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The Mechanics
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Election 2015 Tue Apr 07 2015

Respect, Reform Key to Chicago Mayoral

Spring is supposed to be time for decluttering your closets. Me, I'm de-cluttering my politics. Mainly by boiling it down to asking candidates, "Whose side are you on?"

Yes, there are other questions. Are you a force for real reform, or a go-along-get-along with the rigged political structure? Will your policies lead to a more equal society or a more unequal one? Do you work for short-term fixes or long-term solutions? Are you fighting the growing surveillance state, or silent while we slide towards 1984? Are you down with war, or doing real work for peace? Will you fight to stave off environmental disaster, or will you be just more political dead weight as crises loom?

But, mainly - coursing through all of the above -- for whom will you govern? In tough fights, will you stand with those who speak truth to power? Whose side are you on?

In the Chicago mayor's race, hard decisions are coming down the pike. Taxes will need hiking no matter who wins. So fairness is paramount.

Unlike some, I don't hate Rahm Emanuel. Ramsin Canon nails it, that this race isn't about style or tone. I see in Rahm what many identify with, a successful suburban kid now back in the big city. Type A, fierce-willed, self-disciplined (as ballet requires), Rahm also has strong family values, probably frets inside about spending too much time away. He gets the importance of the Lake and the environment. His mouth doesn't faze me. I believe he has sincere passion for Chicago. If I were a pro ballplayer needing someone to negotiate my contract, I might hire Rahm.

I met Chuy Garcia longer ago, through reform politics. Easygoing, and quick with a warm smile, Chuy is still, as much as Rahm, a person of passion and intelligence (fluent in a language he didn't speak for the first decade of his life), devoted to family. Unlike Rahm's fast trajectory into high-powered circles, Chuy's roots are in community and in Chicago neighborhood. He is an idealist to whom "hope" and "change" retain real worth. Repeatedly, I saw Chuy base political decisions not on clout, horse-race chances, or self-interest, but on ideas and principles - and he has the scars that that'll get you in Illinois. Yet, watching him work a crowd or articulate his vision, you see him radiate caring and empathy. If I needed someone to be executor of my estate, I would trust Chuy.

If you see the mayor's job mainly as cutting deals with Power, Rahm may be your guy. If you see the mayor more as trustee, managing resources fairly for benefit of all taxpayers and residents, Chuy has the edge.

Another supposed difference is personality, but this election isn't and shouldn't be about Rahm's "rubbing people the wrong way." It's about recognizing people's value and values, and whose counts.

Some politicians have uncanny ability to sense instantly who in a room has the fattest wallet or most endorsement value. Those so gifted glom to power like clout-seeking missiles and maximize their time courting this cadre. They also often see actual one-on-one with ordinary voters as forced performance, necessary evil at best. Clouters don't suffer fools lightly, and also see most constituents as fools, time-wasters. Perversely, this inaccessibility can create charisma, by raising the status value of the private meeting or celebrity selfie.

Other politicians lack that knack - or never sought to develop it. They may not like knocking on doors in winter any more than anyone else, but they truly like most other humans, regardless of means or political potency. These politicians can spend as much time with the penniless as with a millionaire, genuinely enjoy shaking hands, are chronically late from listening too long to folks who can't bundle votes or money, and often run underfunded campaigns. They see value, truth, and even collective wisdom within the population they seek to govern, and believe that government's job is not simply to impose its idea of "best," but to give form to our aspirations and ideals. They use phrases like "the people" not with irony or air quotes, but with respect.

The difference determines how candidates campaign, and, when elected, govern. Those beholden to power elites are always wondering, "Will this tick off the Big Check Writer?" Populists consistently think, "What about The Little Guy?"

Most successful politicians borrow from each approach, but in ever-pricier races for ever-larger gerrymandered districts, when it's increasingly difficult to get past Caller ID by phone or security buzzers at doors, the system increasingly rewards those with the radar for power and money. This frustrates activists in both major parties. In Chicago, the mayoral has taken on national significance for the Democratic Party, which dominates Illinois but more than the GOP has marginalized its activists.

If not for ground-up, street-level, retail politics, there'd be no Chuy Garcia. The biggest obstacles to grassroots candidates like Chuy are the power structure and its political and media gatekeepers.

Meanwhile, if not for high roller, top-down politics, Rahm Emanuel as we know him does not exist. While Rahm could, over time, reinvent himself, his record often suggests a view that the grassroots are irrelevant or worse.

Chuy wants to change the system because he sees both the promise of democracy, and how promises have been broken. His record and rhetoric evidence belief in structures that increase inclusion, as necessary to finding answers that work for the most.

Rahm's considerable currency hasn't been spent on changing the system, but on manipulating it. Whether because he's skilled at it, or because, philosophically, he believes technocrats and the 1% know best, doesn't matter to the grassroots; they remember that as DCCC chair Rahm worked to shove aside or crush populist Democratic candidates, and they see how Rahm's Chicago Forward ally has been doing the same thing recently, working to defeat some of the strongest aldermanic voices of dissent and reform.

Some symbolism of this divide came on the north side this week. Recently, an anonymous Emanuel adviser quoted in the New York Times dissed Chuy's activist base as "liberals at Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park [who] read poetry." Chuy, pointedly, then held his last northside rally this weekend at the very Heartland -- where Harold Washington and Barack Obama once rallied the faithful.

We The People have our faults; listing them would be another full essay. But a fundament of American democracy is that, imperfections and all, the people, and popular will, deserve respect. Since so many citizens don't even engage at the minimum level, those who go above and beyond ordinary citizenship - grassroots activists, reformers, organizers, protesters -- deserve respect rather than disdain. Recently, a mental health activist quoted Rahm as screaming at her, "You will respect me!" True, out-of-context, or provoked, the incident still registered with many.

By contrast, the essence of Chuy's promise to the voters is that as Mayor Garcia, "I will respect you." That largely explains his surge. For many voters, it answers all other questions.

 
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