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Rahm's win and the history of race, ethnicity, and geography in Chicago

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Opinion Zone,Christopher Murray

Tuesday’s election of Rahm Emanuel to become the next mayor of Chicago presents the opportunity to explore the fascinating political and electoral history of the Windy City.  In doing so we see that while the city has elected its first new mayor in over two decades, there are some striking similarities between this election and others over several decades.  It reminds us that despite the fascination with topics like money, campaign strategy and personality, fundamentals matter. 

For generations, politics and elections in Chicago have been defined by three factors: ethnicity, race, and neighborhood.  More than perhaps any other American city one could use Census data to determine how elections would be decided.  Furthermore, these three variables have interacted with each other in a complex and oftentimes contentious historical context.  For better of for worse, in Chicago, identity matters.

To get a sense of Chicago’s ethnic and racial geography, consider this map from the Chicago Tribune.  (For even more detail see this map produced by the Encyclopedia of Chicago).  Any discussion of Chicago’s politics and underlying social dynamic must reckon with how the city’s residents are organized residentially.   

Unlike in many other American cities, Chicago’s diverse ethnic, racial and geographic mix has never had a dominant force.  No group was ever large enough to dominate the others.  As a solution to this problem, the political “machine” evolved as a way to channel and control the various voting and neighborhood blocs under the banner of the Democratic Party.  Votes were repaid with patronage and programs, giving everyone an incentive to join.  Chicago politics was never terribly ideological or programmatic.  Rather, the party thrived on the distribution of resources.

The “machine” of course was perfected under longtime mayor Richard J. Daley.  From his base in the South Side “back of the yards” Bridgeport neighborhood, Daley was able to cobble together a working coalition of white ethnics (Irish, Polish, Serbian, Greek, etc.) and African-American voters from across the city’s fifty wards.  By the end of his reign however, the machine was on its last legs and it was perhaps only Daley’s force of will that kept it together at all.  As the African-American population skyrocketed and its leaders slowly began to demand more than Daley was willing to give, conflict broke out.  This conflict culminated in the historic election of Harold Washington in 1983.  Daley, by then, had passed on and been succeeded by his protégé, the less politically astute Jane Byrne.  The Washington election of 1983, while historic, was also one of the ugliest mayoral campaigns of the era.  It highlighted Chicago’s long history of segregation and racial tension but also witnessed the empowerment of the city’s black population in a way previously inconceivable.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I wrote a few pieces on my blog ElectionDissection.com (see here and here) arguing that we could make direct linkages between the election of Harold Washington and the campaign of another Chicagoan, Barack Obama.  Obama arrived in Chicago on the heels of Washington’s victory and was immersed in the period’s tumultuous politics.  He also witnessed how massive voter registration and mobilization efforts can produce dramatic electoral gains.

Even Obama, though, had some difficulties navigating and winning all of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.  In the Illinois primary, Hillary Clinton did quite well in Chicago, winning a number of those neighborhoods populated by the “white ethnics” that had been the base of the Daley machine (and also the most opposed to Washington).  The map above highlights those neighborhoods won by Clinton.  In addition to support among Chicago whites, Clinton also performed well among the growing (and larger than 1983) Hispanic population.  Overall, Clinton won 14 of the city’s 50 wards. Obama, of course, racked up huge margins in the African American wards on the south and west side.  Indeed, not much had changed since 1983.

Tuesday’s mayoral vote that elected Rahm Emanuel gives us another opportunity to examine the role of race, ethnicity and geography in Chicago politics and to see whether the historical trends and correlations continue to hold (see election returns here).  Unlike these earlier elections, Tuesday’s outcome was, for most, pre-determined.  Rahm Emanuel was the clear favorite and the only question going into Tuesday was whether he would surpass 50% of the vote in order to avoid a runoff.   Therefore, we should perhaps refrain from over-reading the results.  Nonetheless, there are some similarities with past elections that emerge.

For instance, while Emanuel’s victory was large and quite comprehensive across the city’s fifty wards, as this map from the Trib demonstrates, he did have some areas of relative weakness.  These wards happen to coincide with wards won by Hillary Clinton.  Gery Chico, former School Board President and Chief of Staff to retiring mayor Richard M. Daley captured ten wards across the city.  Nine of these were wards also won by Clinton (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 22, 23, 25, and 41).  All of these, with the exception of Ward 41 are largely Hispanic wards with small African American populations (Ward 11 also has the highest concentration of Asian voters in the city).  These wards also tend to radiate from the McKinley Park neighborhood where Chico has his roots.  Ethnicity and geography, thus, seemed to play a large role in his success as these areas’ voters had the chance to vote, for the first time, for a credible Latino candidate with a realistic chance of victory.  The 41st Ward, also won by Chico and Clinton, is on the far northwest side of the city and is probably the most suburban district still within the city limits.  Going into Tuesday it was the only Ward represented by a Republican on the city council and has historically had a large Polish and Irish contingent of voters.

Working against Chico, speaking in strictly ethnic terms, is the fact that the ballot included a second Latino candidate, City Clerk and former state legislator Miguel Del Valle.  Del Valle whose base and residence is on the near northwest side (Wards 26, 30-1, 35-6) was able to cut into Chico’s vote, allowing Emanuel to win the area with a plurality.  Again, ethnicity and geography were correlated with the vote. 

The African American vote on Tuesday is also worth exploring.  Carol Moseley Braun, former U.S. Senator and Ambassador, hoped to copy the Harold Washington feat of racking up huge numbers in the city’s black wards.  In the weeks leading up to the election, a number of other black candidates such as west side Congressman Danny Davis dropped out of the race and rallied around Braun to prevent a splintering of the black vote.  Unfortunately for Braun, her candidacy fizzled not only city-wide but across the south and west sides as well.  In none of these wards did Braun top 24% of the vote.  Black voters in Chicago heavily favored Emanuel giving him healthy margins in Wards 3-9, 15-17, 20-21, 24, 28-29, 34, and 37.  Two things are worth noting here.  First, while identity matters, so does candidate quality and credibility.  In 1983 Harold Washington was a highly credible candidate, making massive mobilization and turnout a possibility.  This year, Braun’s candidacy lacked the ability to generate the votes necessary to compete with the other top tier candidates.  Second, Emanuel’s identification and connection with President Obama clearly paid dividends.  This was something that the new mayor made sure to stress during his outreach to the black community. 

One ward that’s worth mentioning given its tie to the 1983 Harold Washington race is the 10th on the far southeast side.  This is the ward that produced “Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak who throughout the 1970’s and 80’s acted as City Council President, power broker extraordinaire, and trafficker in racial fear and innuendo.  The 10th Ward was quintessential Chicago white ethnic territory and was home to the long since shuttered steel industry that provided so many blue collar jobs for the region. In the years since, it has seen a large Hispanic presence move in, now accounting for 58% of the population.  The recent history of this ward is a reminder of how the geography of ethnicity is fluid as neighborhood composition, especially with the regard to the Latino population, can undergo dramatic change over time.

Like the other candidates, Emanuel also had a geographic base of support—the city’s near-North and North Side, especially along Lake Michigan.  These are the wards and neighborhoods he represented during his four terms in Congress.  In these parts, Emanuel consistently got two thirds to three quarters of the vote.  Constituents in these wards tend to be higher income and live in somewhat more diverse neighborhoods than in other parts of the city.

Emanuel’s success across the entire city bodes well for the start of his term.  He doesn’t come into office having to mend a polarized Chicago.  One of the primary goals of both Daleys’ tenures was to knit together this extremely diverse city.  At certain times, especially the period between their reigns, this fabric unraveled.  While the old Democratic machine could rely on vast patronage and programs to endure, the current economic realities suggest that the new mayor will need to devise novel strategies to keep his coalition together.  His past suggests that he has the energy and doggedness to make the best effort.

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