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The Mechanics
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Election 2015 Tue Mar 03 2015

Optimism Amid the Neverending Election

It felt like the final precinct would never be called.

Cramped into a small bar in Albany Park, watching returns on a most unusual Election Night, pecking at smartphones, a motley crew dressed largely in red waited on vote totals from an unknown precinct to be added to the totals. Those totals didn't seem very hopeful, but this was a night where the most powerful mayor in the country had been humbled.

Suddenly, from the corner, a voice rang out:

"We've got a runoff!"

2015ballot.jpgI've been a Green for over 14 years now. It might be said that I'm used to losing. I haven't voted for a single person who's won election to a public office since 2002. I've even voted for candidates for Normal Library Board who lost.

This year, I strongly felt it was time for the Green Party to do something different, and to engage in the aldermanic races. Until early February, I was chair of the Green Party of Chicago, and had over the preceding months argued for cross-endorsing -- something the Green Party very rarely does anywhere. I thought there were a lot of good candidates worthy of our support and it would be silly, in this election, at this stage in the evolution of the city's politics, to stay on the sidelines because Greens weren't running.

As it turned out, people were in widespread agreement with my arguments. In the end, we endorsed 12 aldermanic candidates, and we endorsed Bob Fioretti for mayor. Fioretti, of course, didn't fare too well in the end. Two of the aldermanic candidates we endorsed -- including the only one who was a Green Party member -- got tossed off the ballot. And going into Election Day, it seemed like none of the others might even make a runoff.

But I thought Tim Meegan had a shot. The ward dynamics in the 33rd Ward seemed in his favor, and the incumbent, Deb Mell, was running a campaign I can best describe as petulant.

So I was at Tim's election night party on Election Night, and things weren't looking good. Mell had 51.5% of the vote with 24 out of 28 precincts reporting. Eventually, the number dwindled down to 50.6%, but with only one precinct left. The quick math said she'd have to get only about 30% in the last precinct for a runoff to be triggered.

And then that voice rang out -- and suddenly the pecking at phones got furious. Texts flew around, Facebook posts materialized, Facebook cross-posted to Twitter, much confusion was in the air, what the hell was going on? Finally numbers appeared. When the final precinct came in, Mell was down to 49.6%. No majority. Runoff.

Over a very short period of time, my mood went from my typical election night mood to one of optimism. No, most of my other preferred candidates weren't moving on to runoffs. I thought it was good that Rahm Emanuel had been forced to a runoff, but Bob Fioretti had been my candidate. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia had seemed alright to me, but I had felt all along that his campaign had been lacking something.

But then we saw Chuy's speech -- and it was electric. Whatever had been lacking, now he had it.

And suddenly the room we were in was stoked. Runoff for alderman, runoff for mayor. And not just runoffs. The sense in the room grew: Chuy can win this thing. Tim will win this thing.

Then, on Friday, came the latest announcement from the Chicago Board of Elections. With the inclusion of previously uncounted absentee ballots, Deb Mell had 4,037 votes, out of a total of 8,069. 50.03% of the vote. And suddenly, no more runoff. Maybe?

As of Friday, 212 potential absentee votes remained outstanding, and 60 provisional ballots had still not been processed. Tim Meegan's campaign will likely be filing an official request for a recount today. This whole thing might well go to court eventually. (UPDATE: Meegan did file for a recount, and in doing so also alleged numerous improprieties against the Mell campaign. The filing is 31 pages long. See this DNAinfo piece from Monday about some of the allegations which are in the filing.)

For such an odd situation -- after all, what's in the balance here is whether or not there's a runoff -- how much weight can people reasonably put on the outcome of just one our of 50 aldermanic races?

When that 28th and final precinct in the 33rd Ward finally got called, my entire outlook changed. We'd moved from the hypothetical to the theoretical. A scruffy high school social studies teacher knocking off one of the most entrenched political families in the entire country -- that's a pipe dream, right? But the pipe dream became plausible. And in the process emerged the belief that this might be the tipping point to a political renaissance in Chicago. And if it can happen in Chicago -- then why couldn't it happen on a much grander scale, sweeping the nation?

The dominant paradigm in Chicago is that of the one-party monopoly, with all jockeying for position occurring within that paradigm. Tim Meegan, though, is an Independent -- with a capital I -- and very emphatically not a Democrat. Several other aldermanic candidates who did fairly well are also not self-identifying Democrats.

Even beyond that, though, something seems to be in the air that defies typical categorization. This is how Mike Fourcher of Aldertrack put it:

The one thing we know for sure is that the Chicago City Council will never be the same. Nineteen runoffs, seven that came very close to a runoff and one incumbent knocked off outright means a lot of potential seat changes. A tightly contested mayoral race also means those 19 remaining contested ward races will get a whole new level of attention from voters and donors.

Now, isn't it simply the case that a lot of the candidates who made the aldermanic runoffs were the ones who spent the most money? Or is it not that simple -- because even though there's more money than ever before, it's also coming from more places than ever before? And wasn't turnout really, really low? But was it really just because of the weather? It's still too easy to make almost any argument at this point. And, after all, this past election isn't even actually done.

Going into Election Day, I wasn't feeling optimistic. The farthest I might go is to say that I felt somewhat optimistic about being able to feel somewhat optimistic. When you go 12 years without voting for anybody at all who wins an election, that's about as high as you tend to get.

Today, though, I feel optimistic. It really started when that last precinct finally got called. Even if that result somehow winds up reversed, I think the optimism will remain.

 
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