Chicago’s Main Event: The Race for Mayor
By John Kass
January 1, 2023
Some still think of Chicago politics as prizefight, with the winner grabbing the government hammer to beat opponents into submission with “the rule of law” and take the spoils the Chicago Way.
And now the holidays have passed, the main event, the race for mayor of Chicago, is about to begin in full this week.
The lead candidates are well known, businessman Willie Wilson, incumbent Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson and 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer, son of the late Mayor Sawyer.
And the issues? If you know anything about Chicago, you know there are four critically important issues:
Crime, crime, crime, and crime.
Ask yourself: Which candidate has the capacity to manage a thoroughly broken city and repair the damaged police department?
And which candidates will just run their mouths and play the race card?
Each candidate has vulnerabilities, weaknesses. For example, Paul Vallas is white and loves the city. But he’s terrible at sound bites. His sons are first responders, one a cop, the other a firefighter. His wife Sharon is a former police officer. All this in the eyes of some is a sin.
Democratic socialist Chuy Garcia, also cares about the city. The socialists seem to be gathering momentum in Chicago. Yet Chuy was a surrogate for the defund-the-police left, and for Sen. Bernie Sanders. In a city plagued by crime, will Chuy’s opponents use that against him and risk alienating the Latino vote? And what of his Chuy’s association with the indicted fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried, the bankrupt crypto currency hedge fund FTX?
All of it is fair game. But how the candidates play it depends on how each campaign believes it can play the media.
The candidates will criticize each other, attack and snipe at each other. Things will get rough. If you don’t like pushy talk, if you don’t relish argument, then you probably don’t like politics. Mr. Dooley, the legendary Chicago tavern-keeper insisted that politics ain’t beanbag. So, if you’d rather sit on the grass in the sun, and talk of hugs, kittens and unicorns, think of Mr. Dooley and please go and just enjoy yourself.
But you can’t help Chicago that way by . A great city is dying, being killed by violence with a 40 percent increase in crime
“Over the holidays, everyone was talking about crime,” said a man who loves Chicago and has been close to mayoral politics for decades. “What do people talk about? It’s all about crime. Where do you go to avoid it, how not to go to dinner downtown? How Michigan Avenue is a ghost-town. If the city’s not safe–and it’s definitely not safe now–then the city can’t come back. And every day Chicago loses more and more people.”
So as the mayoral race begins in earnest, in the city of tribes, the tribes gather. And how you see them depends on where you sit.
You might see them as the Visigoths running down that seventh hill to the city, or as the government (public) employee unions dominated by the white lefties. You might see them as street gangs activated as in the old days, or as legitimate social justice warriors committed to ending cash bail and reducing the reach of law enforcement.
You might see them as small business owners trembling and fearful at those political forces that keep whispering, “Get the bleep out.”
You might see them as good people of every color and creed doing what Chicagoans have always done, trying to stand up after being knocked down hard, because they had the will to stand and do what had to be done.
They’re out there. And they’re waiting for the campaign, these tribes. They tromp through wet cinder alleys, torchlight falling on the heads and shoulders of excited men and boys shouting to one another, on gaslit streets as they’re funneled toward the amphitheater to witness the great brawl between the champions, with the winner grabbing the spoils.
Years ago, it was an all-ethnic affair. The Irish here, the Italians there, Lithuanians, Blacks, Poles, Latinos and Jews, a smattering of Greeks, Croatians, Serbs and Bohemians (and apologies to any I’ve forgotten), and all cheering their gladiator avatars for control of government under the old Chicago Democratic Machine.
There was some merit to it. If you were better at politics than the other guy, if you were more devious, you got to reap the rewards. I suppose you might say it was a vulgar time, but I was there. And I’ve been called vulgar. But there was a truth about politics then.
The corruption was only about the money. It didn’t take your soul.
The left hated that old spoils system, and the newspapers especially hated patronage. The good government types that love to lecture others and virtue signal over public television, like that station Winnetka Talking to Wilmette, also loathed patronage.
Patronage was a stench in their delicate nostrils, because it had nothing to do with qualifications or merit.
But now the Democrats are all about “equity,” which is government using skin pigment to reward some at the expense of others and buy political support from the beneficiaries. It is nothing but racist political patronage. They use it to buy votes and pound even more equity into, or out of, the taxpayers.
There have been thousands of shooting, again this year, and more than 700 people murdered in Chicago according to reports. Again. Yet some in media see a miniscule drop in murders and shootings from last year and promote that slight drop as if seeking to be fed sweetmeats from the hand of the mayor herself.
But overall, the ruling Democrat approach to violent crime in Cook County and statewide–endorsed by the incumbent mayor, governor, county prosecutor, county chief judge, state attorney general and Cook County board president–is to offer mercy to the violent.
And, to avoid avoiding incarcerating these thugs in exchange for votes.
Most of the victims of violent crime in Chicago are themselves minorities. And few lead Democrats in Chicago politics actually weep for their pain, or condemn this cynical bargain between politics and the habitually violent lest they themselves be called racists. If they condemned it they’d be hypocrites. Because they’re in on it.
This how you kill a great city.
I write this column late on New Years’ Eve, as the State Supreme Court has finally weighed on the controversial “Safe-T Act,” the radical Democrat push to end cash bail in Illinois. It would be a state-wide expansion of Democrat Cook County crime policy that has devastated the metropolitan area with 40 percent increases in crime.
But at the last minute, the high court voted to continue using the old cash bail system for alleged violent criminal offenders.
Cook County Democrats, led by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, her protégé Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and the Black Legislative Caucus have tried to end cash bail with the help of Democrat Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul.
Will Preckwinkle’s no-cash bail policy–appealing for votes at a painful cost–become part of the mayoral campaign debate? Of course, it should, but will it? Lightfoot endorsed Foxx to curry favor with Preckwinkle. Why did she do it? She trashed Boss Toni in the last mayoral campaign. You might think Lightfoot wouldn’t need to grovel. But she did.
So you might suppose media would make an issue of the Illinois Supreme Court move, in the context of the mayoral campaign. You might think it might have something to do with whether the city will survive or if it will devour itself in some dystopian frenzy.
Am I being impolite? I suppose so. Don’t ask me. Ask some milquetoast local news exec who loves “speaking truth to power.”
The stories of Chicago crime run together, anecdotes colliding in a never-ending orgy of violence. Some just give up on the news. But others who want real crime coverage don’t read the papers. They go to the CWB Chicago website.
The elderly woman walking her dog Jasper was robbed at gunpoint. The city shrugs. That young man, the cook, shot for his cellphone in Lincoln Park. The city shrugs. A gunfight in a downtown parking lot? The city shrugs. The old man beaten. The woman thrown on the train tracks. Those looters in the Loop. Official Chicago shrugs. But the city dies.
The mayhem on CTA rapid transit continues. That woman in Lakeview is attacked, pulled down by thugs. Her scream is recorded on a doorbell camera. That scream, featured in a political commercial was a desperate appeal for law and order, a rallying cry for the decent against the indecent, a woman screaming for help.
But it didn’t become a rallying cry. Because those who dared mention “the scream” were condemned as racists by the Democrat governor and mayor, and vilified as racist extremists by establishment corporate media. This is Chicago now.
That brutish story of the Chicago mayoral campaign as a prizefight could have been told in some movie, a new one with hand-held cameras catching fight fans running through the alleys toward the ring to the Dropkick Murphys “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”
Or in an old in black-and-white film, the fighters staring, judges at ringside, harsh light, and the editors and publishers of old-timey metropolitan dailies in suspenders and fedoras, with spines of steel to chronicle the events as the city waited to see the new boss.
But there are no such dailies. Nostalgia is poison and dangerous, and like questionable street food best to be avoided lest you end up in the gutter. Nostalgia is deadly for writers and troubled cities.
“A prize-fight is simply brutal and degrading,” wrote President Theodore Roosevelt, a true political reformer, enemy of corrupt big city machine politics and amateur boxer who loathed prizefighting in an article in the North American Review in 1890. “The people who attend it, and make a hero of the prize-fighter, are–excepting boys who go for fun and don’t know any better–to a very great extent, men who hover on the borderline of criminality; and those who are not are speedily brutalized and are never rendered more manly. They form as ignoble a body as do the kindred frequenters of rat-pit and cockpit.”
You might not think George Bellows’ painting of the 1923 Dempsey Firpo fight works to illustrate Chicago mayoral politics. Yes Dempsey was knocked out of the ring, he was loopy, but he got back up to mercilessly beat Firpo, knocking him down seven times in two rounds. But that’s a Hollywood ending.
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch wasn’t Hollywood. His painting formally has nothing to do with Chicago, though it was completed around the time my grandfathers came here, hard-bitten mountain immigrants, with no education but plenty of guts.
They were poor, desperate and hungry men like those Visigoths with families depending on them, not looking for a city of God exactly, just hoping to find a few streets paved with gold.
Munch’s painting does speak to modern Chicago, today’s city of rising crime and the mayoral campaign, and the political class stepping over minority victims of violence, the politicos working to abolish cash bail for violent offenders.
And with a media ambivalent, in a city where public schools don’t teach kids to read at grade level, a city of small business owners trembling, waiting for the next wave of looters, with CEOS of large corporations waiting for the next shootout in some downtown parking lot, taxpayers voting with their feet.
Munch very much understands today’s city by the lake. Just look at the man in the painting. You can see him scream, like a Chicago taxpayer.
(Copyright 2023 John Kass)