Chicago gave the nation its first African-American president, but the only wide-open mayoral election in recent memory may prove the acid test for how far the city has come in transcending its bitter legacy of racial politics.
A political land rush began to build the moment Mayor Richard Daley announced he was heading for the exit, with ethnic and racial interest groups of every hue sizing up potential candidates to make a run at control of City Hall.
"South Side Irish, North Side Irish, African-Americans, South Side African-Americans, West Side African-Americans, Latinos, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody's doing it," explained Ald. Ricardo Munoz, 22nd.
The field of contenders is expected to be large, but it's far too early to say whether it ultimately will be defined by the color of skin rather than the content of character, ideas, money, chutzpah and, this being Chicago, even guile.
Love him or hate him, Daley's brand of somewhat inclusive bossism helped put the black/white fractiousness of the 1980s Council Wars era in the rearview mirror. But a suddenly bossless city quickly becomes a big question mark, with perhaps the most immediate puzzle being whether politicians here will revert to the instinct to Balkanize.
No less an authority than Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd — who before he gained fame as the feuding father-in-law of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was best-known for shouting down black opponents from his City Council desktop — insists not.
"I don't think so. I really don't," said Mell, a ringleader among a faction of white aldermen who tried to thwart Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, at every turn. "I think the people who have been through it never want it to happen again."
Chicago is simply in a different place than it was in 1983, when the dueling campaign slogans of Washington and white opponent Bernard Epton were anything but subtle: "It's our turn" vs. "Before it's too late."
Timuel Black Jr., a Chicago cultural historian who worked to help Washington break the color barrier in the mayor's office, said the race card still might play with some older voters but would risk turning off today's more open-minded younger generation.
"This is less about black, white or brown, but green," said Black. "Candidates must emphasize jobs. Then education, street safety and affordable housing are also important. The racial rhetoric of old won't work on today's Chicago voters. They're far more sophisticated, even if some of their politicians aren't."
Backsliding isn't out of the question. The city hasn't magically been transformed during Daley's 21 years as mayor into a rainbow of harmony. Many ingredients that fueled the bitterness of old overhang the election to replace him: troubled schools, persistent crime, a poor job market, mostly segregated housing and neighborhoods, bleak city finances and a scramble for scarce resources.
The emergence of the Internet, as well as a media climate that increasingly favors controversy and shrillness over context, also could hand an effective megaphone to those political forces that sense advantage in divisiveness.
Ald. Joe Moore, 49th, one of many City Council members weighing a run for mayor, said he was disappointed that political pundits on the air and in print were quick to seize on the potential for racial divisions in the candidate field.
"The immediate emphasis was on the black candidate, the white candidate, the Hispanic candidate," said Moore, who is white. "All this analysis seemed like it was based on an election that was done 25 years ago."
No one ever would confuse Daley with a Chicago version of Gandhi. He is, rather, a master co-opter who managed to cement a grip on power in part by spreading around just enough of the spoils of government to keep a diverse group of potential opponents off his back.
A Democrat in a Democratic city, Daley came to power as the traditional political fault lines in Chicago began to wither. He turned that to his advantage, building the allegiance of voters and political leaders from Rogers Park to Roseland who were more beholden to him than the party. Federal prosecutors have alleged some of that loyalty was bought by illegally doling out city jobs to political street armies controlled by Daley supporters in white, black and Latino neighborhoods.
Then Daley suddenly pulled the plug on his political career, with no heir apparent in the wings. The immediate whoosh was deafening from the flood of mayoral wannabes with high ambitions but narrowly developed constituencies.
Among some politicians, the reflex was to flash back to the City Hall battles of the 1980s. But even those, insisted Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, 4th, were often miscast in purely racial terms.
"It was about power and money, first and foremost," said Preckwinkle, now the Democratic nominee for Cook County Board president. "…Council Wars weren't chaos. It was democracy at its best. Democracy is messy and contentious and sloppy, but that's democracy."
The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Catholic Church, one of many activist ministers who grew comfortable with Daley over the years, said the city is facing too many headwinds these days for a mayoral candidate to win with a racially divisive campaign.
"If Chicago is going to continue forward, the candidates will hold an enormous amount of influence and responsibility to keep the election away from race-baiting," said Pfleger. "We should stop talking immediately about who's the black candidate or the Hispanic candidate or the white candidate, but who's the candidate who can get our violence problem under control or deal with the jobs problem. Everybody is hurting in this economy."
Two years separated Washington's untimely 1987 death and Daley's election as mayor, a post he was able to secure through a divide-and-conquer strategy playing Hispanic voters off against blacks. That may not have seemed an auspicious way to start an administration pledged to reach out and heal old divisions. But Daley gradually brought black and Latino leaders under his tent by preaching inclusion while also using the power of contracts, jobs and infrastructure improvements.
Juan Rangel, CEO of the Hispanic-oriented United Neighborhood Organization, credits both Washington and Daley for the way race has evolved in Chicago politics.
Washington, he said, started with a large African-American majority but over time convinced many Hispanic and white voters that he looked out for their interests as well. Daley reversed the order but ended up in much the same place, Rangel said.
"He started with a large white vote in 1989 and a significant Hispanic vote, and you saw his base change over the years to include African-Americans," said Rangel. "Both mayors understood that in order to govern, they needed to go beyond the traditional base and be mayor for all people."
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