Rahm, not Chuy, pulled together the Harold Washington coalition

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At last Chicago’s mayoral runoff election is over. It was a contest that featured:

1) Too many dollars chasing too few voters

2) Predictions by pundits that one candidate, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, could recreate Harold Washington’s multiracial coalition of the 1980s.


Feature 1 – The money vs. voter turnout.  Twenty-first century Chicago politics has seen the continued decline of the Democratic machine and its army of precinct captains. These folks could produce turnout. To be sure, it was not Periclean democracy, but old timers such as myself remember the pre-election ringing of the doorbell signaling the arrival of the man.

Was he unbiased – no!  Was he always above board – sometimes no!  Did he want your vote so he could keep his job – often yes! Did he sometimes tell your mom and dad they could vote for anyone they liked but not against the three or four candidates he needed to win big in his precinct – always yes!

Times have changed. Party reformers and Shakman restrictions on patronage have won. Ward meetings in many parts of Chicago are fading memories while party structure and political loyalty have crumbled. And what has taken their place? Big Bucks.

Old time precinct captains/committeemen in Chicago, and for that matter in the state of Illinois, have been replaced by 1) the mail carrier, who delivers candidate mailings mostly featuring expensive pictures with a few catch phrases; 2) the telephone, with its expensive and annoying robocalls; and 3) the television, with its 32-second ads — mainly attack ads — for candidates who can afford them. What do all of the above have in common? Big Bucks. And with them all working on April 7, turnout was dismal.

To be sure, there are other factors that account for the diminished voter turnout , especially the city’s changing demographics, but the low turnout trend in local elections rolls on.

Feature 2 – The remaking of the old Harold Washington multiracial coalition. Chuy Garcia supporters, along with several print and media types, claimed this goal was obtainable. In a Sun-Times opinion piece, I said this “way back machine” effort was undoable, but I was wrong.  The April 7 election returns did show a modified version of Washington’s coalition – but for Emanuel, not Garcia. In fact, Emanuel’s victory was more multiracial than Washington’s 1983 win. Though I personally dislike raw race-based voting analysis, I believe for this past election it is relevant.

A comparison of Emanuel’s 2015 runoff victory coalition with Washington’s 1983 general election victory coalition over Bernard Epton reveals the following. First, Emanuel’s base vote of white supporters was somewhere in the 70 percent-plus range, while Washington’s base vote of African-American supporters sky rocketed to 95 percent or higher. Looking at their foe’s base vote, Washington in five majority white wards scored only in the single digits, while Emanuel’s lowest Hispanic ward total was 19 percent (the 22nd ward).  As for each man’s “non-aligned” vote, Washington’s best Hispanic vote, 46 percent, came in the 26th ward. This ward three years later would elect Luis Gutierrez alderman in a special election,  thereby giving the mayor control of the City Council.  In 2015 Emanuel won every African-American ward. In fact, in his  three mayoral elections, he has never lost a majority black ward. Lastly, Emanuel on April 7 carried 13 more wards than Washington did in his 1983 victory over Epton.

I repeat that playing the simplistic ethnic/racial support game overlooks such factors as personalities and changing city demographics. But if one wants to play, look at these final numbers. Vote percentages: Washington got  51.8 percent, while Emanuel got 55.8 percent. Washington’s percentage of black support was far higher than Emanuel’s white support, but Emanuel did far better than Washington among the two other major voting blocs, providing Emanuel with a higher overall percentage of the vote and a larger multiracial triumph.

Paul Green is the director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

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