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Election 2015 Fri Dec 12 2014

Amara Enyia's Withdrawal Reflects the Ongoing Reality of Chicago Politics

amara for mayorAmara Enyia was the first candidate to declare for the mayoral race. By declaring so early -- in February -- she picked up a lot of press that she might not have otherwise received, from heavy hitters like Kari Lydersen and Ben Joravsky. Her bio is Obamaesque, but to hardcore progressives, her platform is even better.

Alas, on Tuesday, Enyia officially withdrew from the race. Her paperwork was challenged, and reading between the lines of her withdrawal statement, it seems unlikely that she would have survived the challenge with sufficient signatures.

The demise of her campaign reflects a sad reality in Chicago. The economic conditions on the South and West Sides, combined with a hostile electoral landscape, continue to stunt efforts to improve the city. But in Enyia's failure to get on the ballot, there may also be indications of how people who are fed up need to evolve their tactics to bring change to the city.

In her withdrawal statement, Enyia specifically blamed mayoral candidate Willie Wilson and his associate, former long-serving State Senator Rickey Hendon, for being behind the objection, declaring:

This is the politics of the past and continues to prove that we need a break from the politics of self destruction. We need a new generation of leadership committed to progress, not petty politics.

As I wrote last week, the challenge process is at this point engrained in the culture of Chicago and Illinois politics. And the release this week of Rahm Emanuel's Rubber Stamp City Council by scholars at University of Illinois at Chicago, most notably former alderman Dick Simpson, could actually be interpreted to mean that some things are getting worse, not better.

Enyia seems to be arguing that even in the face of this evidence to the contrary, there are positive developments. In some ways, she's right. The UIC study analyzes City Council votes, not the changing ward by ward dynamics. In many wards, especially on the North Side, typical Machine politics are crumbling. Changing demographics and the breakdown of the patronage system have eroded the old precinct captain system, and the Internet era has further eroded neighborhood bonds. The ways that ward bosses have tended to maintain their fiefdoms no longer work as well.

What we've been left with in a lot of places is a stripped down Machine, often employing similar strategies, but using less muscle and more money to do so. Traditionally, muscle tends to be loyal, steeped in patronage and neighborhood ties. Money is more fickle, more willing to chase new suitors. In neighborhoods which are simultaneously affluent and left-leaning, these changes can open up opportunities. To put it another way, neither Scott Waguespack nor Ameya Pawar would have gotten elected 20 years ago.

In poorer communities, the breakdown of patronage makes the fight for fickle dollars even more aggressive. What few resources exist are even more highly coveted. In turn, people in positions of relative power double down on keeping new people away from the pie. The internal politics, as a result, often tend to become more conservative, even if the electorate is increasingly radicalized. Among self-identifying progressive aldermanic candidates, African-American candidates seemed much more likely to identify with and promote Democratic Party standard-bearers like Pat Quinn. This phenomenon remains poorly understood, especially when viewed through the lens of traditional liberal thinking; and yet, it is part of the long fabric of Chicago politics.

In Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, there are numerous passages about how politicians would go about buying votes; but, we tell ourselves, those were immigrants, and that was 1906. In Richard Wright's Native Son, the character Bigger Thomas admits to being paid to lie about his age and vote when he was not yet 21; but, we tell ourselves, that was 1941. Chicago: City on the Make was published in 1951, but Nelson Algren wouldn't blink twice at how candidates are getting thrown off the ballot. The details change, but the political narrative holds steady.

Meanwhile, reformers laud the breakdown of patronage, and rightfully so; but even with all of its faults, patronage was also at one time a way to level the playing field, trickling money down into poorer communities. Changing demographics have broken down Machine wards on the North Side, but the demographics of West Englewood don't budge. Progressive change has long had a tendency to work better in white areas, whether people want to admit it or not.

Head down to 77 W. Washington and sit in on the petition binder checks. The thought which occurs to you might be the thought which occurred to me the first time I saw the phenomenon: It looks like everyone in the room is black. Far more candidates file for alderman in majority African-American wards. Far more of them are challenged. The system which has been inculcated is one where people in poor communities are pitted against one another in an obscene backroom fight for fewer and fewer resources. It is a less overt but no less effective way of maintaining political control.

So when Enyia dismisses the challenge against her as "petty politics," she's understating the reality. For many of the people involved, the stakes are indeed high. The fewer the spigots, the more precious the trickles. No patronage jobs? At least you can still pay people for campaign work. It should come as no surprise that more and more people -- all over the city -- are coming to embrace the challenge practice.

Enyia tried to run a different kind of campaign. Ultimately, she didn't raise much money, didn't collect enough signatures, and wasn't in a strong enough position to defend the petitions she submitted. No, it's not right that you need to do massive fundraising and collect an outrageous number of signatures and have an attorney on retainer. But that's what it takes to run for mayor of Chicago. In the end, Enyia's audacity for daring to run against Rahm Emanuel was matched by the naïveté which guided the way the campaign was run.

On the South Side, collecting signatures is regarded as remunerable work. If you sincerely ask someone to help you collect signatures for free, they're liable to think you're trying to screw them over. If there's work that someone will pay you for, then someone else who asks you to do that work for free is actually a threat. That's someone who's not pumping any outside money into the community. That's the politics of the past that Enyia wants to break down, yet it's hardly petty to the people getting paid.

If Enyia's campaign was overly naïve, though, that naïveté has been torn apart. In her own words, she now has "more perspective, more experience, and more insights" to bring to bear -- and as a personable, intelligent, well-educated community activist, that should not be discounted. Through understanding the development of neo-Machine politics in an environment driven by more money and driven toward less actual resources, Enyia is in a rare position to become a leader in breaking down the system. Many attorneys stay clear of election law because the Illinois Election Code is so confusing. Enyia's educational background suggests someone who could master the Election Code, and lead the charge to tear it down.

The core problem, though, is that the politics of self-destruction is also the politics of self-preservation. To break from such a trap requires a deeper political movement which disentangles the concepts -- like the breaking of a cycle of addiction afflicting an entire community. Enyia lacked the resources to mount a mayoral challenge, but her previous background and freshly earned lessons in Chicago politics would make her a formidable candidate for state legislator or alderman -- especially if she explicitly repudiated the Democratic Party in the process. Breaking from the politics of the past would demand no less.

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REPARATIONS / December 12, 2014 6:52 PM

So now that Amara Eniya may be known in the future as a prepetual candidate because that what the media say when you run more than once

Kim Hamilton / December 13, 2014 6:23 AM

I was sitting at the BOE this week for two entire days for my independent candidate,Stacy Pfignsten,trying to assure that her petition objections were overruled. There were only 2 white people in the room of about 75 and I was one of them.
You are spot on. The voters in the Wards north of the city have had enough. The south siders don't have a clue how to change the mess they are in. Amara Eniya could have done herself a favor if she ran for Alderman instead of Mayor so she could learn how to deal with Machine antics. She needs to keep at it.She,for one,could help the south side see their way forward.
Great article.Thanks.

wayne / December 13, 2014 10:06 AM

love the article yet saddened that the word doesn't get out about those who are actually trying to make a "real" difference in the lives of those who are often underserved. i pray that she isn't deterred from participating in the political arena. Her views and courage is needed in these trying times. Thank you young lady for that glimmer of hope.

Dan / December 18, 2014 9:22 AM

Eliminate the petition. You want to run for office? File a form, provide proof of citizenship, pay $50. Getting signatures on a petition is just way to keep people off the ballot. Will people challenge the proof of citizenship? Maybe. But countering that challenge is easier than countering the challenges against hundreds of signatures.

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