The announcement that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis will not run for mayor because of what’s been called “a serious illness” took a huge share of the oxygen out of discussions about a new mayor for Chicago come February 2015.
While there was no assurance that she would have been the successor to the incumbent, Rahm Emanuel, whose tumbling poll numbers put him in poor stead among the city’s African-American voters, she unquestionably was his most vocal and contentious challenger.
A similar voice has yet to emerge.
Lewis’ exit and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s adamant refusal to step away from a guaranteed win next month in county elections has created a chasm no other announced candidates appear to be able to leap over. The “Bobs” — Fioretti and Shaw — are the only two of the mayor’s announced rivals who have ever held public office. Voters don’t seem to see the others as serious contenders.
The absence of available, credible, well-funded candidates to take on the uber rich incumbent in a city with Chicago’s renowned political legacy is perplexing — or is it?
Examining how the world of politics has devolved over the last couple of generations, there are some obvious drawbacks to seeking public office. We have moved from a country where media once likened the president to royalty to a place that looks for scandal first, and political platform next. That kind of “gotcha” journalism is not the antidote to political candidate apathy.
Voting, while being made easier and more accessible with every election, might be the least understood exercise we engage in as a nation. In 2012, only nine states had required a student to pass civics education/social studies testing before graduating from high school. Illinois was not in that pool, according to the Center for Research on Civil Learning & Engagement at Tufts University.
Without these lessons on citizenship, government, current events and law, young voters and others are left with the lackadaisical approach to voting we have seen over several years in the city. Let’s look at the last couple of mayoral elections. In the February 2011 municipal elections there were more than 1.4 million registered voters in the city, fewer than half — exactly 590,357 — bothered to cast a ballot. The previous municipal election in February 2007 registered a more dismal turnout – 465,706 of the registered 1.4 million voters in the city.
One would think an aldermanic seat would be a stepping stone to run for the mayor’s office, but apparently the $108,000-$115,000 pay rate for alderman amounts to golden handcuffs that keep them tethered to their “part time” jobs. Not one sitting council member challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel on the ballot in 2011.
Add to all of those factors Emanuel’s reputation as a vindictive, no-holds-barred candidate, and the attraction of trying to be Chicago’s next mayor weakens even more.
Could we be at a place in Chicago’s history where residents simply have been beaten down by politics and government? Are we at the place that as long as our garbage gets picked up most of the time, the street lights work someplace, some of the time, and the police respond to calls a lot of the time, we are OK with how things are?
An August poll by the Chicago Tribune put Emanuel’s approval rating at 35 percent. His popularity dropped across all demographics. It is difficult to imagine that with the overwhelming majority of those opposed to him or undecided, there is a possibility he will be returned to office.
During his campaign, there was scuttlebutt that Emanuel wants to use the mayor’s job as a springboard to something bigger, possibly a presidential run. Chicagoans have the opportunity come February to facilitate that speculation by turning him out of office, but in favor of whom?
Glenn Reedus is the former managing editor at both the Chicago Crusader and Chicago Defender newspapers.