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Election 2015 Thu Oct 16 2014

How Aldermanic Candidates Might Adjust With Karen Lewis Out of the Mayoral Race

As widely reported, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis will not be running for mayor. Previously, I wrote about how a Karen Lewis run for mayor could also have a major impact on several aldermanic races. Now that she's not running, it is worth reconsidering how the aldermanic races might be impacted.

Dan Mihalopoulos of the Sun-Times is basically arguing that there's a void and no obvious way to fill it. But Mihalopoulos seems to be looking for conventional answers in a situation which has already been defying convention.

Before assessing the aldermanic races, first the mayoral race needs to be briefly considered. With Lewis out, the other declared challengers to Rahm Emanuel are Frederick Collins, Amara Enyia, Bob Fioretti, William Kelly, Robert Shaw, and William "Dock" Walls. It is possible that another mayoral candidate could come forward, but it is difficult, and increasingly unlikely. 12,500 valid signatures are required and there are now less than 6 weeks left to collect them. Pulling together a campaign so late without an infrastructure in place can only be done by a very high-profile or a personally wealthy candidate. It therefore seems most likely that the current slate of candidates will not change.

Among that slate, at this time, only 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti seems likely to be a substantial challenger to Emanuel. An analysis of the mayor's race as a whole, and the relative strength of the various declared opponents, deserves to be written, but for our purposes here, it will be assumed that Fioretti will be Emanuel's strongest challenger.

I previously argued that aldermanic candidates would be able to associate themselves with Lewis's campaign, to mutual benefit. This implied that a central unifying theme would likely emerge out of Lewis's campaign. Since Lewis is so closely identified with the CTU, people had been waiting to see what other policy initiatives would be introduced. Now, without the immediate prospect of the central unifying campaign, will candidates who had intended to align with Lewis find some other way to build a unifying theme to draw attention? Similarly, there are the important mechanics of associating mayoral and aldermanic candidates within a given ward. How will that work now?

There is an argument to be made that if many aldermanic campaigns function on their own they can be more effective at convincing voters within their respective wards that they're the "no one sent me" kind of candidates people supposedly want. In 2007 and 2011, respectively, Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) and John Arena (45th Ward) were able to win their races operating largely outside of typical Democratic power dynamics. Waguespack's win, however, came against an increasingly disliked incumbent, and Arena won an open seat. While both wins could be potentially instructive, the circumstances of those races don't necessarily translate to most wards.

Simple mechanics dictate that candidates will often seek out coalitions and opportunities to work synergistically together. If the same volunteers can carry literature for both an aldermanic candidate and also a mayoral candidate, they can be far more effective, because not only does it save half the foot power, it also helps reinforce candidates names with voters by knowing who is associated with whom.

With Lewis out, two scenarios seem to emerge. The first is that Fioretti can harness the progressive sentiment and become the mayoral candidate that can pull people together and build synergies with aldermanic candidates - in other words, Fioretti could simply assume the exact role people envisioned for Lewis. But there are problems with this scenario. Fioretti may be popular in certain circles, but he is not a "folk hero" like Lewis is, and he is not as dynamic a speaker. As a white attorney, he doesn't really fit the role of a transformative candidate. And Fioretti's emergence has been very technical, coming directly out of the dysfunctional City Council. That may prove a solid way to get elected, but in the short term, he's not likely to become a movement leader.

The other scenario, then, is that some other unifying entity emerges, something distinct from any single candidate committee. Among existing entities, one possibility is United Working Families, which was formed this past July by CTU and other groups. But this essentially formed as a PAC, more of a financial support entity than an organizing center. It doesn't even have a website at this point. It's precisely the wrong kind of entity to play the unifying role.

Aldermanic candidates, then, are likely going to have to come together and form some sort of more visible coalition on their own. There have been some attempts made along these lines - the website Chicago Progressive Aldermanic Candidates is the best example - but that is largely informal, and less a coalition than simply a listing of candidates at this point.

The problem confronting progressive candidates is that with races in 50 wards, even well-organized campaigns are unlikely to tap into much money. Don't expect most of these campaigns to be able to afford sending mail to would-be constituents, but expect that the incumbents they're opposing will do precisely that. To offset that kind of disadvantage, a coalition which forms needs to be able to make a big splash without big cash.

The best approach, then, could be for the coalition to be centered around a bold, concise policy statement. This could be encapsulated in perhaps 10 strong, clear points of agreement, such as:

  • A demand for an elected school board and an elected community college board;
  • Raising the minimum wage in Chicago to $15 an hour by the end of 2015;
  • A moratorium on school closings and new charter schools;
  • A moratorium on privatization of city jobs;
  • Implementation of participatory budgeting in their respective wards;
  • Elimination of red light and speed cameras;
  • Expansion of CTA service;
  • Major reform of the Tax Increment Financing structure, including terminating such TIF districts as Central Loop and LaSalle;
  • Levying a Financial Transaction Tax (a.k.a. the LaSalle Street Tax) on exotic financial instruments;
  • Legalization - not just decriminalization - of marijuana.

The stronger and more explicit the points, the more effective they would be. If a coalition could hammer out 10 points of agreement, come up with a strong name, put up a solid web page, and generate as much activity as possible centrally, it could greatly benefit the various candidates involved. It would not need to raise very much money, because it would not be collecting money to give to candidates. And if it promised to sunset after the election, candidates could put forward independent credentials without their involvement in the coalition distracting from that, and without the likelihood of turf battles within the coalition.

This kind of boldness would go a long way to offsetting the loss of Karen Lewis as a top of ticket. But with the election itself a little more than four months away, action would have to be taken quickly to make such a thing happen. It is the kind of bold action not often seen
from self-identifying progressives.

In turn, such a coalition might become such a significant player that it would in turn impact the mayoral election as well. Fioretti, in particular, could likely benefit from a situation where he is visibly nudged to the left. It could be the opportunity for him to play a role that Lewis might never have been able to. Deference to Lewis was so high that even though her preferred approach would have been to stand along side aldermanic candidates and not out in front of them, the dynamics of the election would have put tremendous strain on her campaign to not only carry itself but also everyone riding on its coattails. If Fioretti could run as part of a broader coalition without having to be the centerpiece of the coalition, it would likely suit his campaign much better.

Can the various aldermanic candidates who were prepared to run with Lewis instead reformulate? It is a tall order. Forming a coalition like this can be very tricky, and even if it doesn't require a lot of money, it still requires some. But this could be a classic lemon/lemonade situation. With Lewis as an inspirational icon, Fioretti as the mayoral candidate standing with the coalition but not having to lead it, and dozens of aldermanic candidates across the city stepping up to collectively fill the void, there is a very real opportunity for a massive shakeup in the Chicago City Council.

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