Electing Mayor Austerity

Lee Sustar explains why austerity will rule in Chicago, no matter who wins the runoff.

Rahm Emanuel and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia

PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS usually wait until after they're elected to pour cold water on their supporters' hopes.

Not Jesús "Chuy" García. In his second televised debate with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, García vowed that if he wins the April 7 runoff election, he would disappoint his labor backers.

"I'm going tell the unions a lot of bad news because the situation is so dire," García said. "Who's going to be upset? Probably the unions who are supporting me now."

That's why García has spent much of his time on the campaign trail lowering the expectations of working class voters. In case anyone missed the point, García made a similar declaration a few days later. When it came time to negotiate with unions, he said, there would be "some tough medicine to be swallowed by all of the partners."

If Rahm Emanuel--disliked even by people who will vote for him--prevails in this race, it won't just be because he has vastly outspent García and relied on his connections as a national political power broker, but because García failed to give his progressive rhetoric any substance.

García, who backed labor concessions and layoffs as a Cook County Commissioner, has been criticized for being vague about his financial plans. But he is perfectly clear that workers are going to take a hit if he's put in charge of balancing Chicago's budget.

Despite having been catapulted into the race when Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis bowed out for health reasons, and then picking up substantial labor support from the Service Employees International Union and other important unions, García has outlined, in general terms, a set of priorities that would involve labor making deep concessions.

Yet neither the CTU nor SEIU have directly criticized García for this. On the contrary, his allies in organized labor and community organizations have downplayed or ignored the candidate's calls to make workers bear the brunt of the city's budget shortfall and looming pension crisis.

But it's a sign of the times--not just in Chicago, but across the U.S. Following the example set by the administration of Bill Clinton in the 1990s--where Emanuel served as a top political operative--the Democrats have worked strenuously to prove to capital that they are a reliable pro-business party. Today, Democrats from Barack Obama on down either collaborate with Republicans in cutting budgets or push the agenda on their own.

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AS AN intramural contest within the Democratic Party, the Chicago mayor's race highlights the contradictions of the Democrats' efforts to serve Corporate America.

The national Democrats' rightward turn has created a crisis in one of the party's bedrocks of support--Chicago. Neoliberal policies such as the privatization of government services has undermined the traditional political patronage system and alienated previously loyal public-sector workers. At the same time, deindustrialization, economic crisis and demographic changes have further scrambled what were considered certainties of Chicago politics.

These trends have found a political expression, even if in the narrow and distorted form of Democratic Party politics. That's why Rahm Emanuel, despite raising far more campaign cash than all his challengers combined, failed to win a majority in the February 24 general election, and why 18 City Council races also went to the April 7 runoff election.

To better understand the dynamics of this race--and its national significance--it's worth stepping back to look at the forces changing politics in the city.

The first point to make is that Chuy García, despite his rhetoric, is not really challenging the Democratic "machine," as many of his supporters say. The machine really ceased to exist in the late 1970s following the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley--the "American Pharaoh," as his biographers called him.

Daley held the mayor's office for 21 years despite mass school boycotts and housing protests by African Americans in the 1960s and the notorious police crackdown on antiwar protesters in 1968. He maintained power with a mix of patronage, corruption, repression and concessions--in particular, to certain favored unions--to keep any coalition from forming against him.

Daley's immediate successors, Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne, beset with the fiscal crisis that hit many U.S. cities in that period, were unable to consolidate their own base of support. That flux opened the way for the 1983 election of Harold Washington as the city's first African American mayor.

Washington's agenda was stalled by a racist backlash of the City Council's white majority until a court-ordered redistricting of the city's wards in 1986 opened the way for a pro-Washington majority of City Council members, who are known as aldermen in Chicago. Among them was a young Chuy García, who'd been well known in activist circles in the city's Mexican American community.

The Washington administration disrupted the old patronage networks, but failed to put forward a progressive agenda, a fact highlighted by the two Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strikes during his administration. Then, in 1987, the new era was suddenly over when Washington died in office. An African American alderman, Eugene Sawyer, made a deal with racists on City Council to become mayor until a special election could be held two years later. That election was won by Richard M. Daley, the son of the former mayor.

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THE YOUNGER Daley consolidated power by carrying out neoliberal policies to curry favor with business, while supporting a range of policies--like support for gay rights--to win over liberals who had been appalled by his father. But the younger Daley maintained elements of the old machine rule by fostering a new, ethnic submachine--the Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO), based among Mexican immigrants.

The motivation for this, of course, wasn't Daley's warmhearted embrace of a struggling immigrant community. It was to consolidate a split between the African American and Latino working class that emerged during Washington's administration.

When Black Chicago Democratic operatives split into rival factions following Washington's death, Daley leaned on the fast-growing Mexican immigrant population to provide a tiebreaking vote in the city population that has been about evenly split between African Americans, Latinos and whites.

When corruption scandals took down several Black politicians, Daley used his power of appointment to replace them with loyalists. "They used to call it plantation politics," Alysia Tate wrote in the Chicago Reporter in 1999. "A handpicked group of Black politicians won elected offices, but lacked any real power."

It wasn't a return to the old days, when a single Black politician, U.S. Rep. William Dawson, dominated the politics of Black Chicago in alliance with the elder Daley. Instead, the younger Daley rewarded select African American allies and punished enemies in order to keep Black voters from coalescing behind a single challenger.

Meanwhile, the HDO became a funnel for contracts and jobs that linked sections to the burgeoning Mexican-American working class through groups such as the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO). From its role in arranging no-show jobs in the "hired truck" program to rigged contracts in exchange for campaign contributions, the HDO would have been familiar to any Chicago mayor for the past century. In 1998, the HDO organized to defeat Chuy García's reelection effort as an Illinois state senator.

But there was an important difference: most of the HDO network was outside formal employment by the city or its agencies. Of some 35,000 patronage workers on the city payroll at the height of the machine, only about 5,000 remain, according to journalist Tim Gradel and political scientist and former alderman Dick Simpson, in their recent book Corrupt Illinois.

Much of the reduction in patronage hiring is due to court consent decrees aimed at cleaning up Chicago politics. Yet this downsizing is also a reflection of the neoliberal drive to reduce the public sector.

Gradel and Simpson show that corruption remained rife under the administration of the younger Daley. But the gains were increasingly concentrated among a narrow circle of officeholders and their cronies in businesses that benefited from connections with the city and Cook County. For example, as the Chicago Tribune reported in 1999, Daley's privatization benefitted people like the Duff family, which had longstanding ties to organized crime figures.

Privatization has been crucial to Daley's effort to forge a national reputation as a progressive, no-nonsense administrator. But many of the mayor's "good government" programs, from towing abandoned cars to resurfacing streets, have also provided lucrative deals for Daley's friends and political allies while reducing public scrutiny of city services.

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WHETHER CORRUPT or legal, Daly's "pinstriped patronage" accelerated the transformation of Chicago in several ways. Developers transformed entire neighborhoods using tax subsidies. Public housing complexes were razed, with residents scattered across the city. Schools were targeted for "reform" that included "turnarounds" through the firing of the entire staff--a move that has cut the percentage of African American teachers nearly in half.

The privatization deals were driven partly by ideology, partly by alliances with business and partly to maintain useful ties to old-line Chicago political operatives who, in a previous era, relied on traditional patronage.

And it worked--not just politically, but economically. In the 1990s, Daley benefited from a revival in manufacturing in Chicago, amid an overall U.S. economic boom. "This is America's urban paradise," two Wall Street Journal reporters wrote in 1996. "Chicago is the commercial center of the region that is leading the U.S. economic expansion. Housing starts, personal income and exports are rising swiftly."

The recession of 2001, however, caused a loss of manufacturing jobs and a population decline, noted Aaron Renn in City Journal, the mouthpiece of neoliberal urban strategists:

Like the Midwest generally, parts of Chicago suffer from a legacy of deindustrialization: blighted neighborhoods, few jobs, a lack of investment, and persistent poverty...Many of Chicago's woes derive from the way it has thrown itself into being a "global city" and the uncomfortable fact that its enthusiasm may be delusional.

With population loss and a shrinking tax base, the privatization deals once sought to please corporate backers and political cronies now became critical as short-term fixes to city finances. By 2003, the city was using bonds normally used to finance long-term projects--like renovation or construction of public buildings or facilities--just to keep ahead of mounting debts.

In this context, privatization in Chicago became not just a way to placate corporations and political cronies, but a critical source of one-shot funds for the budget. The city quickly burned through money from its privatization of the Skyway toll road and of city parking meters.

The waning Chicago economy coincided with the loss of some 200,000 residents between 2000 and 2010. Some 181,000 of those who left were African Americans. This was no accident, but a policy--the dismantling of public housing deprived poor Black people of affordable housing. This change, along with an increase in immigration from Mexico, further destabilized Chicago politics as the 1990s boom faded into memory.

Facing his sixth run for mayor in 2007, Daley doubled down on promoting Chicago as a global city, as part of a transition to a post-industrial economy.

The combination of fewer African Americans in the city and a new Latino network of political operatives tied to outsourcing and privatization had changed the old race-based political balance. Chicago "school reform," with its school turnarounds and closures and the proliferation of charter schools, fostered a new layer of Black and Latino professionals and businesspeople who depended on City Hall, rather than community organizations or elected officials. At the same time, Daley courted Corporate America and wooed mostly white liberal professionals to stay in the "global city." This reengineered electorate would be the new political base of City Hall.

By this point, unions that normally took marching orders from City Hall refused to endorse the mayor because of privatization and Daley's hardline stance on pensions and other benefits.

A few months later, labor was back on board after Daley signed 10-year labor contracts with municipal employees as part of the city's failed bid to host the 2016 Olympics. Nevertheless, the tensions between the unions and City Hall were unprecedented. Privatization and pro-business policies had severely undermined Chicago's patronage-based system and the corresponding ties to organized labor. The unquestioning political loyalty of the city workforce could no longer be assumed.

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THE GREAT Recession deepened Chicago's economic woes as housing prices collapsed, particularly in African American neighborhoods, jobs disappeared and government budget deficits mounted. Daley, with scandals bubbling up around him, opted to retire, clearing the way for Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel's previous post as Barack Obama's chief of staff enabled him to dominate the African American vote and win an outright majority in the 2011 mayoral election, avoiding a runoff election. His union-bashing, pro-business record since has been well documented in Socialist Worker and many other publications.

Having served in two presidential administrations and run the Democrats Congressional election operation as a member of the U.S. House, Emanuel entered Chicago's City Hall as politically wired as anyone can be. Just as important was Emanuel's ties to the wealthy and powerful--the people who enabled him to make $18 million in less than three years during a short career change as an investment banker.

"As a result, Rahm, you left the 99 Percent and joined the 1 Percent," observed John Cunning, president of the Economic Club of Chicago, introducing a speech by Emanuel. "Welcome aboard! Good to have you."

Now, as Emanuel fights for his political life, the 1 Percent has rallied to his side. In the run-up to the January election, some 32 people--including hedge fund boss Ken Griffin and Hollywood mogul David Geffen--wrote single checks of $100,000 each to Emanuel's campaign fund.

Those people want to see Emanuel win reelection because he's been a diligent fighter for their interests--and the further he goes in his political career, they more they'll benefit. To them, the prospect of a García victory is alarming.

By attacking city workers--including provoking a teachers strike in 2012--and intensifying Daley's privatization drive, Emanuel further alienated public-sector employees and their families who used to automatically vote for the "regular" Democratic candidates. Thus, in the February 24 general election, García even made some inroads into traditionally conservative and heavily white wards where many Chicago cops and firefighters live.

The City Council elections were also shaken up, with 18 of 50 seats going to a runoff election because the leading candidate didn't reach the 50 percent threshold.

A left-wing independent candidate, Chicago teacher Tim Meegan, one of a handful of aldermanic candidates running to the left of the Democrats, nearly forced a runoff in the 33rd ward. While most of the contests took place within the Democratic Party, the anti-incumbent mood highlights a genuine desire for change among Chicago working-class voters.

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BUT A change in leadership in City Hall won't mean a different agenda. By warning of "harsh medicine" and cutbacks for labor if he is elected, García has given Emanuel political cover to say that he is the one who can hand out tough medicine in a "fair" way--namely, cutting city pensions. The city must pay $1 billion into pension funds in this year alone.

"The fact is, without any real reforms, relying on taxpayers to foot the entire bill for pensions only makes a property tax increase more likely," an Emanuel plan stated after the February 24 election.

Both candidates now call for a more progressive income tax and a tax on services or luxury goods to boost revenue. But those measures would require state legislation and have to survive a likely veto by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The candidates' convergence on the need for cutbacks for working people has been overlooked by the national media, which tries to portray the race as part of a national battle between pro-business "centrist" Democrats like Emanuel and "progressives" like Garíca. In that view, the Chicago's mayor's race is a proxy battle for the Democratic nomination between Hillary Clinton and a possible liberal challenger in the mold of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

"This year's race for Chicago's mayor...both reflects and could shape the direction of the Democratic Party--not to mention the future of American cities," declared a pro-Emanuel editorial in Bloomberg News. It concluded: "Chicago's voters can show the nation--and the national party--that fiscally responsible government remains a priority for Democrats."

A closer look, however, shows just how narrow that debate within the Democratic Party--and Chicago--has really become. Having embraced neoliberalism--tax cuts for business, budget cuts and privatization--the Democrats pushed austerity through the 2007-09 recession and the weak economy that followed.

So while García's critiques of Emanuel resonate with working people and the poor, the challenger has explicitly and repeatedly accepted the mayor's case that city must appease the bondholders who purchase Chicago's debt. García, noting that 24 percent of local funds go to pay for bonds and loans, wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed article that "financial analysts such as the Civic Federation, Standard and Poor's and Moody's consider a debt burden to be too high when it exceeds 15 to 20 percent of local fund appropriations. That puts Chicago's debt burden well over the recommended maximum."

By highlighting the demands of the bondholders and the bond ratings agencies, García shows just how much he's internalized the logic of neoliberalism. While García has avoided proposing any specific plan to deal with Chicago's financial woes, he tips his hand when he points to his tenure on the Cook County Board as a model, where he claims the board "maximized efficiencies in frontline services."

That's a euphemism for a series of layoffs and unpaid furlough days that García supported as floor leader for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Last June, members of AFSCME picketed the board to push for a contract without wage cuts.

So the choice is between the man known as "Mayor 1 Percent" for his catering to the wealthy and powerful while squeezing workers--and a challenger who boasts of balancing the Cook County budget on workers' backs and whose website states: "The Garcia administration will work with the unions to find ways to control costs" of pensions.

García apparently believes that it's possible to raise voters' hopes even as he tries to lower their expectations. By not being a bullying 1 Percenter like Rahm Emanuel, García calculates that he can pull off an election victory.

Certainly, no one on the left would be sorry to see Rahm Emanuel tossed out of office. But no matter who wins the April 7 vote, austerity will rule in Chicago.