The 2015 Elections: Chicago’s Velvet Revolution?Posted: February 27, 2015
The recent mayoral and aldermanic election results may indicate that the ground is shifting in Chicago’s political landscape. They have been characterized as a progressive uprising against the entrenched power of the mayor and his city council vassals. No, Rahm Emanuel was not defeated. Nor was the City Council transformed into a genuine deliberative body representative of the people’s interests. But for the first time the sitting mayor is facing a runoff. While Mayor Emanuel received 47% of the votes, this was insufficient for a victory. County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia received 33% and will face Emanuel on April 7.
A closer look at the election results indeed reveals a tectonic shift under the entrenched political establishment. Emanuel consistently failed to reach the threshold of 50% plus 1 vote needed to win outright. In only 9 of the city’s 50 wards did Emanuel receive more than 50% of the vote. These wards are concentrated in the more prosperous and predominantly white areas downtown and on the north side. Garcia also won 9 wards, these in mostly Latino areas. In the rest of the city, Emanuel received a plurality, but not a majority of the votes.
Of equal, if not greater, importance, aldermanic elections show an increase in the presence and visibility of “progressive” candidates and “progressive” winners. The result is runoff elections in 19 wards, often pitting progressives against establishment candidates. Chicago’s elections are non-partisan, although the Democratic Party is still the only game in town. However, local and national organizations have identified candidates whom they support, based on ideology and policy positions. Chicago Forward, a super-PAC supportive of Emanuel (although claiming independence) supported pro-Emanuel alderman against self-proclaimed progressive aldermen united in the Progressive Reform Caucus in the City Council. A coalition of organizations that include Grassroots Illinois Action, United Working Families, and Reclaim Chicago supported progressive aldermanic candidates. (Also, national organizations MoveOn.Org and Campaign for America’s Future actively supported Garcia’s mayoral candidacy.)
There is no guarantee that Garcia will defeat Emanuel in April, or that a progressive bloc will emerge as a force in the City Council. But the recent election indicates that for the first time in a generation, democracy is possible in Chicago.
This is why I use the term “Velvet Revolution” to describe the possibility that is emerging. The Velvet Revolution was the non-violent movement that led to democracy in (then) Czechoslovakia in 1989 as the states that were in the grip of the Soviet Union broke away to pursue their own national agendas. Like many revolutions, the Velvet Revolution was the culmination of years of underground action, struggle, and sacrifice. It fulfilled the hopes expressed in the “Prague Spring” of 1968, when the liberalization efforts of the communist leadership were blunted by Soviet armed intervention.
In many ways Chicago in the past functioned like an unreformed communist state. There was one political party that mattered and it was inseparable from the city government. (Even today the ward committeeman “candidate” appears on the publically financed election ballot.) Party membership (patronage work) was a prerequisite for city employment. For the last half century, with one notable exception, mayors have exercised dictatorial power. The City Council, rather than functioning as a responsible legislature, resembles 50 regional commissars, rubber stamping the mayor’s policies, more concerned with protecting their fiefdoms than providing for the financial wellbeing, safety, and quality of life for all of the citizens of the city.
In recent years, the city has adopted a corporate model. The Superintendant of Schools is now the CEO. City workers, no longer held in patronage servitude, have become a burdensome liability, a unionized workforce whose power must eviscerated through privatization. Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) money continues to be diverted from the needs of the poorest communities to the desires of the wealthy and influential. But the city’s finances are a shambles and there are no practical solutions on offer. The anti-tax, anti-union, anti-pension blame game has run out of steam as a distraction. It just might be the case that the people of Chicago want solutions that are transparent and just.
There is no guarantee that our “Velvet Revolution” will come to full fruition. But the possibility of progressive political change has been revealed. What comes next is up to us.