For decades, Chicago could be best described as a little monarchy. The Daley dynasty for many is as much a natural element of Chicago life as hot dogs without ketchup on a poppy-seed bun or bay-windowed bungalows. Years pass under the leadership of the first and second Richard Daley. There were periods in between when power transitioned to others, but America’s Second City eventually came back into the family fold. Since the second Daley left office Chicago turned more into an oligarchy under the leadership of current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Business interests have the full support of the administration and City Hall has received the ire of many interests around town who see the Loop prioritized over schools and neighborhoods. He became the unstoppable Rahmfather. Then the impossible happened. Da Mayr was challenged and for the first time in the history of Chicago’s required 51% threshold to win without a runoff da Mayr was below that 51% threshold.
Welcome to the Republic of Chicago.
In this city, the office of the mayor comes with a lot of power and strength, and generally speaking that means whoever holds that office can hold out for a quick and painless electoral victory (unless you totally foil post-blizzard clean-up). But not tonight. The power of the public vote may not have unseated a mayor, nor guaranteed the Fifth Floor to a new one, but it did make a statement–loud and clear–that it is possible to take on the mayor and give them a legitimate and serious challenge.
Much of this comes from a dislike for Emanuel that runs deep into the core of many Chicagoans. The closing of schools, the perpetual crime plaguing many neighborhoods on the South and West Sides–Englewood, Austin, and others. There is the sense that the Loop gets all the attention while the neighborhoods are overlooked. The CTA plods along and economic growth is meager in many parts of the city all the while a new ‘L’ station and basketball arena get funding near McCormack Place. This election is in as many ways a referendum on Emanuel as mayor as it is a rallying cry around any one candidate.
Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia did well tonight. His results placed him within arms length of City Hall. He has a long way to go for a full-on victory and much of that will depend on the opposition coalescing behind him and his ability to maintain the votes he already won. Regardless of how he does at the end though, the fact the city has reached this point is not just important, but impressive. Chicago, the Democratic machine town that reveres its Mayor like royalty, or at the very least remains ambivalent enough not to fight it has gone and done something that is rarely done. It has risen and voiced its discontent and anger and said, “wait, we’re not happy and we want change”. Rather than flee to the suburbs there is a push to really think about the possibility that change can come from within and actually be to the benefit of the entire city.
Whoever comes out on top will have a hell of a job ahead of them. The pension crisis still hasn’t passed, deficits loom for the schools, and the fiscally conservative new governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, has already put forward a financial plan that would make huge cuts to city services and welfare programs that are sure to hit Chicago hard. There is demand for CTA expansions, but service is still less than ideal on already existing routes. The mayor will have to maintain job growth and private investment and attract new residents and retain old ones through all this too. And it won’t be any easier on citizens either.
Still, we have shown that we are willing to assert ourselves and take back the city. We as citizens want a more active role in government. We want a government that responds to the needs of its residents. One that recognizes the importance of comprehensive transit systems, one that acknowledges how precious a resources parks and green spaces are, and one that understands the role strong public schools play in community building.
Come April, the likelihood that Emanuel will resume his duties as Mayor is strong. For all intents and purposes, despite the hatred, he hasn’t been universally awful. He has been a proponent of investments in the ‘L’ and a strong hand in bringing businesses into the Loop. But that has proven insufficient in relation to his other policies and priorities: closing and inordinate number of CPS schools despite increases in financing for charter schools, jumping through hoops to guarantee access to parkland for private museum projects, or investing TIF money into vanity projects for private institutions. And despite Garcia’s strong record in politics, there is no promise he is the messiah this city needs. He could be, but we can’t know for sure.
What is important is the city came out and voted (even if turnout was low) and set a new tone: the mayor and his support base can be challenged and will be challenged. It may be time for the Republic of Chicago.
And honestly, the change feels good.