Politics: The Movement's Next Move | Essay | Chicago Reader

Politics: The Movement's Next Move 

In the size as well as the shape of its vote, the progressive coalition looks very much today as it looked in February 1983. There's no reason now for fratricide or finger-pointing.

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In 1983 a black reformer who had never held citywide office, and who was opposed by the white-dominated media, ran a shoestring campaign against two white candidates for mayor. Harold Washington got about 425,000 votes, or 37 percent--enough to win.

In 1989 another black reformer (though his reform credentials were not as strong), who also had never held citywide office and who also was opposed by the white-dominated media, ran another shoestring campaign against two white candidates for mayor. Tim Evans, too, got about 425,000 votes, or 41 percent. But this time it was enough only to lose by a landslide.

The first event marked the coalescing of a new political "movement." With the second, fear some disheartened progressives, the movement may be coming apart.

But reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated.

In fact, Evans's 428,000 votes were 4,000 more than Washington got in February 1983 (and 40,000 more than Eugene Sawyer received in this year's primary).

The difference is that in the February 1983 primary the two whites split more than 700,000 votes fairly evenly: Byrne got 388,000, Daley 345,000. In the 1989 general election, the total vote for the two whites was much smaller--closer to 600,000--but their split was lopsided: Daley pulled 577,000, while Vrdolyak attracted only 36,000.

In sheer numbers, in other words, the movement has held its own since 1983, while the totals for its opponents have dropped by about one-seventh. So why the sense of defeatism among some progressives?

The answer, of course, is that in the interval between Washington's first 1983 run and Evans's 1989 run, Harold Washington got much higher vote totals, enough to push him over 50 percent, in three straight elections: the 1983 general and the 1987 primary and general. In all three elections, Washington got more votes than Daley received this year. The Washington coalition had become accustomed to winning, and to governing. While losing in 1989 may not have been an intellectual surprise, it was nonetheless an emotional shock for many.

But in each of those intervening elections, Washington was either the Democratic nominee or the incumbent--factors important both to capturing swing voters and to attracting financing. Without these factors, or some other attraction for swing voters (such as an unpopular opponent), the progressive, multiracial coalition that elected Harold Washington doesn't have enough political muscle to win every two-way race, but it has consistently shown that it can win a relatively close three-way race.

Evans's loss, in short, gives "the movement" no reason to fall into fratricidal finger-pointing, or to lose sight of the principles--or the unity--that brought it to power.

Evans's campaign was not perfect--far from it. But in retrospect it is difficult to see how the progressive coalition could have presented any candidate, or run any campaign, effective enough to overcome Daley's huge margin. Once the machine hacks in City Council picked Eugene Sawyer as acting mayor in December 1987, and Sawyer then decided to run, a split in the coalition's African American base was all but guaranteed: no movement candidate worthy of the name could legitimately support Sawyer; at the same time, having learned its own lesson about self-destructive splits in 1983, the machine knew enough to rally around a single, strong, white candidate.

This dichotomy was compounded by money, race, and accident. White developers and business interests, after five years of less privileged access at City Hall than they used to enjoy under the machine, deluged Daley with dollars. The two major newspapers and the TV stations--almost all-of whose day-to-day decision makers are white, and whose corporate signal-callers are also well-heeled--similarly felt more comfortable with Daley and his associates than with Evans and his. White ethnic voters on the northwest and southwest sides, depressed by their loss in 1983, became all the more excited at the prospect of winning back City Hall--especially with a man whose very name seemed to promise a return to the good old days.

And potential swing voters in lakefront and Latino wards, soothed by constant paid and unpaid media messages, decided they could take a chance on Daley. Especially because they knew little of Evans. Unable to finance TV ads, and mostly shut out of news coverage until after the February primary, Evans remained largely an unknown commodity. As such, he was particularly vulnerable to a few highly visible misfortunes. Dorothy Tillman's televised attacks on Sawyer were too strident for most whites. The Steven Cokely incident made many Jews who had voted for Washington uneasy--or worse--about their alliance with the black community (despite Evans's denunciation of Cokely). Meanwhile, the Latino community, never entirely secure in its alliance with African Americans, resented its distinctly junior partner status in the Washington coalition.

While these are not all the reasons why Daley won the swing vote, they illustrate some of the more salient obstacles Evans faced.

Despite all this, Evans matched Washington's February 1983 vote. In fact, not only was Evans's total vote remarkably close to Washington's--the difference was less than 1 percent--but his vote totals among key constituencies were also eerily close to Washington's.

There are 21 wards in which African Americans are (according to the 1980 census) a majority (or, in the case of the First Ward, a plurality). In eight of them, Evans and Washington received nearly equal numbers of votes (within 2 percent). In all 21 together, Washington and Evans each (uncannily) received about 365,000 votes.

They also came strikingly close in the three northernmost lakefront wards: 46 (Uptown), 48 (Uptown and Edgewater), and 49 (East Rogers Park). Evans and Washington each received a total of slightly more than 15,000 votes from these wards; they came within 200 votes in each of them.

In the other three north lakefront wards--42 (near north), 43 (Lincoln Park), and 44 (Lakeview)--Evans received a total of only 12,000 votes, down from Washington's 15,000. But development and gentrification have dramatically changed the populations and demographics of these wards in the last six years; for example, many Latinos have been priced out of Lakeview, and blacks are being pushed out of the Clybourn Corridor. The 3,000 extra votes Washington got in 1983 probably don't live there anymore.

The four current Latino wards are harder to assess, because they were all redistricted in 1986, making them much more heavily Latino in 1989 than in 1983. However, according to exit polls, the bottom linea appears to be about the same: both Washington and Evans took only small minorities of the Latino vote.

In short, Evans's vote closely parallels Washington's of February 1983, not only in size but also in shape. The core of the progressive coalition looks very much today as it did then.

Where do the members of that coalition go from here? In the wake of Evans's defeat, the sensible course is not to scrap the coalition but to build upon it. Some African Americans, for example, have urged black unity as a strategy, in place of a multiracial coalition. In 1989, however, black unity would not have been enough to win. Even if Evans had received as many votes in the 21 black wards as Washington got in February 1987--an additional 85,000 votes--he would have reached only about 510,000. And even if Daley got only as many votes in those wards as Byrne in February 1987 (thus reducing his total by 16,000 votes), he would still have had 560,000 votes--enough for a solid 50,000-vote win.

The multiracial progressive coalition is thus not merely a nice idea, but a practical necessity for both blacks and progressive whites and Latinos. None can win without the others.

But even together, they can't win a tough two-way election unless they also do better than they did this year (and in February 1983) on two fronts--uniting and exciting the black base, and winning over the swing votes among whites and Latinos. Can that be done in 1991?

In politics, two years can be forever. A lot can happen.

Already one pundit, at least, has ventured a prediction. Republican political analyst Thomas Roeser wrote a commentary in a February issue of Crain's Chicago Business entitled, "A forecast: It's Daley--but only for two years."

Roeser pointed out that once elected, Daley would face several pitfalls. The Shakman decree would prevent him from taking full political control of the government. A heavy property tax will be needed--alienating Daley's base. City personnel cutbacks will be required--most likely hitting blacks the hardest, thus angering his opposition. And education problems will be unsolvable, frustrating everybody.

"In fact," Roeser concluded, once they hit the City Hall fifth floor, the Daleyites had better not unpack."

I hesitate to be caught publicly agreeing with a Republican. But Roeser's not-implausible scenario is just one of several in which Tim Evans or some other progressive could win City Hall in 1991.

In the meantime, the progressive coalition needs to stick together--and to its principles. Racial fairness, economic justice, human rights, and open, accessible government are, after all, not only "right" but also politically popular in key constituencies. In fact, one of the ways Daley won was by convincing swing voters that he, too, stands for these noble goals.

Now Daley has--and deserves--an opportunity to show his real commitment.

Without waiting for him to do so, some commentators already proclaim the dawn of a new Daley dynasty. But only six years ago Daley finished a humiliating third in a three-way race for mayor. Just as it would have been premature to dismiss Daley then, it is far too soon now to write off the progressive movement.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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