Just when he thought it was safe to fly off to Thailand for a little holiday vacation, the mayoral race heated up on Rahm Emanuel . . . enough, at least, to give a pulse to a few viable opponents.
Not that you knew Rahm was gone. The Emanuel political machine, a 21st Century digital incarnation of the old Chicago way, cranked away in his stead with a stream of Internet ads and Facebook postings, YouTube videos and, lest you forget, a press release reminding voters that Rahm’s “best way to start the day” is shaking hands on an El platform. He has done it some 60 times in the last 11 weeks. If he continues to carry on this practice through January and February, he will be certifiably crazy, which may be a prerequisite for becoming the next Chicago mayor.
With only seven weeks remaining before the February 22 primary, the field of nut cases still on the ballot has narrowed to 15, only four of whom now seem to be legitimate contenders: Besides Emanuel, they are former senator Carol Moseley Braun, current city clerk Miguel Del Valle and former Daley chief of staff Gery Chico.
Although some opponents cling to the faint hope Emanuel might still be stricken from the ballot over residency issues, that prospect dimmed Tuesday when a circuit court judge affirmed the decision of the board of elections to leave his name on the ballot.
Outwit, Outplay and Outlast
The big winner over the holidays was Carol Moseley Braun, whose emergence from the murky process of finding a consensus African American candidate shocked the shit out of me. She is not the best candidate the black community could have put up, but she is the last one standing, in no small part because she outwitted, outplayed and outlasted her two main rivals, Congressman Danny Davis and The Rev. Senator James Meeks.
Meeks is the fiery and controversial pastor of the Salem Baptist Church on Chicago’s far south side (Think Jeremiah Wright with mayoral aspirations.) and Davis is the steady-handed west side congressman everybody loves, but nobody can figure out how to help. Before going to Congress in 1997, Davis served 11 years as an alderman from the 29th ward and six more as a county board commissioner. He is an entrenched and beloved figure on the west side, although even his friends admit Davis couldn’t organize a one-man marching band, much less a mayoral campaign.
Braun bested her two rivals due to the intervention of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the aging lion of Operation Push, who had the institutional memory to recall the old victory strategy of Harold Washington: 42-40-18. The numbers are a not very subtle reminder the Chicago voting electorate, then and now, is about 42 percent black, 40 percent white and 18 percent hispanic and other. If the black community votes as a bloc – and if they turn out in sufficient numbers – their candidate will be nearly impossible to beat in a multi-candidate field.
Jackson forced Braun and Davis into a series of marathon one-on-one sessions just before New Year’s until one or the other gave-in. As you might guess, the argument that carried the day was the fact Braun could raise money from well-heeled black business leaders (like Ariel Investment’s John Rogers and ComEd CEO Frank Clark) and Davis could not.
Echoes of Harold Washington
Anybody who tells you race is not a factor in choosing the next mayor turns a blind eye to Chicago’s political history.
The anger of the black community over the CTA’s decision to bypass inner city neighborhoods during the snowstorm in 1979 was a key factor in Jane Byrne’s upset victory over Mayor Michael Bilandic, and it was the determining factor four years later when Harold Washington beat Byrne and then State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley to become Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983. But Washington’s stunning victory 28 years ago has generated some unrealistic expectations in the black community, particularly among people too young to remember how much hard work went into Washington’s campaign – even before he announced. It started a year before the election with a well-orchestrated voter registration drive and took on all the characteristics of a religious crusade by the time Election Day rolled around.
When the polls opened on February 22, 1983, 1,142,228 million voters turned out to cast their ballots – 400,000 more than had ever voted in a municipal election before – and even so, even with a near 90 percent turnout in the black wards, Washington won the primary with only 36.3 percent of the vote against 33.7 percent for Byrne and 30 percent for Daley.
The Daley Years
Washington died shortly after he was re-elected in 1987. The turbulence of his tenure gave way to a calmer, more businesslike era when Daley finally won the mayor’s office in a special election in 1989.
Instead of dumping Washington’s political appointees, Daley kept on many of the best and filled other key posts with “a best and brightest regardless of color” philosophy. City Hall became more inclusive of blacks, women, gays and Hispanics at all levels and, in the neighborhoods, Daley reached out to forge alliances and coalitions with black ministers and minority businessmen that lasted for decades. What was happening in City Hall was also occurring in the business community, and society in general. The good times of the 90’s and early 2000’s fostered an electorate that re-elected Daley five times and ushered in a 21-year reign that last month eclipsed the record set by his father Richard J. Daley.
Who Votes Anyway
If the voters were not satisfied with Daley, they were at least complacent. The number of voters who bothered to go to the polls during mayoral elections dropped steadily over those years. In his last run for office in 2007, only 456,000 people voted in the mayoral election and Daley won 71 percent of the vote – in both the black and white community.
In an election without a Daley on the ballot, the 42-40-18 strategy holds that racial voting patterns all but give Braun a lock on one of the two top spots in the February 22 primary. The racial dynamics that work for Braun in the primary, however, work against her in the April run-off so the burden is on Braun to widen out her base.
And the real question isn’t what percentage of the black vote any candidate will get, but whether 500,000 or 1 million voters will show up on Election Day.
Here’s Carol . . .
In the few short days since she emerged as the consensus black candidate, Braun has been a whirling dervish of activity. She attended the Operation PUSH rally Saturday, Rev. Meeks’ service at Salem Baptist Church Sunday, and a host of hastily assembled photo opportunities around the city Monday.
She started the new year off with a press conference to announce her desire to cancel the hated private parking meter contract, but somehow managed to turn it into a embarrassing tiff with reporters over releasing her tax returns – or not releasing them, as she said, “because I don’t want to.” (Ten hours later, she appeared on Fox News to say she would release them and called the incident a “misstatement”.)
All of this is in keeping with a candidate whose 25 years of public life can charitably be called “mercurial” but is more often described as weird. “She’s a loose cannon, sometimes aimed at herself,” says a reporter who also knows her as a friend. “It’s hard to imagine her going the distance without something going wrong.”
In her Sun-Times column Sunday, Laura Washington noted “Braun may have the most beautiful smile in politics, but watch out for those razor-sharp ivories.”
“She has never shown any administrative abilities behind that winning smile, but she is given to nasty and often off-base wisecracks,” added Don Rose in his Chicago Observer column. “Her campaign reeks of venality and the big-time spoils system – though salted with progressive rhetoric.”
Braun is publicly feuding with columnist Neil Steinberg: she called him “a drunk and a wife beater” (admittedly after he wrote she “represents the egomaniacal muddle that black leadership has slid into.”) And while she proudly claims she is running on a resume that includes being an early Washington supporter, Cook County Recorder of Deeds and the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, it’s a resume thin on accomplishments and filled with questions.
Since losing re-election to the Senate in 1998 (and thereby gaining an appointment as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to New Zealand until 2000) she claims she has been living the life of a “recovering politician.” She lists her occupation as president of Ambassador Organics, purveyors of fine Biodynamic tea and spices, but when she finally did release her taxes, they show the tea and spice business has been having a bad decade. Her IRS forms indicate she lost over $200,000 in 2008 and her total income in 2009, including a $27,000 pension, netted out to $15,000.
Last October Crain’s Chicago Business found Braun has also been slow in paying property taxes on her home – she paid the 2009 bill on the last day possible, one day before announcing her candidacy – and has four mortgages on the property, which she is now attempting to sell for $1.9 million. One of those mortgages secures a loan of $250,000 to start Ambassador Organics from Joseph Stroud, a campaign benefactor and owner of WJYS-Channel 62 TV, that she is delinquent in paying though he is not pursuing it.
Whether any of this matters is yet to be seen. But one thing is clear: Carol Moseley Braun is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle wrapped inside of a cocoon, so it will be fun to watch what else comes out by Election Day.
Miguel Del Valle
Last night, my neighbor Jesse Barrara invited me to a fundraiser for Miguel Del Valle at Bolero, a Cuban restaurant at 2321 N. Western Avenue. There were 40 people there, seven of them in the band. The admission fee was $25. The total proceeds of the night were probably just enough to cover the cost of 150,000 brochures Del Valle planned to hand out the next day on El platforms, but he was friendly and fired up as he worked the room.
If only my Facebook friends could vote, Del Valle (pronounced De-Vi-Yay) would be the next mayor of Chicago. His support is rooted in the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park, where he was a community activist during the Washington campaign, and in some of the more progressive precincts on the north side. After Washington won in 1983, Del Valle took on the old ward machine of Tom Keane to become the first Latino in the Illinois state Senate. In 2006, Mayor Daley appointed him City Clerk of Chicago and, in the limited role his job offers, he has pressed for more transparency at City Hall and a freer hand for the inspector general to look into public corruption.
Del Valle has the endorsement of the liberal IVI-IPO organization because he talks the talk and walks the walk of a reformer, but alas he also has the campaign war chest of a reformer. Because he has pledged not to take contributions from city contractors, it’s doubtful he will money enough to stage any kind of a TV ad campaign. This does not faze his supporters. They are staging meet-ups across the city to build an army of foot soldiers and pounding the Internet with messages to friends.
In their formulation of the campaign, Del Valle represents what is left of the old Harold Washington coalition (the non-African American part, at least, which was never very large to begin with) transformed into the digital age. But it will take a lot of shoe leather to get Del Valle into a runoff. If the primary turnout runs about 600,000, assuming Emanuel gets the numbers his polls are projecting (but not over 50%), Bruce Embrey,Del Valle’s campaign manager, estimates his candidate will need to get 160,000 to get across the threshold into second place. Early polls put Del Valle’s support right now in the single digits. (And his name recognition is under 40 percent, but that may be because telephone pollsters can’t pronounce it.) So a lot of volunteers are going to have to hand out a lot of pamphlets to keep him in contention.
The Most Qualified Man
A small but not insignificant news item slipped into the papers Monday morning. Between all the hubbub over Carol Mosley Braun’s anointment as the consensus black candidate, Gery Chico announced he has raised over $2.5 million to support his bid for the mayor’s seat.
Chico is often referred to in the same breath as Del Valle because both have Hispanic roots. Del Valle was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Humboldt Park while Chico’s grandfather Encarnacion migrated to the United States in 1926, laboring in the Union stockyards through the Great Depression. But Chico himself was born in 1956 to Mexican and Greek parents and raised in the McKinley Park neighborhood. He went to Chicago public schools and the University of Illinois-Chicago then put himself through Loyola Law School at night while working at City Hall in the city planning department and as staff member of the city council finance committee. By the late 80’s, he was the consummate city hall insider and Mayor Daley chose him to be his chief of staff in 1992. When Chico left City Hall to enter private law practice, Daley still appointed him president of the Chicago school board in 1995, president of the Chicago park district in 2007, and president of the City Colleges Board in 2010.
His law firms, past and present, have been the recipients of substantial pinstripe patronage. The present firm is a registered lobbyist with the city with some 40 corporate clients listed. In the tax returns he released, Chico reported earning $2.9 million in 2008 and $2.6 million in 2009 largely from his legal fees.
If there is anyone outside of Mayor Daley who knows the problems Chicago faces, or has had hands-on experience dealing with them, it’s Chico. He has an intuitive grasp of policy issues and political muscle behind him as well. Aldermen supporting his candidacy include Joe Moreno (1st), George Cardinas (12th), Ed Burke (14th), and Richardo Munoz (22nd).
Chico has run for office before. In 2004, he finished a disappointing 5th to Barack Obama in an 8-man Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. This time, he has his eye on the prize. The money is in the bank. And so are the TV spots, 10 so far, emphasizing his neighborhood roots and down to earth problem solving.
Rahm Emanuel went up on TV with his first spot of 2011 Tuesday and will be spending a reported $700,000 running it on broadcast and cable stations through January 16. Chico is the only other contender with the money to match him on the air, and he is ready to go up next week. Del Valle, meanwhile, is out there on the El platforms every morning. And Braun . . . well, Carol is being Carol. But hey!
Talk’s cheap. Let’s race!