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The Machine Is Dead

If Preckwinkle had been the boss her opponent accused her of being, she would have gotten the vote out.

Preckwinkle concedes Tuesday evening.   Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

The story of Tuesday’s mayoral election is not just that Chicago elected its first black female mayor — one who also happens to be openly gay.

Nor is it just that a political outsider defeated what remains of the city’s storied political Machine.

It’s that every one of the factors Lightfoot supposedly overcame — race, gender, sexual orientation, Machine politics — is no barrier to election in modern Chicago.

“It would be a very big deal — that’s a supreme understatement — to beat the machine,” Lightfoot said at a campaign appearance in the 20th Ward yesterday afternoon.

That’s true, but it’s not as big a deal as it would have been in, say, 1967. Today, the Machine is more effective as a political straw man than as a political force.

When Richard J. Daley was chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, he used his position to dominate the city, the county, and the entire state of Illinois. But in just the past year, the two most recent occupants of that title — Joe Berrios and Toni Preckwinkle — were beat by opponents who successfully portrayed them as corrupt bosses.

If Berrios and Preckwinkle had been the bosses their opponents accused them of being, they would have gotten the vote out. Instead, Preckwinkle’s liable to step down from her post and hand it off to some obscure committeeperson who has no ambitions beyond his or her ward.

The Machine is a relic of 20th Century Chicago. It operated best when this was a provincial, blue collar city, where residents viewed local government as a defender of their social prejudices and economic interests. As Mike Royko put it:

“If Daley sometimes abused his power, it didn’t offend most Chicagoans. The people who came here in Daley’s lifetime were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king, or rural sheriff. The niceties of the democratic process weren’t part of the immigrant experience. So if the machine muscle offended some, it seemed like old times to many more.”

Daley’s Machine reflected the way Chicagoans expected the world to be organized. It was a top-down, authoritarian structure modeled on the Catholic Church to which so many voters belonged. The mayor was the pope, the aldermen and committeemen the bishops, and the precinct captains the priests.

Chicago isn’t that city anymore. It’s a deeply unequal metropolis, divided between well-to-do professionals and residents whose neighborhoods are consumed by disinvestment. Today’s Chicago immigrants are as likely to be from Ohio, where Lightfoot grew up, as from a foreign country with a history of authoritarian rule.

Daley’s most ardent supporters were traditional and deferential to authority. Lightfoot’s are cosmopolitan, tolerant, reformist. Machine muscle offends them; the specter of a black woman in the Mayor’s Office doesn’t.

The irony of this election is that 30 years ago, Toni Preckwinkle was who Lori Lightfoot is now: a University of Chicago–educated outsider, to both Chicago and its politics, who took on the establishment. As the alderman for Kenwood and Hyde Park, Preckwinkle was the champion of educated professionals who saw themselves as political reformers. That was also the base that put Lightfoot in the runoff.

A reformer’s shelf life is only so long though. Eventually, Preckwinkle came to represent the political establishment she herself had railed against.

There are a few corners of Chicago where the Machine still operates as it did in its heyday. One of them is the 13th Ward, which is run by House Speaker Michael Madigan. The other is the 14th Ward, which is run by Ald. Edward Burke. Both are Irishmen who got their starts under Old Man Daley, and they’ve carried his political practices into an era that finds them reprehensible.

When Burke was indicted for allegedly shaking down a Burger King franchise in his ward, it damaged the fortunes of every established Chicago politician except … Ed Burke. In the February general election, he was re-elected to a 13th term.

That’s because Burke is a real boss. He’s done so many favors for his constituents that they overlook his corruption.

Preckwinkle, on the other hand, took the fall for a style of politics Burke still practices successfully but which most Chicagoans find odious. She took charge of a corrupt organization with the hope of advancing her political career, but ended up being held responsible for its misdeeds.

Chicago was ready for a mayor like Lori Lightfoot. She was fortunate enough to present herself, and her message, at just the right moment, when one of Chicago’s last bosses reminded voters there’s still plenty of corruption in this city.

One of Lightfoot’s earliest supporters was University of Illinois-Chicago professor Dick Simpson. He was a reform alderman in 1970s, when that was worth four or five votes on the City Council. When I saw Simpson at Lightfoot’s election night rally Tuesday, I told him, “When you endorsed Lori, I thought, ‘Dick has a lot of … idealistic causes.’ ”

He grinned. “Sometimes,” he said, “they win.”

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