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Cook County Tue Feb 09 2010

The Preckwinkle Coalition?

Mick Dumke has a piece up at the Reader about "the Preckwinkle onslaught" as compared to the so-called "Washington Coalition" that swept Harold Washington into office. As Dumke points out, despite what many Lakefront Liberals would have you believe today, there wasn't really much of a Harold "Washington coalition." Washington won because black voters came out in startling numbers and voted almost unanimously for him, and enough Latino voters did the same to overwhelm white voters of the liberal and illiberal kinds.

I was of the mind early on that Preckwinkle was the only candidate in a crowded field that could pull together enough votes from different constituencies to win. That is exactly what she did, aided by an unbelievably weak field of opponents. First, to her voting coalition: she won the lakefront wards on the South and North Sides. She won white voters and black voters, she won in the suburbs and in the city. Her campaign strategy had a lot to do with it--but so did her long history in the City Council. Preckwinkle had progressive bona fides that, combined with an ability to raise early money from her well-heeled and politically active base in Hyde Park and Kenwood, helped her lock up early support from non-aligned and progressive Party organizations in the city and suburbs. In a crowded field, that would make all the difference in any case: but given a weak field in a low-turnout election, that spells landslide. There was no nationalist loyalty on display in this election: Stroger's clumsy by-proxy appeals to black nationalism probably ended up hurting him among both white and black voters, and no "white vote" materialized for the only white candidate, despite early media efforts to create that storyline.

Does this mean that a progressive candidate can emerge and win all these constituencies again and take over the Fifth Floor and eventually the state? No, it probably doesn't. Preckwinkle started with a reputation among progressives that was fairly unique, but even that reputation wasn't enough. She needed money early, and Hyde Park and its many development interests were key to providing her with that money.

There was her opposition: Stroger fairly or not was probably the least popular elected official in the region, Dorothy Brown had an uninspired and clumsy campaign dogged by allegations of unethical behavior from day one, and Terry O'Brien, while able to raise money, was never going to out-good-government Preckwinkle, particularly once stories of favoritism in hiring and contracting under his watch emerged in the press. Also, did he campaign among black voters at all?

Dumke is right on when he says that Preckwinkle did not recreate some mythical "Washington coalition." What's more, she probably did not create a new coalition. With all due respect to what was basically a pitch-perfect campaign, we would have been better off if she'd had some real competition, analysis-wise. Preckwinkle was probably the default vote of lots of voters.

Then, there's this: where was "the Machine"? Who was "their" candidate? I'm of the mind that "the Machine" as a get-out-the-vote operation is not really that important in a citywide or countywide vote. Oh, they can still bring their A-game in local fights, particularly in residential areas with lots of home owners, city and county employees (or trade unionists reliant on public sector work) and small business owners--the people who most deal with government. Dan Burke's victory provides a great example. But does anybody honestly believe the Mayor has significant vote-producing operations in the 15th or 44th, or 27th or 45th Wards? No, Machine Lite's strength on the higher level is on the money side. Specifically, they can raise large sums of money or maybe more importantly prevent the raising of large sums of money. Large networks of donors--large financial institutions and law firms, construction firms and trade unions, and property developers, with old family money as a cherry on top--take direction on where to direct their money. If John Stroger was still firmly in control of the County, what industries or business owner is going to pour money into his opponent's campaign? If potential givers are reasonably certain that their business or personal interests are at risk, would you blame them from at least withholding their cash?

Harold Washington took on a political machine, albeit in a weakened state; Toni Preckwinkle did not. That's not a fact her campaign would contest: she sought Mayor Daley's endorsement, and Todd Stroger hardly commanded a significant political machine. Would the money have flowed, and would her all her voters have followed her, if she were confronting the Mayor (or John Stroger)? That difference alone means that comparing Preckwinkle's winning coalition to Washington's is apples to oranges.

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