Rahm Emanuel’s impressive victory in Chicago’s mayoral race on Tuesday night underscores the changing politics and demographics of a city famous for its racial and ethnic divisions.
Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, avoided a runoff, surpassing 50 percent of the vote in the first round of voting, by drawing support from blacks, wealthier whites, and some Hispanics and ethnic whites. With 80 percent of precincts reporting, Emanuel held a majority of the vote in majority-white and majority-black wards, and a plurality of the vote in Hispanic-majority wards. His broad coalition, and the second-place finish for Hispanic attorney Gery Chico, shows that while the city remains split along racial and socioeconomic lines, the virulent divisions of the past are fading—and the city’s Latino voices are growing louder.
Emanuel’s outright win in Obama’s home city was once thought unlikely, as many assumed the city once referred to as the “Beirut by the Lake” would follow the familiar patterns of racially polarized voting. But the collapse of the black “consensus candidate,” former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, gave him an opening with the black community, and he made some inroads with Hispanics as well.
Chicago is not the city it was 30 years ago, politically or culturally. Back then, many of the city’s white ethnic politicians went to war with Mayor Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, blocking his every move.
Today, a growing Hispanic community and an effort by longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley to woo blacks and Hispanics into his coalition has forced citywide politicians to appeal across racial lines to win elections. The city is about equal parts white, black, and Hispanic, although whites and blacks still make up about 40 percent of the vote, with Hispanics at approximately 15 percent.
Vincent Casillas, a Chicago-based Democratic operative who ran Obama’s Latino media outreach in 2008, said the demographic shift has fundamentally changed the city’s politics. “We all remember the council wars—even budget issues divided along racial lines,” said Casillas, referring to the battle between Washington and the aldermen. “All that has changed dramatically.... Everyone knew if they were to become the next mayor of Chicago they would need to build a broad coalition and not just rely on their base.”
Emanuel was uniquely situated to do so. A former congressman from a more affluent, whiter North Side Chicago, he was already well-known and popular with those communities. As a former fundraiser for Daley, he had connections with some of the city’s still-powerful aldermen. And as the White House chief of staff for Obama, he could bask in the reflected glory of a man who remains immensely popular in his hometown, especially in its black community. His one weakness was the perception that he had slow-walked immigration reform, both as a congressman and in the White House.
Chico, who is half-Mexican and has ties with the city’s southwest side political machine, emerged as Emanuel’s closest competitor, drawing much of his support from the Hispanic community but also the city’s ethnic southwest side white voters and organized labor.
On the other hand, efforts to create a consensus black candidate failed spectacularly. When Rep. Danny Davis and state Sen. James Meeks dropped out and endorsed Moseley Braun, she was expected to be Emanuel’s most formidable challenger. “These candidates went behind closed doors... to create a consensus candidate, which flew in the face of what a lot of people were feeling,” said Casillas. The backroom politics and a series of verbal gaffes, including her calling a lesser known black candidate a “crackhead,” doomed her campaign.
“She thought it was going to be another mayoral election where if she agitated her base, got them out, subtly played the race card a little bit it would work,” said Casillas. “And it backfired.”
In recent polls, Emanuel had the most support from white and African American voters, and despite the immigration issue was winning about one third of the Hispanic vote, closely behind Chico.
“Latinos are gaining power and blacks are going to begin to lose power but it is a three-way split between whites, blacks, and Latinos,” University of Illinois (Chicago) professor Dick Simpson, a former alderman, told National Journal on Election Day. “Emanuel is getting black votes and Chico is getting white votes—in that sense it’s post-racial.”