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Were Chicago’s Famous ‘Lakefront Liberals’ Really All that Liberal?

Was Rahm Emanuel’s sweep of the affluent lakefront wards a death knell for the “lakefront liberal” piece of Harold Washington’s coalition? Or did Rahm deliver what they wanted all along?

Not pictured: A sign for “Lincoln Park”   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Unsurprisingly, the foundation for Rahm Emanuel’s considerable margin of victory was built in the city’s affluent lakefront neighborhoods, in the same areas where Bruce Rauner straight-up beat Pat Quinn last year. (Clarification: Rauner won the 42nd ward.) This has been cause for lamentation, as from the Reader’s Ben Joravsky:

Among the casualties in Tuesday’s runoff election—along with my short but brilliant career as a political prognosticator—was the concept of the lakefront liberal.

That sucker died a ignoble death with the avalanche of support Mayor Emanuel got from voters of the north-lakefront persuasion.

“Lakefront liberals,” a famous concept and somewhat powerful voting bloc in the annals of Chicago politics, are (mostly) white, professional, reform-minded non-Reagan Democrats living along or near the lake from downtown north (and in Hyde Park). “Bolstered by youthful idealism, many of these young boomers rose up against the machine politics of Mayor Richard J. Daley,” as Joravsky writes.

They didn’t knock off Daley, obviously, but they did vote for Harold Washington in sufficient numbers to serve as a counterweight to the white vote on the city’s fringes, and were indeed a big nail in the Machine’s coffin. Rahm Emanuel, however, won both of those white voting blocs, uniting the city’s wealthy core and its semi-suburban fringes with a respectably large black majority to build a solid electoral coalition. Thus: the end of the “lakefront liberal.”

But I think it’s reasonable to call the time of death for the lakefront liberal far earlier than Rahm’s reelection. This is from the New York Times in 1989, on the race between Richard M. Daley and Eugene Sawyer:

The Lincoln Park neighborhood, for example, where townhouses valued at $500,000 are becoming more common, once served as the apotheosis of liberal, anti-Democratic machine sentiment. But in 1987 in the general election the ward rejected Mr. Washington by a 2-to-1 ratio in favor of Edward Vrdolyak, a conservative former Alderman who has since joined the Republican Party.

[snip]

As the lakefront wards have become more affluent over the last decade, they have also become younger. Many of these younger voters have moved to Chicago from the suburbs, and brought with them a more conservative political philosophy. Mr. Eisendrath [Edwin Eisendrath, Lincoln Park’s alderman] described the majority of lakefront voters as ‘’socially liberal, but economically conservative.'’

That’s the 43rd Ward—not the exact same ward, obviously, but still Lincon Park’s ward—that Joravsky bemoans for having come out in droves for Emanuel. A precinct-level map from the 1987 election shows that Harold Washington was competitive on the lakefront, but was outpaced by Epton.

It’s also worth asking what the liberal in “lakefront liberal” means—what Washington’s lakefront-liberal supporters wanted from him. Joravsky kind of conflates progressives and anti-Machine liberals, but they’re not necessarily the same.

And Washington, famed as the city’s first black mayor and architect of a legendary progressive black-white coalition, is undersung as a technocratic reformer who brought change and even austerity to a sclerotic, bloated, near-broke city during a time of economic struggle, middle-class decline, and decreased federal support. (Sound familiar?)

Washington, as I’ve written before, came into an unresponsive, even primitive bureaucracy and brought a degree of professionalism and transparency. He signed the city’s first FOIA law, while working with community organizations to understand what kind of data they needed and in what form. He signed the Shakman decree, making patronage illegal.

Meanwhile, he was cutting back in the midst of a recession and a shrinking city, as Gary Rivlin writes. Note how he opens this passage:

Washington’s first acts in office were aimed at the wary lakefront voter. He signed an executive order creating a freedom of information act and cut his salary by 20 percent. He mothballed the city’s limousine, choosing instead to use an Oldsmobile 98. He laid off 700 employees in his first year alone—the first mayor in memory to do so—and refused to cut a deal with Vrdolyak, though it would buy him peace. Washington might as well have been reading from a lakefront independent’s manifesto when he promised to professionalize government, computerize city departments now using paper accounting methods, and open up the budget process by holding hearings around the city.

Lakefront liberals of the era were not necessarily interested in a community-focused City Hall, as William Grimshaw noted in the anthology Race and Representation, drawing on his own research about the Washington campaign:

The [lakefront] organizers drew a sharp distinction between their own progressive neighborhood-oriented, material agenda, involving jobs, housing, health care, and schooling, with their conception of the lakefront liberal agenda, which was more centrally focused on “good government” reforms such as merit selection of judges….

Accordingly, Washington’s redistributive agenda, with its emphasis on material benefits, broad grass-roots participation, and neighborhood development was far more likely to appeal to the poor and working-class minorities and the white neighborhood activists, who wound up supporting it, than too the high-rise liberals, who gave it little support. It was not that the liberals had abandoned reform, but that Washington’s conception of reform was so radically at odds of what reform meant. Indeed, there was a small liberal wing inside the Washington campaign, dubbed the “honky caucus” by its detractors, who unsuccessfully proposed putting the main emphasis on managerial reform, and not on redistribution, for the express purpose of generating greater liberal support.

Grimshaw calls the term “something of a misnomer,” arguing that, at best, lakefront liberals had something of a progressive heyday in the 1970s before the area became dominated by bankers, corporate lawyers, and other highly-compensated professionals. “Thus, by the close of the 1970s,” Grimshaw writes,” “these two wards [the 43rd and 44th] were providing Reagan, Bush, and other conservatives with the same margins they had once given to liberal candidates.”

Elizabeth Hollander, who came out of the Metropolitan Planning Council to serve as commissioner of planning under Washington, who was described by the Tribune’s John McCarron as “the city planner who oversaw Chicago’s Roaring ’80s downtown boom,” found something similar when she came to Chicago from New York in the 1960s. “The politics and the racism appalled me,” she writes in the anthology Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods. “Not only was the city dominated by Mayor Richard J. Daley and his machine, the liberal forces seemed to have been shaped by Daley so all of their activities were really anti-Daley, not really independent. When I expressed an interest in racial segregation at work, everyone said, ‘Oh, you must live in Hyde Park.’”

These “lakefront liberals” may have been anti-machine, but they didn’t have much of an economic interest in the machine, either, which most benefited working-class constituents who got jobs through the system. They did have an economic and cultural interest in a city that was professionally and efficiently run—which Washington could also make a case for, particularly in comparison to the dying Chicago machine. He may have run his campaign and his City Hall with a focus on community-based economic development, but downtown did very well under his administration.

Joravsky wants to call these “socially liberal, economically conservative” Lincoln Parkers “lakefront lames,” but it doesn’t really have a ring to it. What about lakefront neoliberals?

I know that everybody’s still trying to figure out what that word means, but I think Kevin Drum’s self-description is useful: “My political leanings are liberal, but my temperament is technocratic and market oriented, and that made me a pretty good fit for the neoliberal team.”

Or this, co-authored by two UIC profs: “an orientation to export-oriented, financialized capital; a preference for non-bureaucratic modes of regulation; an antipathy towards sociospatial redistribution; and a structural inclination toward market-like governance systems or private monopolies.”

Or this, from Daniel Kay Hertz: “the leftist critique of neoliberalism is about a failure to understand the nature of power, and, as a result, the need for people- and community-centered organizing, rather than technocratic tinkering.”

Good enough for government work. Anyway, it gives you a sense why economically conservative “lakefront liberals” would have shown interest in the Washington coalition (even if they didn’t actually vote for him in droves): he did improve city management, and he did help bring about the end of the old patronage machine, which was profoundly and inefficiently redistributive.

Patronage worked very well in providing good jobs and giving many city employees working- or middle-class incomes they may have never achieved otherwise, but since the point was generating votes, the system was rife with inefficiency; in 1974, the Better Government Administration found that the city employed 20 men to wash street signs at $6.66 an hour, or over thirty dollars an hour in 2014 dollars. “There are no comparable figures for other cities because Chicago is the only city in the country that washes signs on such a large scale,” the authors wrote. Even the most fervent redistributionist would at least conclude that, even if paying unskilled laborers $30 an hour is fine and maybe even the highest function of government, there are probably better things to do than wash street signs. By contrast, Harold Washington’s neighborhood economic development, which was focused on things like preserving the city’s small manufacturing base, was practically neoliberal by comparison.

In short, Washington had a constituency among “lakefront liberals” in part because he had something to offer their particular form of liberalism, whatever you want to call it. It may not have been the center of Washington’s campaign, or what he’s known for now, but it was an element of his governance. Fairly or not—David Moberg makes the case that Chuy Garcia, as Toni Preckwinkle’s floor leader, has an estimable record of fiscal competence—Rahm Emanuel successfully presented himself as the superior technocratic manager. And that’s the liberalism the lakefront liberals wanted all along.

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