I Have No Idea What Happens Next

Thirteen candidates showed up for the January 10, 2019 Chicago mayoral candidate forum! (Credit: ABC7Chicago).

There is one thing I can say for certain about Chicago’s election coming on Tuesday: That there will be runoff elections on April 2 for mayor. That’s unfamiliar territory for people like me, who invest a great deal of energy into trying to figure out what’s will happen next in Chicago politics. With fourteen mayoral candidates, six realistically in the hunt to make it to the runoff, and a likely low turnout, it’s almost impossible to tell who’s going make it to round two.

For decades Chicago has been a political incongruity, touting a weak mayor system on paper but living with a strong mayor system in reality. Yet, looking back on history, that strong mayor system has been unraveling for the last fifteen years. Local Democratic party organizations have disappeared, mayoral endorsements have mattered less, aldermen have bucked mayoral authority in Council votes more often. The drip-drip-drip has led us to this moment, where the outgoing mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is hugely unpopular, unable to endorse a successor and a fractured Cook County Democratic Party won’t rally behind their own party Chair, Toni Preckwinkle.

The 14 candidates offer a spectrum of ideologies and personalities. Bill Daley, brother of the former mayor and President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, is the big business candidate, more fiscally conservative than most. Willie Wilson, an African-American business leader famous for creating a popular gospel song television show, is socially conservative, but is totally unclear on any other policies. And then there’s the former police commissioner, Gerry McCarthy; the scion of a South Side political broker, Jerry Joyce, Jr.; the Latino backroom politico, Gery Chico; the Illinois Comptroller, Susana Mendoza; the police reformer, Lori Lightfoot; and the aforementioned Preckwinkle, backed by liberal service unions and the current Cook County Board President.

There is no lack of talent in the race, and every single one is likely to take Chicago in a totally different direction. While I may find certain aspects of each candidate attractive or objectionable, the electorate at large seems lost without a clear signal of who to support.

How do we choose?

Clearly Chicagoans are overwhelmed. Early voting numbers have dropped, possibly an important indicator since early voting as a percentage of turnout has increased with almost every election, as voters discover its convenience. Does that mean voters are holding off to vote until the last minute? Or are they waiting for the runoff election when their choices are narrowed down? Or are they sick of politics and just opting out of the whole process?

I have no idea.

If Chicago does actually have a low turnout, and people don’t show up in droves to vote Tuesday, whom does low turnout benefit? And will it be just low African-American and Latino turnout, while progressive whites turnout in droves like they did in November 2018?

I could hazard some guesses. For instance, maybe it helps Bill Daley and Susana Mendoza, who enjoy higher white voter support but low overall turnout hurts Toni Preckwinkle, who relies on an African-American base. I have no idea how this would help or hurt Lori Lightfoot, who has been surging lately. Polling I’ve seen shows her support higher among liberal whites who might have problems with Toni Preckwinkle. Maybe higher white turnout helps her? But would it be more or less than Daley or Mendoza?

Hard to say.

Meanwhile there’s about sixteen competitive aldermanic races, out of the 50 wards. That’s fewer than in 2015, which had over twenty. And in this year’s 16 competitive races, maybe eight will go to a runoff. Progressive service unions like SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union are pouring in cash to help their candidates. But so are conservative trade unions like the Plumbers and Carpenters. And of course developers are too. Given all that money, which candidates will spend their money well versus just spray it all over indiscriminate TV ads and direct mail campaigns?

I don’t know.

I’ve listened to consultants in all kinds of campaigns tell me with absolute certainty they know how things will turn out. That makes sense, since they’re selling certainty, and people quickly forget failures when they’re drowned by the noise of success. But I’m counseling caution, and for candidates and voters alike to act on their conscience.

Candidates: Go as hard as you can as long as you can. You’ll never regret taking action, only the ones you didn’t take.

Voters: Forget who you’re supposed to vote for, and vote for who moves you, if even a little. Chicago will change tremendously with the next mayor, and you’ll likely never have another Chicago election where your conscience will matter so much.

Go vote Chicago. Your voice needs to be heard.