Hall’s bungling of a freak snowstorm in 1979) and later of Harold Washington, its first black mayor, who died in office in 1987.

In 1989 Richard M. Daley won in his second attempt for the mayor’s office. He did so not so much by reviving the Machine as by building a multiracial political coalition. That same coalition helped him achieve much in his record-setting 22 years in office.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, 2009. Image: Kate Gardiner (CC by/nc)

Daley II

Opinions differ about Rich Daley’s performance, but any fair analysis must concede Chicago fared better under “Daley II” than most big northern cities. The population and job losses were stanched, major corporate headquarters were recruited, and downtown was revitalized. Most of all, Daley “got” the global thing. Billions were poured into expansion of O’Hare International Airport, into the McCormick Place convention center and into downtown beautification – its centerpiece being Millennium Park.

He also set out to radically reshape the city’s public schools and public housing. But average student achievement scores barely improved; and his 10-year plan to replace dismal high-rise public housing projects with mixed-income townhouses was stalled by the collapse of the real estate market. The Great Recession non-recovery that followed, along with a rising sea of lender-foreclosed homes, all signaled trouble ahead.

Doubtless this helps explain why, on September 9, 2010, Rich Daley surprised almost everyone by declaring he would not seek reelection in the spring of 2011. His exit touched off a political scramble, for there was no Daley III waiting in the wings, nor did the Machine still have the oomph to anoint a successor.

It turned out, however, that a new art of political machination had overtaken American politics while Chicagoans clung almost nostalgically to their old system of favors. It is, of course, the modern politics of attitudinal polling and focus groups, of continual fundraising and million dollar media buys, of electronic image-building as opposed to press-the-flesh appearances at wakes and weddings.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is, without question, one of the nation’s foremost practitioners of the new science of American politics. He entered public life not as a door-knocker or favor-deliverer, but as a high-pressure, high-tech fundraiser, beginning with Richard M. Daley’s successful 1989 mayoral run and later Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

The arc of Emanuel

Though Daley made no endorsement, the whirlwind that is Rahm Emanuel easily lapped the mayoral field—both in fundraising and vote-getting – in the February 2012 election.

WIth deep pockets and powerful friends, Rahm Emanuel won the Mayor’s office with votes to spare. Image: Brock Rumer (CC by/nc/sa)

Since then it has been hard to discern when Mayor Emanuel’s campaign ended and when his governance began. He quickly appointed several “who’s who” panels of business and civic leaders to study everything from the city’s economic future to school reform to the arts. He is challenging public employees’ unions by, for instance, ordering a longer school day, and by pitting city garbage crews against private haulers in “managed competition” to see who is more cost efficient.

Daily there is a mayoral press conference, or some form of photo op in the neighborhoods, hailing some municipal betterment. Often the theme is arrival or expansion of a company bringing new jobs to Chicago.

All seems carefully organized to support what the new breed of political pros calls the “narrative arc.” In this case, it’s the story of a young, energetic reformer out to modernize a rusty Rust-Belt city.

Under Emanuel nothing is left to chance … though he made a calculated gamble by inviting the G8 and NATO summits – albeit a gamble diminished slightly now that the G8 is headed elsewhere. Likely the new mayor hopes to stride beyond the long shadow of Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose most ambitious effort to boost his city’s global mojo—Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games—fell short.

Gamble? Nearly all Chicagoans over age 50 remember the black eye the city took hosting the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when our head-knocking gendarmerie roughed-up protestors in what one official post-mortem labeled a “police riot.”

A replay of that fiasco would hardly fit into Mayor Emanuel’s narrative arc. A successful staging of the NATO summit, however, would demonstrate that Chicago’s new mayor “gets” the global thing even more than his famed predecessor.

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