Thursday, September 23, 2010



Usually when we talk about “splitting the vote” in Chicago or, to a lesser extent, in the state of Illinois, we are talking about splitting the vote of one of the major ethnic/racial groups in the city so that a candidate of one of the other major ethnic/racial groups can win. This proud tradition goes back at least to Tony Cermak, who successfully split the Irish vote between the “lace curtain Irish” and the “shanty Irish” to get himself, a Bohemian, elected first Cook County Democratic party chairman in 1928 and then mayor in 1931.

Some might argue that we are now operating in a “post-racial” Chicago in which one’s race or ethnicity has little or no bearing on one’s chances for election to office. The most recent evidence proponents of this theory present is two-fold. First, they cite Toni Preckwinckle’s winning the Democratic primary this year for Chairman of the Cook County Board in a field that included three black candidates (including herself) and one white candidate. But bear in mind that the other two black candidates occupied a continuum running from hopeless (Todd Stroger) to hapless (Dorothy Brown). The white candidate, Terry O’Brien, was a man of more substance than, say, Bernie Epton, Harold Washington’s “Republican” opponent in 1983, but could not be considered a heavyweight contender. Still, Ms. Preckwinckle carried some white wards and did very well in others, so her election does provide some hope for those of us fervently hoping for a post-racial Chicago.

The other piece of evidence cited for a post-racial Chicago (or at least a post-racial Illinois) is Pat Quinn’s selection of Sheila Simon to replace Scott Lee Cohen as his running mate on this year’s statewide ticket, passing up State Representative Art Turner, who, by any sense of fairness, should have gotten the nod for lieutenant governor by virtue of his having placed second in the primary. Quinn’s selection of Simon, which I thought would have raised eyebrows, if not wails of indignation, in the black community, raised nary a peep. So perhaps Sheila Simon’s selection, with little or no protest, does provide evidence for a post-racial Chicago. But look beneath the surface of the maneuverings that brought Ms. Simon onto the ballot. Some argue, and I think legitimately, that her selection was engineered not to get a downstater on the ballot but, rather, to put a white person on the ballot. Note that, had Art Turner been the lieutenant governor candidate, four of the six Democratic candidates for constitutional office in Illinois would have been black. The powers that be in the Illinois Democratic Party (We’re not talking Pat Quinn here.) saw the downside of such a ticket and insisted on Simon, or someone of similar skin hue, and effectively tamped down opposition that could have arisen in the wake of the snubbing of Art Turner.

So we might be in a post-racial Chicago, and I hope we are, but I’m not betting the ranch on such a development. Splitting the vote, Chicago style, still has to be considered as we approach an historic mayoral election.

Note that splitting the mayoral vote in the old sense of splitting the opposing ethnic group’s vote, either naturally or by introduction of straw candidates, in the Democratic primary and thus winning that primary, and effectively the election, with a plurality is no longer possible. This is the way Harold Washington became mayor in 1983; Mayor Jane Byrne and State’s Attorney Rich Daley split the white vote, allowing Congressman Washington to win the Democratic primary with 37% of the vote. He then went on to squeak by Bernie Epton and in a racially charged general election. Since 1999, however, elections for mayor of Chicago have become non-partisan. Candidates don’t declare their parties and run in a preliminary election in February. If a candidate gets a majority of the vote in that race, as Richard M. Daley has done in every race since the inception of the non-partisan primary, he is elected mayor. If no one gets a majority in the preliminary, an outcome highly likely in 2011, a run-off takes place in April between the top two vote getters.

But this does not mean that the votes of ethnic/racial groups cannot be split, with great effectiveness, under the new format. The talk right now is that if there is more than one strong black candidate in the February election, the vote could be split to the point at which no black candidate makes it to April. But the same could be, but isn’t being, said for the white vote. If there is more than one strong white candidate in the primary, the white vote could be split to the point at which no white candidate makes it to April. This is so because of the breakdown of racial/ethnic voting patterns in Chicago: Hispanics probably constitute about 35% of the population in Chicago but only about 25% of the voting population, at best. The remainder of the vote is split between whites and blacks, with the white vote slightly greater than the black vote. This breakdown can be substantially affected by the level of excitement generated by the race; note the huge black turnout in 1983 and 1987.

Note, however, that both the Hispanic and black votes are likely to be split because of the political demographics of the city. Of the four formally announced candidates in the race so far, three are Hispanic (Chico, Flores, and DelValle) and one is black (Hendon). So the Hispanics are already split, though it remains to be seen how “real” the candidacies of any of the three aforementioned gentlemen will turn out to be. But the real reason that the “Hispanic” vote will likely be split is because there is no “Hispanic” vote. There is a Puerto Rican vote and there is a Mexican vote, but there is no “Hispanic” vote outside the febrile imaginations of white and black reporters. The distinction, ignored by the typical white or black voter, is large in the broader Hispanic community, and also breaks down along geographic lines, with Mexicans being concentrated on the southwest side and Puerto Ricans being concentrated on the northwest side. (This comes up in my book, The Chairman’s Challenge, A Continuing Novel of Big City Politics.) With only about a quarter of the vote in Chicago, the “Hispanic” vote cannot afford to be split.

Similarly, there is a large and growing gulf in the black electorate in Chicago between the west side and the south side. (This, too, comes up in my book, The Chairman’s Challenge, A Continuing Novel of Big City Politics.) Harold Washington was a giant who could bridge that gap; he was also something of a novelty, being the first serious black candidate for mayor (Sorry, Dick Newhouse and Dick Gregory.), there was no alternative from the west side in 1983, and the south side/west side split was not as pronounced, if it existed at all, back then. But there looms no such giant on the horizon, certainly not west sider Ricky Hendon. Perhaps west sider Danny Davis or south sider James Meeks could bridge the gap, but in order to do so, these two huge egos would have to somehow make peace. In fact, one might go so far as to say that Rahm Emanuel’s Tuesday night meeting in Washington with Congressman Davis was an attempt to exploit the south side/west side fissure to Emanuel’s advantage. Would that surprise anybody?

So if the black vote is split and the Hispanic vote is split, the white vote could certainly be split and still allow a white candidate, or maybe even two, to make it to the April runoff. But just as likely is a sufficiently split white vote allowing a black candidate, or maybe even two, to make it to April. In order for a Hispanic candidate to make it to April, he (There aren’t any Hispanic women candidates on the horizon.) will have to forge coalitions, most likely with white voters. This is one of the reasons I still think the name of George Cardenas will emerge before this race is decided; see my earlier posts on the upcoming election.

Of course, this could be meaningless if we are in a post-racial environment. The seemingly active courting of white police officers and firefighters by State Senator Reverend James Meeks, if fruitful, will prove further evidence that we have outgrown our racial fixations. But such strategizing and thinking is both necessary and fun. And be assured that it is taking place in the camps of any serious candidates for mayor of Chicago.

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