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Once upon a time, we always had two mayoral elections

Twenty years ago this spring, Richard M. Daley coasted to his third term as mayor of Chicago in what would prove the end of an era, just not his.

Daley started off that year clobbering Joseph Gardner, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner, in the Democratic primary.

Then in the general election in April, he crushed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, who was running as an independent, Republican Ray Wardingley, better known as Spanky the Clown, and the not-to-be-forgotten Lawrence Redmond, nominee of the Harold Washington Party.

The following month, an odd thing happened. The Illinois General Assembly, controlled at the time by Republicans for a brief two-year window, changed the way Chicago elected its mayors.

Instead of a partisan primary followed by a general election pitting the party nominees, Chicago’s mayor was to be chosen henceforth in an all-comers nonpartisan format with a runoff if no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote.

It was a change the city’s white Democratic political establishment had wanted since Harold Washington had taken advantage of a split-white vote in the 1983 primary to become Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Washington beat back the effort when he was alive, but after he died and his coalition splintered, a switch was just a matter of time.

For starters, it was hard to argue with the concept that any mayor of Chicago should be elected with the support of a majority of its voters. Washington himself had once favored the idea before it became a strategy to oust him. So when Republicans took the lead on the matter in 1995 — the old system a constant source of GOP embarrassment in this one-party town — Daley and other top Democrats just stood back and let it happen.

In the four municipal elections held since then, there has never been a runoff.

Daley easily won three more times, and then Rahm Emanuel cruised to a comfortable 55 percent winning margin in 2011.

Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, I have also watched as Chicago voters have become increasingly disengaged from the political process.

Could this year be different? Could this be the year that Chicago voters get their first taste of the intense six-week campaign drama that a runoff could bring?

It’s possible. I’m not counting on it, but it’s possible.

The polls suggest Emanuel, though far in the lead over his four rivals, might fall just short of that 50 percent. And then we would have a whole new ballgame.

For those of us who remember the level of political engagement in Chicago in that decade before Daley took control and sucked the air out of the building, that’s a reason to take a rooting interest in a runoff — without picking up sides about the outcome.

I can’t really say the current state of affairs has much to do with the nonpartisan system. It’s more a matter of tightly concentrated money and power choking out serious dissent.

That 1995 election was the third time Daley had run that one-two gantlet of elections, and it wasn’t getting any harder for him as he went along.

In three subsequent nonpartisan elections, Daley never received less than 70 percent of the vote, which made Emanuel’s 55 percent in 2011 almost seem like a close race.

Former state Sen. Walter Dudycz, the rare city Republican officeholder and sponsor of the nonpartisan election law, said the new system has “worked well” for Chicago, at the very least saving it the cost of what he saw as a meaningless second election.

Dudycz argued nonpartisan elections also have attracted better quality candidates, pointing as evidence to Emanuel’s 2011 runner-up Gery Chico, whom Dudycz endorsed.

Dudycz isn’t saying who he supports this year but said he “absolutely” is hoping for that first runoff.

Cook County Clerk David Orr, who calls the switch to a nonpartisan mayoral election a “blatant racist attempt to hurt the black vote,” sees a possible irony coming this year.

If Chicago still had a Democratic primary, Emanuel would be the likely winner in this current field and the April general election a foregone conclusion, says Orr, who is backing Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. A runoff poses an entirely different threat to the mayor.

“It would be one of those wonderful ironies of life,” Orr said.

Chicagoans used to enjoy a close election battle.

 Please check out the ad on page 12 of Tuesday’s paper for the “Sit Down with Mark Brown” contest.  I drew up some trivia questions that will appear in the Sun-Times over the next four weeks.  Each time you go online to answer one correctly, you’ll be entered in a drawing for a chance to win dinner with me at Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen. I’d love to see you there.