June 16, 2021

How "woke" does Mayor Lori Lightfoot have to be to win reelection in 2023? What is the sweet spot of being "woke enough" to secure a second term?

That is Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot's political positioning challenge.

After 25 months in office she is still a work-in-progress and her political base is nebulous and unformed. Her support is wide but shallow.

A recent ABC Channel 7 poll registered her approval/disapproval at 48/33 percent. A May 31 Emerson College poll had her up 48/39. That is beyond minimally satisfactory: Any incumbent with positives close to 50 percent is in good shape, and any incumbent with negatives under 40 percent is in good shape.

Yet a Sept. 2020 Real Clear Opinion poll, amid the pandemic and shutdowns, put her at 61/33. And during 2019 Lightfoot had positives in the 70s. There is clear - and growing - voter fatigue. But that happens over time to every incumbent who must make tough decisions, not just cast votes.

But a poll is only a snapshot in time. And the Feb. 28, 2023 non-partisan mayoral and subsequent April 4 runoff will be binary. Lightfoot may have several opponents or, if in a runoff, one foe. 2023 will be a referendum on her governance and management talents.

Lightfoot needs 50 percent-plus one in either election to win a second term. Turnout was 556,844 citywide in the 14-candidate 2019 primary, with Lightfoot finishing first with 17.5 percent and then getting 73.7 percent in the Lightfoot-Preckwinkle runoff, where turnout was only 32.9 percent, or 523,804. It is universally conceded that Lightfoot beat Preckwinkle not because she was the BEST candidate, but for the 66.4 percent of Chicagoans who DID NOT vote for her (or Preckwinkle) she was the LEAST WORSE candidate. Lightfoot upped her vote from 97,667 to 386,039, an increase of 288,372, while Preckwinkle's went up just 48,922. Lightfoot got 85 percent of the vote cast for the other 12 primary candidates.

It should be remembered, however, that a raw vote in one election cycle does not constitute a base, which is a pool of utterly reliable voters who give implacable support in election after election. Chicago has a population of 2,679,080, and currently has 1,584,293 registered voters (RVs). Lightfoot got 24.3 percent of the RVs in the 2019 primary.

The current chatter among the political and media class is that identity-based politics has replaced issue-based politics, and that the wave of the future will make immutable characteristics (race, gender, age, sexual orientation) more important in candidate choice than other issues. Diversity trumps fiscal responsibility. Gestures trump accomplishments. Success is measured in overlaps. Instead of equality of opportunity, woke-ism demands "equity" in outcomes.

Ironically, Chicago politicians have been practicing identity politics for more than 150 years, based on ethnicity/ancestry and religion. Current "woke-ism" does not prioritize White ethnicity or religious affiliations. Early Chicagoans eagerly did. In the pre-Civil War era through the 1870s Chicago politics was dominated by German-Americans and northern Europeans, who were Protestants. America was later flooded with Irish (and Catholic) immigrants, soon followed by Italians in the 1880-90s, and then Eastern Europeans in the early 1900s - all Catholics Immigration provided cheap labor. Sound familiar?

Chicago politicians, like every politician, always do what is easy and expedient: Win now at any cost. So the city's identity politics expanded to include economic status, or class, as well as ethnicity/ancestry and religion. It was the haves versus the have-nots: The wealthier Republican Protestants of northern European descent versus the working-class Democratic Catholics of Irish or southern or eastern European descent. Geography also mattered. People voted for one of their own in their own area, and there was great mutual hostility and fear, fomented by the politicians. It was pure tribalism.

Demographic upheaval after World War I and into the 1920s didn't change identity politics, it just changed the beneficiaries. The "New Tribe" now outnumbered the "Old Tribe." In 1931 the Democrats/ Catholics/working-class took control of Chicago. Republicans saw it coming in 1928 when Irish-Catholic Al Smith (D) won Chicago for president. Anton Cermak, of Bohemian ancestry, became mayor but was assassinated in 1933. And then the Irish, Chicago's most populous ethnic group, took over the Democratic Party, spawning a succession of Irish-American mayors which lasted from 1933 to 2011, with interruptions totaling 8 years (1977-79 with Bilandic and 1983-89 with Washington/Sawyer). That amounts to 70 years.

The dominant Irish quickly imposed a caste system, now called quotas, arrogating certain offices to other ethnic groups. The Irish got mayor, county board president and assessor: The important offices with clout and patronage. The Polish got city clerk. The Jewish got city treasurer and/or county treasurer. The Germans got state's attorney. Judges were appointed/elected on the basis of ethnicity, and every group got their share. Likewise for congressmen and state legislators. But what about the Blacks? They got their one South Side congressional seat and a couple aldermen and that was it.

Massive Black migration from the impoverished Deep South began in the mid-1930s and continued throughout World War II, exploding African-American populations in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia. African-Americans were the new voting block in Chicago, and the Democrats' identity "challenge" now included race, not just class, ethnicity or religion. It was getting complicated. Chicago's Black population by the 1950s was well over 700,000 and could no longer be "contained" on just the near South Side (although Daley tried by building housing "projects"). African-Americans numbered 1.2 million in 1980.

But the Democratic Machine was never "woke." It didn't care what people thought, only how they voted. Power was the priority. The Black vote enabled Daley to win over a Republican in 1955 and 1963. But it was soon apparent that race fractured identity unity. White working-class ethnics and Blacks had different cultures, and were competitors. Just voting Democrat was not enough. Blacks also wanted city patronage, union jobs, better housing and schools - and less segregation and more opportunity. Daley in the 1950s introduced "Pay-to-Play, Part I." He initiated a Loop building boom which created thousands of jobs for White trade unionists and big profits for White-run contractors. Politics became a business.

Issues briefly became paramount: Corruption, scandals, open housing, civil rights, racial segregation, Vietnam, poverty, environmentalism, voting rights, ERA, feminism. The stage was being set for identity politics on the national level and for racial politics in Chicago.

By 1980 the city's Black population was over a third and the White exodus to the suburbs, which began in the 1950s, continued unabated. The Loop and Lakefront upscale housing boom was just starting. Heavy Eastern European (especially Polish) and Mexican-American immigration really began in the 1990s.

Then came Jane Byrne and the snowstorm of the winter of 1978-79. Byrne beat Bilandic, proceeded to alienate Blacks and split the now non-Machine into pro-Byrne and pro-Daley factions. Along came Harold Washington and the resultant primary was a classic IDENTITY-politics vote: Washington won 36/33/29 over Byrne and Daley, with the vote almost entirely along racial lines.

By 1989 Daley II won as mayor in a 1,023,000 turnout and a Black exodus to the south and west suburbs began. Daley won by increasing percentages in decreasing turnouts in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. After Washington died in 1987 city politics was dull-and-dreary and pay-to-play for 20 years, while pensions were looted and city assets sold. Rahm Emanuel won with 55.3 percent in 2011 in a 590,357 turnout and in 2015 with 56.3 percent in a 592,733 turnout. Both times his principal competitor was Hispanic, not Black. And the breakout was that both times leftist White "progressives" and Hispanics voted against Emanuel, and everybody else (including Blacks) voted for him.

After the Laquan McDonald police murder in Oct. 2014 and subsequent cover-up, Emanuel knew it was time to bail. He had no rooted political, ethnic or political base, just money. And that cannot withstand identity politics. Kim Foxx beat Anita Alvarez in 2016 by using the race card and building a Leftist/Black coalition, winning 58 percent.

The 2019 field included Bill Daley as the primary White candidate, Toni Preckwinkle and Willie Wilson as the primary African-American candidates and Susana Mendoza and Gery Chico as the primary Hispanic candidates. Far back in the field was Lightfoot, who had an anti-police image as administrator of the CPD Office of Professional Standards and president of the Chicago Police Board, which resolves police misconduct cases. Her base was LGBTQ, concentrated along the north Lakefront and Wicker Park, and woke anti-cop Leftists. It was enough to get her 17.5 percent.

Issues like crime, pandemic response, school closures, council remap, affordable housing and city taxes will be uppermost in voters' minds heading into 2023. The emerging likely candidate is CTU vice-president Stacy Davis Gates.

It's doubtful that a White alderman will run, but that remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure, nobody can out-identity this mayor.