Looking Back on a Turbulent Election Season

Notes from the 2/27/19 issue

Looking Back on a Turbulent Election Season

This week, Chicago turned out for what was arguably the most momentous municipal election since Harold Washington was voted in as mayor in 1983. But in the pages that follow, you’ll notice a conspicuous lack of information about the results. The reason for this is purely logistical: Election Day was on Tuesday, but the Weekly goes to print on Monday, the night before. This means that, as I write, I have no clue what the results of this election will be.

There’s no use predicting those results now. Instead, I am reflecting on this long and turbulent election season, and what we can learn from it going forward. I started out as the Weekly’s politics editor over the summer, excited to tackle the election at a community newspaper with a lot of heart, whose commitment was to the needs of South Siders. I knew that Chicago politics were nasty. I also knew that elections were inherently limited in their capacity to bring about change. But I was hopeful that we could make something redeeming out of this one.

When Rahm Emanuel announced that he would not be running for re-election, I think many people shared this hope. The city’s power structure—with its strong mayor and weak City Council—no longer seemed inevitable. The mayoral race was wide open for the first time in decades. Emanuel’s longtime aldermanic allies were suddenly vulnerable. There was a chance to clean house and transform the Chicago Way.

But in the months since then, that hopefulness has dissipated, replaced with a sense of paranoia and dread. Every day brings another headline about candidates’ troubled track records, their corporate funders, and their allegiances to the Chicago Machine—even among those who purport to be progressive reformers. Meanwhile, whole communities and movements have become fiercely divided in the process of choosing a single leader to represent them. Having spent months parsing nasty rumors, bitter rivalries, and backroom deals, it is tempting for me to throw in the towel and say that in fact Chicago’s system of electoral politics is irredeemable. Maybe it is.

But Chicago is not. Chicago is full of people who are fighting for a more just city in the face of displacement, economic disinvestment, struggling public schools, environmental contamination, and both community and state violence. At the Weekly we have covered much of their work: Southeast Side organizers fighting to get manganese out of the air, parents and teachers who saved National Teachers Academy, Freedom Square organizers who built a small utopia next to CPD’s torture site in Homan Square. I do believe in the value of voting, but I also know that if anybody is going to save Chicago, it’s not the people who were on your ballot this week (although they may prove themselves useful). It’s all of us, who are willing to show up and fight for better.

Having spent a year covering Illinois and Chicago politicians, I know they don’t care about us—not most of them, and not more than their donors and power brokers. Most likely, the new mayor and the majority of our new City Council won’t care about us either. But we care for each other.

This is my last day as the Weekly’s politics editor. But tomorrow I will still show up to care for us, and to fight for a more just Chicago. I hope you will join me.

—Ellen Mayer

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