How Council Wars Haunt This Election

When this mayoral race began, the candidates promised it wouldn’t turn into another tri-racial brawl like the campaigns of the 1980s.

Mayor Daley ended those racial conflicts by being white for the last 22 years. And he made sure they didn't come back during his administration.

“I think that we’ve grown tremendously as a city,” Miguel del Valle told Ward Room in October. “Younger folks have grown up in integrated settings, and they’re not into the kind of racial politics that we saw back then.”

Maybe not. But the spectre of Council Wars still haunts this race. All of the major candidates were involved in the era’s politics, in one way or another.

As a state representative from Hyde Park, Carol Moseley Braun was Mayor Harold Washington’s legislative floor leader, sponsoring bills to end discrimination in housing and private clubs, and to divest Illinois’s investments in South Africa. The black community anointed her as its “consensus candidate” in an effort to repeat the magic of 1983, when the South Side and the West Side united behind Washington. Her supporters are even using the slogan “From Harold to Carol,” to suggest she is Washington’s heir to the mayor’s office, after two decades of Irish occupation.

Miguel del Valle got involved in politics by campaigning for Washington, as part of the mayor’s black-Latino coalition. Four years later, with Washington’s support, del Valle broke a racial barrier of his own, becoming the first Latino elected to the Illinois State Senate. He defeated Ed Nedza, a Polish-American senator politically allied with The 29, the bloc of white aldermen who opposed Washington.

Gery Chico was on the staff of the City Council Finance Committee during Council Wars. As he likes to point out, he was hired by black Ald. Wilson Frost, and went on to serve under Timothy Evans, Burton Natarus and Edward Burke. But it’s Burke’s support of Chico in this year’s race that may make him the candidate most hurt by the legacy of Council Wars. Burke, who endorsed Chico at a press conference in Eckhart Park last weekend, is considered Chico’s political patron. Older black voters still have not forgotten Burke’s role as Ald. Edward Vrdolyak’s lieutenant in Council Wars. In a runoff between Chico and Rahm Emanuel, Emanuel can brag to black voters that Barack Obama as his patron.

As the youngest candidate in the race, Emanuel had the least involvement in the era’s politics. In 1983, when he was a staffer for Illinois Public Action, Emanuel voted for Richard M. Daley in the mayoral primary and Harold Washington in the run-off. The next year, he was involved in Paul Simon’s U.S. Senate campaign, but didn’t become involved in Chicago politics until 1989, when he served as Daley’s chief fundraiser.
Maybe Chicago isn’t as obsessed with race as it was in the 1980s. But all the candidates for mayor began their careers during that race-obsessed decade.

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