The 2015 Elections: Chicago’s Velvet Revolution?

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.


One Comment on “The 2015 Elections: Chicago’s Velvet Revolution?”

  1. Ana King says:

    I have volunteered and campaigned for political candidates twice in my life: in the 1980’s, when Miguel del Valle (then-director of Association House, in Humboldt Park and had been a mentor to my best friend) was running for state senator, and NOW, for Chuy Garcia. Back then, I was doing it because I could “see myself” in that person’s campaign — I felt that this person would/could not “turn into someone else” once he took office, because he had a background in social work and had come from a working-class background, where everything he had earned was a result of his own hard work and not from the Old Boy network. And he never wavered. Miguel del Valle is still a champion of education from an educator’s standpoint. He has not lasted in the political arena, but he has made his mark and will continue to work for good. Now, I am actively working for the Garcia campaign — freezing outside of El stations while distributing leaflets (“No, you cannot have my Chuy ‘stache’ button, but please vote for him”) and engaging people in conversation, and making REAL (not robo) calls, in English and Spanish. I AM PART OF THIS “VELVET REVOLUTION” and it is invigorating. Once again, I “see myself” in Chuy Garcia’s campaign. His history resonates with action for “regular people.” Tears of joy run down my face when I see him at a café or a restaurant and he not only shakes each one of our hands but asks us REAL questions about the work we do and why we are so hurt and disgusted. As an educator, I had never worked in such a politicized environment until coming to the City Colleges of Chicago. My hope is that with Chuy Garcia as mayor, he will have enough confidence in the educators to allow us to return to educating students and not (what is fast becoming the prime directive of) graduating them in two semesters “no ifs-ands-or-buts”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s