A game of intramural Democratic Party politics plays out in Chicago

Incumbent Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel REUTERS/Frank Polich

Tuesday’s run-off mayoral election in Chicago has captured national attention, and highlights tensions within the nation’s Democratic coalition.

Within Chicago, the election has been framed as a study in contrasts. On one hand, the incumbent Rahm Emanuel represents downtown-centric “growth machine” policies, which he frames as fiscal responsibility. On the other side is a movement supporting a neighborhood focus and a more inclusive style of government, which challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia advocates.

Viewed through a broader lens, this is a game of intramural Democratic Party politics. The forces in Chicago reflect tensions between purist progressives and more pragmatic centrists. While the progressives maintain primary ties with unions, the centrists’ alliances with the business community complicate their position on many traditional “Democratic” positions such as the reduction of inequality and support for organized labor.

Emanuel and his neo-liberal approach

Emanuel, in his first term, has governed with a substantial policy continuity with his predecessor, Richard M Daley.

Over the two decades in which Daley (for whom Emanuel was once a key fundraiser, and whose brother succeeded Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff) governed the city, a market-based approach – or neo-liberal governance – was increasingly applied to many areas of government. But the city’s financial house was never fully in order, and fiscal problems remained. The main policy challenges of Emanuel’s first term were preparing for looming pension crises and perennial attempts to improve services. Neither of these major issues have been resolved, and they won’t be soon.

Overall, Emanuel has generally governed from a business-friendly, center-left perspective akin to that of Michael Bloomberg in New York. He has consistently and self-consciously boosted the city for business development, while also advocating for the progressive position on issues like gun control, expanded early-childhood education, immigration and minimum wages. The result is a blend of increasingly neo-liberal political economy combined with generally inclusive or progressive social politics (as opposed to the openly divisive racial politics of 1980s Chicago or 1990s New York).

Under Daley, and now Emanuel, Chicago made significant strides to avoid the worst of the post-industrial decline common among Rust-Belt cities and maintain its credentials as both a regional capital and significant node in the global economy. This approach helped the city retain its population and wealth, and it seems unlikely that Chicago as a whole will descend into a Detroit-style spiral.

Election underscores the ‘two’ Chicagos

But the pursuit of global city status also contributes to the stark inequalities inherent in the “two Chicagos” narrative that is central to Garcia’s campaign and evident from even a casual exploration of Chicago’s sprawling territory.

Some areas – particularly the shining downtown, the always-wealthy near north side, and a few rapidly gentrifying areas – are flush with signs of investment and development. Other areas show the effects of underinvestment, population loss, and the suite of problems common in concentrated urban poverty.

From a political perspective, Emanuel’s reign has been quite different from Daley’s.

By the end of the previous administration, there was very little visible competition in Chicago politics (Daley won a majority in every neighborhood in his last re-election campaign). Emanuel’s term, in contrast, has been characterized by an increasingly vocal and pervasive progressive critique of the mayor’s positions.

And while Daley enjoyed consistent overwhelming support (or simple acquiescence) in the city council, Emanuel has had to contend with two separate progressive caucuses within the council, each of which articulates its key positions as opposed to the mayor’s policy agenda.

These loci of opposition were amplified by Emanuel’s key policy confrontation, the teacher’s strike in the summer of 2012, a dispute that would color his tenure and ultimately mobilize the opposition in this election.

The major political and philosophical disputes of Emanuel’s tenure and of this campaign, touch on significant tensions that have always been present in city politics but which often remain just below the surface of debates.

Richard Daley, former mayor of Chicago. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Daley’s departure left fissures among Democrats

Daley’s departure left Chicago’s political forces relatively unorganized for the first time in decades. The fissures that have re-emerged reflect broader tensions within the Democratic Party as the progressive agenda has changed and party leaders have shifted to the center on economic issues. This is especially true at the intersection of labor and education, where a policy conflict has emerged between Chicago progressive activists who supported the teachers’ union while advocating for more parity in educational resources overall and neo-liberal centrists who advocate educational reforms that apply market logic to education – often in the form of charter schools.

Charter schools are a key element of the reform agenda promoted by national Democrats, including prominent Chicagoans like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, but their promotion is often at odds with the support for collective bargaining rights that has been a core value of the Democratic Party since at least the Wagner Act of 1935.

Emanuel won his first election in 2011 rather handily against limited opposition, with strength on the North Side, but also majorities in the overwhelmingly African-American sections of the South and West Sides.

In February’s nonpartisan preliminary race for mayor, however, his numbers fell across the board. Turnout declined dramatically in almost all areas of the city (from about 42% of registered voters to 33%; though both of these numbers are relatively high for local elections), as did his share of the vote. While he beat Garcia on the South and West Sides, he suffered significant losses of support there.

What drove this drop in support among African Americans?

Disillusion with Emanuel is often articulated in terms of a “neighborhoods” perspective. This position focuses on the ways in which the issues relevant to Chicagoans – public safety, aggressive policing tactics, underfunded schools and poor educational outcomes and a lack of basic services – are neglected by a government that focuses on Chicago’s global city status.

The lingering impact of the teachers strike

Emanuel, who spent most of his career as a national leader and an investment banker and has now brought those dispositions to Chicago, is a perfect lightning rod for criticism by progressives. They are frustrated by leaders who are no longer responsive to what used to be the most powerful elements of the Democratic Party. The teachers’ strike has been the most visible sign of conflict and a sign that he was unable or unwilling to avoid such public sector labor strife. Politically, this certainly hurt.

Not only did the mobilization of progressive groups (including the Chicago Teachers Union, Service Employees International Union, and United Working Families) give rise directly to Garcia’s candidacy, but also Emanuel’s drop in support was greatest in the areas where he closed 50 public schools in 2013. His losses were particularly intense – about ten percent greater, on average – in those areas where schools were closed than in places where they were not. These “neighborhood” frustrations are a kind of populist revolt against a city hall that doesn’t seem to care – an echo of the Occupy movement that has drawn attention to income inequality.

The final broad trend illustrated by this election is the increasing importance of Latino voters for electoral politics. Latinos, who have provided the main competition for Emanuel in both of his runs, are a fast-growing group in Chicago’s electorate, and they are increasingly organized to flex their political muscles. Such changes are often fraught. African Americans, for example, do not always see Latinos as natural allies on all issues.

Garcia has longstanding alliances with black leaders going back to the 1980s, but to win this election, he needs to create a cross-racial alliance. Whether African American voters will rebuild the “black-brown” coalition that once powered Mayor Harold Washington’s victories will be seen after Tuesday’s election.