I wouldn’t actually call it an “election.” That would suggest there was more than one side who would benefit by a victory.
The truth, as it usually is, was a little more prosaic: the city of Chicago chose another politician to head up the corrupt Machine that has dominated politics in the Windy City for nearly 80 years. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel became the city’s 46th mayor and first Jewish leader. He succeeds Richard M. Daley who, together with his father Richard J. Daley, ruled the city, the county of Cook, and the state of Illinois for all but 14 of the last 55 years.
The Machine is also known as the “regular Democratic Party.” There is nothing “regular” about it. It is an obscene blight on the idea of representative government and republican principles. The 95% Democratic vote cast last night are the kind of numbers Soviet leaders used to get in their “elections.” Hugo Chavez doesn’t do as well in his rigged contests.
The fact of the matter is, Chicago is held in thrall to a one-party dictatorship as firmly ensconced in power as any banana republic dictator. The enforcement mechanism is not an army or secret police (although the Machine has been known to play rough on occasion), but rather a network of ward bosses, corrupt businessmen, the odd mobster, and those who owe their livelihood to the party in power. The uniting expedient behind the Machine is money — taxpayers’ money — that is fleeced in many ways, both old-fashioned and novel.
The current Machine replaced the fractured ethnic amalgam of rancorous factions from the 1920s that was not only corrupt, but under the thumb of brutal, murdering gangsters. At least the new Machine had the decency to keep the gangsters off of the city payroll — most of the time — while assigning them a lesser role in the city’s hierarchy. Today, “the Organization,” as the mob is called, stays quietly in the background, sticking their fingers in several legitimate pies while generally refraining from carrying out their wet work inside the city limits. Today, most Chicago gangsters die in their beds or in prison.
Once Emanuel has his hands on the levers of Machine power, he is, in effect and for all practical purposes, Mayor for Life. The Machine may not have quite the influence it once had in that the mayor will not be able to crack his whip and have 13 subservient congressmen doing the bidding of a Democratic president as Daley the Elder could claim. But when it comes to elections — local, state, or national — the Machine is supreme. A steady flow of patronage jobs, city contracts, and outright bribes maintains the loyalty of ward bosses and ward heelers alike.
Challenges to Emanuel in the future will almost certainly be futile efforts by the few reformers who lack everything the Machine has in abundance: organization, money, and the will to intimidate all those who refuse to play ball. The meek and mild liberals, clustered around the University of Chicago where Barack Obama lived, don’t have the imagination, guts, or ruthlessness to put forth a credible alternative to Machine candidates. In the end, their forlorn hopes, placed on people like Barack Obama, are crushed when the candidates make a deal with the regular Democrats for higher office like the president, or fail miserably in gathering the support necessary for victory. In short, reformers are divided, argumentative, and politically naive — a combination that doesn’t give them much of a chance for power.
Even the African Americans can’t unite at election time. Vast cultural differences have divided the city’s blacks from the West and South sides since before William Dawson threw in his lot with Daley the Elder in the 1950s and ruled the black wards as a Daley vassal. New power centers have emerged since then complicating matters even further. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition heads up one group while notorious anti-Semitic Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan claims his own following. The preacher elite, including Jeremiah Wright, Ralph Meeks, and Father Michael Pfleger, have also carved out a political niche. Radical racial politics has divided Chicago’s African Americans, which plays right into the Machine’s hands.
In this election, Emanuel successfully played on his ties to President Obama and won a majority of black wards in the city. African Americans in Chicago want the same things white citizens want: better schools, more and better jobs, and a safer, cleaner city in which to live. As long as the Machine is in charge, they are likely to get none of that, which is a tragedy considering the history of racial division in the city. The scars of forced integration of neighborhoods, as well as the racial politics of the 1980s when Harold Washington, the city’s only black mayor, was thwarted at almost every turn by white aldermen led by Ed “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, still roil the Machine at a low level. But many blacks made their peace with Daley the Younger and were welcomed back into the regular Democratic Party.
The Machine is ruthlessly efficient. Friends are well rewarded while enemies are marginalized or destroyed. “Reformers” like Barack Obama are either absorbed into the Machine or eventually give up and join the club. This is not unusual in one-party dictatorships. How many “reformers” are there in Cuba? Few who aren’t in jail or heading there.
The power of the Machine has waxed and waned over the years, enjoying enormous success under Daley the Elder in the 1950s – 70s while succumbing to division and a loss of power during the 1980s. Daley the Younger revived the Machine’s influence in the 1990s by reaching out to Hispanics and other “identity” groups like gays, Muslims, and feminists, as well as single issue activists. The Machine may be a little rickety, but like the old Rube Goldberg Mousetrap game, it still works.
Rahm Emanuel takes office at a time of crisis for the city. The Machine might be able to win elections but it can’t keep businesses from fleeing the city, nor can it keep residents from moving to the suburbs and beyond. A recent Wall Street Journal article revealed that the city’s population has fallen to the level it enjoyed in 1920. This is not “white flight” but rather the abandonment of the city by the middle class of all races whose dreams have been shattered because of high taxes, scarce jobs, little economic opportunity, and the slow rot eating away at once safe and pleasant neighborhoods.
As the city crumbles, those who are left battle over funding. Chicago Transit Authority bus drivers making nearly $29 an hour feel they are underpaid. Teachers’ unions are fighting charter schools tooth and nail while continuing to protest the firing of 500 incompetents last year. And the pension costs for all public unions threaten catastrophe.
Emanuel faces a $650 million budget shortfall that Daley the Younger tried to close by selling off assets like the Chicago Skyway toll road and parking concessions. But eventually, those assets will run out and the piper will have to be paid. Emanuel has already made it clear he will force concessions from public unions — a stance that won him no friends in the labor movement during the campaign.
A shrinking tax base, rising pension and health care costs for city workers, failing schools, a high murder rate, ethnic and racial tensions — Rahmbo will have his hands full. It does no good to tell the citizens of Chicago that they might be better off if, once and a while, they tried changing the guard at city hall and letting someone else have a go at the immense challenges facing the city. They are as resigned to the Machine having its way with them as any citizen of a one-party dictatorship elsewhere in the world who has given up hope of change and renewal.