Forty-third ward alderman Paddy Bauler famously said, "Chicago ain't ready for reform," after residents defeated a popular referendum to lower the standard Aldermanic bribe from $10 to $7.50. Just kidding. He said it when Mayor Richard J. Daley beat a good government (or "goo-goo") candidate in the 1955 mayoral election. In 1983, Harold Washington's victory over Jane Byrne and Bernie Epton demonstrated that Chicago could be ready for reform; his reelection in 1987 confirmed it. The impressive electoral victories of Richard M. Daley in the face of mounting scandal (G.F. Structures, Remedial Environmental Manpower, Hired Trucks, Sorich, and so on) seem to have vindicated Bauler all these years later.
Mayor Daley has his strengths and his faults. But there is little doubt that Chicago's democracy has retarded under his mayoralty. If you respect democracy, though, how can you argue with the fact that the mayor has regularly won enormous margins, including in wards he is "supposed" to do poorly in, such as majority black or "lakefront liberal" wards? While Mayor Daley never wins the eye-popping vote totals his father was able to bring in, he has won stunning majorities. And at the end of the day, the will of the people at the ballot box is the only real measure of a politician's worthiness to serve. The caricatures of Chicago as a uniquely corrupt city and Mayor Daley as an omnipotent operator of a vast, nefarious Machine are less relevant than the fact that Mayor Daley is seen as an effective if uncharismatic and authoritarian manager of a complicated city.
Mayor Daley has also benefitted, however, from an appearance of invincibility. If a mayoral challenger were to put up a real fight, Mayor Daley's wide but shallow support could dry up quickly; the extremely low voter turnout in municipal elections suggests that it's a lack of a viable alternative, rather than partisan support for the incumbent, that drives the mayor's drubbing of his "opposition." Is there an analysis of recent election patterns in the city that indicate a path to mounting credible opposition to the mayor in 2011? There are three recent contests to look at.
First, there is the Constitutional Convention vote from this past election. The Con Con was a good government issue in its most distilled form; a vote for the Con Con was a vote against the status quo. Given that there was little effective organized support for a "yes" vote and a well-financed disinformation campaign for a "no" vote, it is surprising that Chicago over-performed the rest of Illinois by 13 percent. Particularly considering that Illinois' entire power structure comes from Chicago — every constitutional officer, and both legislative leaders — that Chicagoans expressed a greater will for reform than the rest of the state indicates something.
"Yes" won eight wards: all of them majority black or Latino. A total of 18 wards came in within two and half points. All 16 are majority black or Latino. The First Ward, which is plurality Latino, was within six. The Yes vote's best white ward was the Lakefront liberally-est of them all, the 49th Ward, East Rogers Park. It went 53-46 against. But city-wide, only two wards didn't over-perform the state's yes vote: the 41st Ward, which is represented by the City Council's only Republican, and the old Machine's holdout ward, the far southwest side 19th. (Surprisingly, Mike Madigan's 13th Ward over-performed the state). Looking at suburban Cook County, the pattern holds; the strongest "Yes" townships Cicero, Calumet and Thornton, all three with large minority populations.
Is there a reasonable conclusion to draw from these results? One interpretation is that minority voters are ahead of a generational and demographic shift in the city electorate that is less constrained by traditional voting patterns and willing if not eager to remake the political establishment. This is amplified by the results of the 2007 aldermanic elections, which saw incumbents lose at a greater clip than they had in a decade. The Readers' Ben Joravsky, in a short exploration of the results of the Con Con vote, points out that only two thirds of voters who voted in the city even bothered to vote on the Con Con issue. Considering the lopsided spending of the two sides of the issue, and the heavy-hitters pushing for a No (not to mention the natural constituency the anti- forces had: pensioners), it is even more surprising that Chicago voters voted for reform at a greater rate than Illinoisans generally.
Second, though less compelling, are the results of the Forrest Claypool/John Stroger primary. In that case, we can expect black wards to have come in strong for Stroger, a pillar of the black political establishment in Chicago for a generation. Stroger also had the backing of the then-still-kind of popular governor and the nominal support of the mayor. But Stroger was utterly rejected at the polls in 17 wards, where he lost to Claypool by a 60-40 margin or worse — in 10 wards, the difference was 70-30 or greater. Overall, Claypool won 20 wards — including three majority or plurality Latino wards, and was competitive in another three, two of which are majority Latino. It is not possible to simply attribute Stroger's losses in these wards to voting along racial lines; of the "ethnic white" wards, Stroger won two and was competitive in two more.
Voting "Yes" on Con Con and voting for Claypool against Stroger are both acts of a sort of political leap of faith. In both cases, voters were acting more as a rejection of the status quo than in support of a positive alternative. They were willing to invite the unknown out of disgust with what they saw.
The third case would be the 2007 Aldermanic elections. Nine new aldermen were elected, and a few more came within a hair's breadth. The 32nd Ward should provide an ominous example for the status quo: it was the mayor's own decades-long policy of gentrification and open development that weakened the once-fearsome Regular Democratic Organization in that ward; high resident turnover and a new crop of residents with no personal or political ties to the alderman's office or the party committee were easy picking for a good government, slow-development message. But more importantly, competitive elections for alderman pin down money, volunteers and regular election workers. While voter turnout actually decreased between 2003 and 2007, it increased in the most competitive wards. The mayor's strongest wards — on the Southwest and Northwest Sides, a few on the mid-north and mid-south — regularly turn out at the same levels across elections; there may not be much capacity for increase there. But the "Daley-weak" wards turn out at among the lowest levels city wide, and therefore have the greatest room for growth.
Taken together, the 1-2-3 punch of these elections may indicate that the mayor and aldermanic incumbents are susceptible to a challenge from candidates willing to make a city-wide case for a new direction; the North Side "Claypool" wards — many of which overlap with recently competitive aldermanic wards — and the black and Latino majority wards that voted for Con Con represent the mayor's "shallowest" support, presumably all persuadable. But the lack of continuity between the three — there is no geographic or demographic correlation between the Claypool-Con Con-contested aldermanic "reform" votes — would make that argument difficult to make, but not impossible. They said Harold Washington represented a unification of man, movement and moment. If 2011 is not the year, it will definitely forge the men and women and the movement for dramatic change to come in 2015.