How Chicago Voted: Race, Ethnicity and the Neoliberal Agenda

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By Bill Barclay

The short and quick summary of Chicago’s mayoral election is easy. In the primary, 21% of the voters chose neither Mayor 1% nor Chuy. Jesus (Chuy) Garcia needed to get three-quarters of that vote in the runoff to beat Rahm Emanuel. He didn’t. The two candidates split this vote and Rahm won the election 56-44%. The runoff increased turnout, drawing about 2 in 5 registered voters compared to the 1 in 3 that voted in the primary. Garcia’s vote increased by 60% over the primary, and Emmanuel’s by 50%.

After Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win in New York City, there were hopes and expectations that Chicago might also reject neoliberal policies at the city level. There was at least a surface similarity between Mayor Bloomberg’s concept of NYC as a “luxury product” and Emanuel’s focus on the Loop and north Michigan Avenue to the neglect of Chicago’s neighborhoods. But there also were important differences between the NYC and Chicago mayoral races. First, de Blasio did not face a (well funded) incumbent. Second, de Blasio entered the race early, while Garcia was a late substitution for Karen Lewis, Chicago Teachers Union president, whose health problems precluded her running. Third, de Blasio went on the attack about inequality. Garcia’s was a lower key approach to this question, stressing his desire to be mayor for all Chicagoans. Fourth, de Blasio did not have a sitting president endorse his opponent. Finally, the budget issues facing Chicago are more difficult than those that faced NYC.

On the terrain of neoliberal finance, Garcia was pressed repeatedly by the media to lay out his plan for addressing Chicago’s budget problems, especially the question of pension funds. The funding ratio for Chicago public employee pension funds is much worse today than when Rahm took office. However, the questions were always about what Garcia would do to the solve this shortfall. Almost no attention was focused on how Rahm had exacerbated the problem. Garcia had the opportunity to talk about a small financial transaction tax on trading at the Chicago exchanges but decided not to. With no specifics about significant alternative revenue sources, Garcia remained on the defensive in this arena.

In contrast, on offense he attacked Rahm well and consistently for closing more than 50 neighborhood schools. He also challenged the preference for charter schools by Rahm’s school board.

These two issues explain much about the outcome. In reverse order, consider education. Exit polls showed that voters with children in Chicago public schools supported Garcia by a 56-44% margin, but they represented less than 40% of the electorate. Voters who did not have children in Chicago’s public schools went for Rahm by almost exactly the reverse margin. Rahm’s neoliberal agenda for education in Chicago – his appointed school board plans to increase the number of charters to about 1 in 4 of Chicago schools – was rejected by those most impacted but accepted  by the majority of voters.

The latter group includes not only those with grown children but also residents of the wealthy, largely white wards on the north side of the city, most of whom, like Rahm himself, do not send their children to Chicago public schools. The neoliberal education privatization agenda is either of little concern or actively embraced by a significant number of those who turned out to vote. (Voters who disagreed with the school board’s decision to close neighborhood schools supported Garcia by almost 2:1).

But education was the only “most important” issue category that helped Garcia. Voters who choose “Chicago finances,” “crime,” or the “economy” all provided a majority for Rahm. The inability of the Garcia campaign to break out of the “Chicago’s financial problems” box undercut their ability to put Rahm on the defense despite what has been a poor financial record: borrowing to fund operations, a scandal in Rahm’s hiring of Amer Ahmad as city comptroller (Ahmed is now facing 15 years for a kickback scheme that he ran as Ohio state treasurer), allocating management of public pension fund to Rahm contributors, etc. Neoliberal political discourse dominated this election.

However, it was not only the formal political universe of discussion that shaped the outcome. As noted above, Garcia needed to get about 3 of every 4 voters who chose neither him nor Rahm in the primary. Most of those voters were African-American, voting in the primary for either Willie Wilson, an African-American businessman, or William (Dock)  Walls III, an African-American businessman and activist who had served as Mayor Harold Washington’s assistant in 1983-86. There were nine wards in which these two candidates together polled  25-33% of the vote (at least double their city-wide share) in the February primary election. Although he got less than 50% in all these wards in the primary, Rahm won all of them in the runoff (despite Wilson and Rev. Jesse Jackson endorsing Chuy) usually by margins larger than the city as a whole. Garcia did gain vote share in these same wards, but his pickup was starting from a lower base. To some unknown but significant extent, this voting pattern reflects concerns among much of Chicago’s black population that they are being displaced by Latinos as the minority to be courted by politicians and policy makers. This feeling was articulated to me during door-to-door canvassing in the primary, in an African American neighborhood, for a Latino alderman: “Latinos get everything.”

Of course that doesn’t describe Latino life in Chicago, but it does find echoes of agreement in portions of Chicago’s African American community. Chuy had been one of the Latino activists who worked to forge an alliance that elected Chicago's progressive African American mayor Harold Washington in 1983, but that alliance was thirty years ago. Thus in 2015 a white mayor was reelected in part because of mistrust and competition between subordinated groups who have more to gain by being political allies than opponents. This challenge for Chicago progressives is probably equally large as the challenge to successfully attack the agenda of a mayor who caters to the 1%. One last bright spot: among voters under 40, Garcia won – not by a large margin but in striking contrast to strong support for Rahm from voters over 45.

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Bill Barclay co-chairs Chicago DSA and is National Member Organizer.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


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