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Rahm, Chuy, and the Real Problem with Chicago Politics

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April 7, 2015


As I write this, Chicago is gearing up for its first mayoral election runoff, between Jesus “Chuy”  Garcia and Rahm Emanuel. Liberals and progressives in the city and outside it are salivating over what they term a historic runoff,  conveniently neglecting to remember that the law determining runoffs was only created in the 1990s.  This is, in other words, not historic as much as an inevitability in a city whose problems, ranging from a preponderance of potholes to a paucity of public schools, are numerous and where the gap in economic and social inequality is reified by systemic inequities, like a shoddy transportation system, that keep  racialised neighbourhoods separated from each other. 

It’s this willingness to skim over crucial facts, disguised as a celebration of the purportedly impossible, which marks the progressive agenda behind Garcia. Progressives have been making the case for Garcia not by pointing out his abilities and qualifications, but by constantly making the case against Emanuel.  Their rallying cry continues to be “Anyone But Rahm,” and while that cheers on many, it does nothing to embolden real change. Instead, it widens and deepens the political vacuum which exists in Chicago.
Is Rahm bad for Chicago?  Well, yes, and you can check out this piece  for the many reasons how and why.  But that does not mean that Chuy is the best or even the better candidate for Chicago. The most common criticism of his candidacy is an entirely fair one: that while he has an excellent sense of what is wrong with the city, he provides few details on what his alternatives might be.  You could argue that, well, Emanuel had an agenda coming in, and it was a terrible one (which Chicagoans voted him in on), but that still doesn’t make a case for Garcia.  The nature of power is such that it requires an actual agenda, not simply the desire to fill a vacuum.  You can, if you choose, use a vacuum to insert yourself into a position of power, and that seems to the Garcia campaign’s strategy thus far, but you will eventually have to show your cards. As several commentators have pointed out, Garcia has thus far failed to provide a sense of what he might actually do, speaking only in vague terms of doing “homework.”   
 Garcia is at best a Candidate of the Zeitgeist – the runoff is less a mark of confidence in him and more an expression of a pervasive disenchantment with Emanuel.  
In their exhortations for people to vote for him, those making the case for Garcia have failed entirely. They have pointed to his work for two of the city’s most reform-minded politicians, Harold Washington and Toni Preckwinkle, as an example of his ability, consequently sidelining the critical work done by two prominent black politicians in a city that still swells with a vicious form of plantation racism.  
Others have simply indicated that voters should vote for the nicer guy. Please, this is Chicago, people. 
But even on the crucial matters, like the Homan Detention Center,  he remains evasive and noncommittal.  He and his supporters are betting that the “Anyone But Rahm” strategy will win over people, forgetting that this is a city of weary, tired people who’ve seen it all from politicians.
Dear Progressives: Do you think the city’s black residents in the most vulnerable communities don’t understand what “more cops” might actually mean (Mariame Kaba has been particularly critical of this)?  Do you think that a city with as deep and wide a political history as Chicago – I mean, hello, this is Chicago, people – is going to vote for a guy who says he will set up committees to look into terribly, terribly important matters only once he gets into office? 
My own prediction is that Emanuel will win simply because a lot of Chicagoans dislike him enough but resent being told to vote for Garcia who remains more unimpressive than his rallying troops want to know or acknowledge.  My sense is that a lot of people might actually abstain from voting entirely, except in key spots around the city. 
But I won’t spend more time on the problems with either candidate.  My bigger concern is that the current election is not a harbinger of change as much as a signal of  a deeper, bigger problem for Chicago politics:  That the desire for change continues to be defined not by real agendas but a desire to mimic and become part of the city’s infamous machine political structure.  
The only way for Chicago to emerge from its current morass of deep political, social, and economic distress, the sort so easily papered over by images of its pristine downtown architectural skyline, is to release the stranglehold of the Mayor’s office over this city. 
The problem with Chicago is that political change is defined entirely by the mayoralty.  It will and is being argued that, therefore,  the only way to change the influence of the Mayor’s office is to get the right candidate in there.  But this attempt has been going on for decades, and progressives and leftists have made hardly a dent.  Every time a strong political opponent to the mayor, like Karen Lewis, rises up we immediately decide to siphon them away from their movement and prop them up as a mayoral contender.
As delighted as I was with Karen Lewis, I also thought she needed to get more support to remain as the leader of a Chicago Teachers Union which made history by striking back so forcefully (this is not to deny any agency on her part). Instead of constantly insisting that the leaders of movements should become mayors, we ought to spend our time and resources helping to strengthen them and the work they do to diminish the mayor’s power.  In this way, whether it’s an Emanuel or a García in the office,  we can create a city that no longer quakes at the might of a man with too much power and we can stop hoping for the impossible: that we might someday, perhaps, get a mayor who agrees to divest his own office of the massive amount of power it has accrued.
We might want to ask ourselves the really, really hard questions: Is it really possible to dismantle the power of the mayor of Chicago by constantly looking for someone to occupy the office?  What, if anything, are we doing to ensure that the resistance against the forces of neoliberalism in Chicago, as with the fight for reparations and the fight against the shutting down of trauma centers, are not only cheered but supported and made more sustainable?  When will we give up our ongoing fascination with the story of the Big Man versus the Little People?  Why do we pretend that Chuy Garcia, who has been a part of the city’s political structure for decades and ran a non-profit (come on now, a non-profit), will somehow be invested in change so cataclysmic that his own office might be destabilised? 
I think Rahm will win, and I think this will give his progressive supporters an opportunity to wring their hands and bemoan the presence of big money in the electoral process.  That will, of course, involve yet another convenient failure to remember: that Garcia did actually bring about a runoff despite having only a fraction of Rahm’s war chest.  But he failed to make a convincing case to eager Chicagoans willing to give him a chance that he had more to offer than simply being Not-Rahm. 
It has not been entirely futile, this election and the runoff.  Garcia could use even his defeat to make the case that we need a larger coalition of truly leftist politics, one that would not simply waste its time and energy creating yet another battering ram out of toothpicks at the doors of City Hall.  He could bring about a powerful coalition of city activists invested not in creating yet another mayoral candidate but in creating political work and activism that stridently challenges the machine and eventually brings it down.  
My advice to you, Chicago: Next time you see a fierce political contender, don’t encourage her to simply run for the Mayor’s office.  Instead, ask her to think outside the mayoral box.  Surely we can all dream bigger dreams than that. 
Yasmin Nair has been deciding to leave Chicago for many years now.  If Garcia wins, she will buy him a real Chicago hot dog or two. And really leave Chicago.  

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