In historic runoff, a battle for Chicago’s “progressive” future

Frontrunners in the mayoral and aldermanic races ran campaigns against Rahm Emanuel’s record but will need to be pushed to clarify their progressive policy agendas for the runoff.

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The election that advanced two black women to the runoff for Chicago mayor is certainly historic. And voters who backed Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle were certainly demanding change.

But the election was also a complete repudiation of Rahm Emanuel’s record as mayor of Chicago. All the candidates ran against Emanuel’s program. All of them rejected complete mayoral control over the school board, which has enabled wholesale school closings and charter expansion. All of them called for more investment in neighborhoods. The candidate closest to Emanuel ideologically, Bill Daley, even ran against the mayor with a slogan of “no more excuses.”

That dynamic underscores the growing influence of the city’s progressive movement. And with two self-proclaimed progressives in the April 2 runoff, the coming campaign is an opportunity for that movement to push the candidates to clarify their progressive agendas.

The clear winner was Lightfoot, a former prosecutor and police board president. She came from behind with a remarkably effective campaign, aided by a fairly inept performance by Preckwinkle. The county board president and former alderman had huge union support and was the frontrunner from the moment she entered the race but was caught up in the scandal surrounding Ald. Ed Burke and never found her footing.

Given her large campaign fund advantage, Preckwinkle will be first out of the gate with ads that seek to define her opponent – likely raising questions about Lightfoot’s claims to be a champion of police reform. Lightfoot will step up attacks on Preckwinkle’s history of accommodating the city’s most powerful politicians.

A key question is which candidate will attract the lion’s share of support from the numerous black voters who backed Willie Wilson. Another question is whether white voters who backed Daley or Jerry Joyce, or Latinos who backed Susana Mendoza or Gery Chico, will choose a side or just sit out the runoff.

Progressives will push for greater clarity on the big issues facing the city and progressive unions should be funding issue-oriented campaigns rather than mudslinging. There may be nuances of difference between the two candidates on police reform or schools. One area that merits scrutiny is community development.

The problem is that “investment in neighborhoods” can easily mean gentrification and displacement. Preckwinkle will have to square her claims about development in her ward when she was alderman with criticism that she ignored concerns about displacement. Lightfoot will have to explain how she intends to keep the city affordable without backing rent control.

The importance of this for voters was demonstrated in the defeat of two entrenched incumbent aldermen, Joe Moreno (1st) and Joe Moore (49th), where community activists Daniel La Spata and Maria Hadden won by making gentrification a central issue. A referendum backing rent control passed by wide margins in four 1st Ward precincts on Tuesday. Last year, voters in the 49th Ward backed rent control by a two-to-one margin.

With a new governor who supports lifting the state’s ban on rent control – and with Oregon just now becoming the first state to enact rent control – this will be a major issue for the new mayor and council.

Concerns about displacement also played out in the 5th and 20th wards, where voters in four precincts backed a referendum endorsing a community benefits agreement for the Obama Presidential Center by margins of 80 to 90 percent.  

In both wards, candidates coming out of grassroots movements – and backing a CBA – advanced to aldermanic runoffs. Jeanette Taylor, who came in first in a crowded field to replace 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran, was a leader in the hunger strike to save Dyett High School and the coalition for an Obama Center CBA. Will Calloway, who forced longtime Ald. Leslie Hairston into a runoff in the 5th, has been a key voice in a movement for police reform. Cochran and Hairston have been dismissive of the need for a CBA.

Both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot support a CBA for the Obama Center, but the details of any agreement matter. Organizers recall Preckwinkle’s role weakening provisions of a CBA for Mayor Richard Daley’s Olympics, including minority hiring standards. How Lightfoot would carry out her campaign promise is an open question.

The new mayor will face a City Council with a strengthened progressive caucus, and with old guard aldermen on the defensive. The most stalwart members of the progressive caucus were re-elected, with the exception of 45th Ward Ald. John Arena, who apparently lost support by backing affordable housing in his Northwest Side ward.  

Hadden and La Spata will strengthen the caucus, and they could be joined by Taylor and Calloway. In the 47th Ward, progressive Matt Martin, an African-American civil rights attorney, won 39 percent of the vote and will face former Emanuel aide Michael Negron, who got 21 percent, in the runoff. In the 39th ward, Democratic Committeeman Robert Murphy made the runoff, running a close second to Samantha Nugent, a protege of retiring Ald. Margaret Laurino. In the 15th ward, rookie Ald. Raymond Lopez, an ally of Emanuel and Burke, barely missed the 50 percent mark, setting up a rematch with progressive Rafael Yanez, a Chuy García ally.

And while former finance chair Ed Burke won re-election in the 14th Ward, other key council committee chairs face runoffs. Most remarkably, 40th Ward Ald. Pat O’Connor, Emanuel’s floor leader and Burke’s successor at the helm of the finance committee, was forced into a runoff, winning just 33 percent of the vote. Challenger Andre Vasquez is in a strong position to bring together the overwhelming anti-O’Connor vote. The new zoning committee chair, 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman, was forced into a runoff for the second election cycle in a row; he faces progressive challenger Marianne Lalonde. And 30th Ward Ald. Ariel Reboyras, chair of the public safety committee, faces Jessica Gutiérrez, daughter of former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, whose well-financed campaign is critical of Reboyras’ role helping Emanuel delay community oversight of police.

In a development that emphasizes the growing reach of progressive politics, the City Council’s socialist contingent — currently consisting of Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa — will double and could grow even more after April 2. Like Ramirez-Rosa, Ald.-elect Daniel La Spata is a member of Democratic Socialists of America. Andre Vasquez is one of three DSA members who advanced to the runoffs in strong positions. Rising DSA star Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez ran even with Ald. Deb Mell in the 31st, and Byron Sigcho-Lopez led the field with 29 percent in the 25th Ward. The challenge for Sigcho-Lopez is reaching supporters of the other progressive candidate in the race, Hilario Dominguez, after a bitterly acrimonious campaign. DSA member Pete DeMay has yet to concede in the 12th ward, where Ald. George Cardenas so far has barely enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Whatever the outcome in April, it’s clear that the Age of Emanuel has come to a resounding close.