Machine politics. Strong mayors. Racial and ethnic segregation. All are part of the history of Chicago, where voters will go to the polls Feb. 22 to choose the city's next leader after 22 years of Richard M. Daley. How does that history influence the election and the vote? Historian James Barrett specializes in U.S. urban, labor and ethnic history, with a focus on his native Chicago. He is author of the upcoming "Americanization From the Bottom, Up: Irish Americans and the Making of the Multi-Ethnic City" and is working on a racial and ethnic history of Chicago. Barrett was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Given your knowledge of the city's history, what's your greatest concern regarding this election and the job ahead for the next mayor?
Historically, voting in Chicago has been heavily based on race and ethnicity. The worst outcome would be seeing a repeat of what followed the 1982 election, when the city elected Harold Washington, its first African American mayor. Washington's opponents mobilized their white base on racial grounds and the electorate and city council were bitterly divided along racial lines, making the city difficult for Washington to govern. Race and ethnicity remain important influences on voting behavior, and I think you can see that in the range of candidates and the jockeying that has taken place to represent the city's various large ethnic communities. Whoever wins will need to carefully cultivate these communities.
But a Chicago Tribune poll suggests that this sort of outcome is much less likely now. Chicago remains a very segregated city and its neighborhoods continue to reflect these divisions, but the last census showed greater integration than at any time in the recent past and this is reflected, I think, in voting preferences. Many voters from various ethnic communities seem far more prepared to vote for candidates on the basis of their positions on issues like education, the economy, and crime rather than simply on the basis of ethnic background.
We often hear that "all politics is local"; you say that's nowhere more true than in Chicago. What do you mean?
Throughout much of the 20th century, Chicago functioned through a series of machines - voting coalitions that had their roots deep in the neighborhoods. Ward committeemen and precinct captains turned out the vote, in return representing the interests of constituents and doling out patronage jobs and favors.
This old system has faded, especially in the upper-middle-class lakefront wards where visitors spend most of their time. But these wards are not representative of the city and its neighborhoods, where political concerns remain mostly local.
A strong focus on neighborhoods enhances voters' concerns with local issues like crime, transportation, and schools. National attention has focused on Rahm Emanuel's connections with the Obama administration, for example, but most Chicagoans couldn't care less about that. They want to be sure their kids can walk safely to good neighborhood schools and that the CTA will get them to work on time.
Why did political machines arise in large cities and why did they die?
The earliest 19th-century machines were fairly pure reflections of the networks in ethnic working-class neighborhoods. These networks were constructed from religious communities, workplaces, and relationships forged in city streets. The Irish were masters at this sort of networking, and they had built effective political organizations in cities like Chicago by the time other European immigrants and Mexican and black migrants arrived in the city in large numbers in the period before the 1960s. Political entrepreneurs stitched these neighborhood-based organizations into citywide machines.
At their best, machines integrated newcomers and served the interests of the poor and minorities who might not otherwise have had representation. Where they excluded recent arrivals, engaged in widespread corruption, and made cities difficult to govern they tended to die out by the Depression era of the 1930s. New York's Tammany Hall is a good example.
How is Chicago's history of machine politics different?
Although neighborhood and ward machines were common from the late 19th century on, no citywide, inter-ethnic machine emerged in Chicago until the Depression era. Irish American politicians had tried to hold onto political influence and patronage for their own community. But as the city became increasingly diverse in the years before the Depression, newcomers resented their control. The Irish could only survive politically by integrating the city's various ethnic communities and they managed that pretty effectively.
When a citywide machine was finally cobbled together, largely around ethnic issues like Prohibition and class issues like jobs and unions, it really did represent most groups in the city. When African Americans felt they were being frozen out, they organized outside the machine and Harold Washington's election was a product of that alienation. The Irish have continued to play a dominant role, and you can see that in the Daley dynasty, which is finally coming to an end, but each group was accorded some share of offices and spoils. This led to what columnist Mike Royko called the city's unofficial motto: "Where's mine?"