A Tale of Two City Elections

Tuesday was Election Day in Chicago, which you probably heard about even if you’re not a Chicagoan, and also here in Wichita, which you might not have noticed even if you are a Wichitan. The disproportionate national attention paid to the two elections is easily explained by Chicago’s far larger population and national prominence, but the disparate amount of interest within each city is more complicated.
Local politics is one of Chicago’s favorite pastimes, followed with the same obsessive interest that attends the Bulls and Bears and Black Hawks and Cubs and White Sox, and for good reason. No sport in Chicago is quite so rough, features such fascinating players, or exerts such a meaningful influence on the daily lives of the citizens as a mayoral race. Chicago’s politics doles out patronage to a large portion of the city, provides essential city services to favored neighborhoods, regulates businesses according to their political donations, creates ethnic coalitions that affect race relations, and even intrudes into the private lives of ordinary people in a variety of ways. In Chicago, people have reason to care who is elected mayor.
This time around the mayoral race featured incumbent Rahm Emanuel, the former investment banker, congressman, and White House chief of staff who was known for bringing the rough-and-tumble “Chicago Way” to each job, against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a former community organizer, alderman, state legislator and Cook County commissioner, which is really all you need to know about the sorry state of Chicago politics. The big issue was the city’s rather dire financial condition, as well as its frightening rate of violent crime, although such matters as the irksome red-light camera system the city has been using to raise revenues were also raised, and Emanuel was forced to apologize for a managerial style that has been brusque even by Chicago standards, but as always it largely came down to who could make the better deals to form the larger coalitions.
Garcia enjoyed the support of the city’s sizable Latino population due to his name, along with help from teachers unions upset with the numerous school closings, but Emanuel was favored by the big business interests whose neighborhoods were spared any school closings and even got a Barack Obama College Preparatory High School opened in the affluent near north side, and we assume that despite the efforts of Jesse Jackson he also enjoyed support from the city’s sizable black population due to his past association with the school’s eponym. Throw in more campaign funds, better name recognition, and some shrewd appeals to the various ethnic groups that comprise the city’s sizable white population, and Emanuel wound up winning another term. We’re still not clear on what he intends to do about the city’s mounting debt and unfunded pensions and other fiscal woes, although we expect whatever he does will leave that affluent near north side unscathed, but we have no reason to believe that Garcia would have handled it any better.
Here in Wichita, local politics is more easily ignored, to the point that even such political junkies as ourselves tend to focus more on the national and international news. The city’s workforce is relatively small and the biggest scandals the local newspaper can find there usually involve small-time expense account padding that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Chicago, only the main thoroughfares are cleared of snow and even the richest neighborhoods are not favored with libraries or better schools, some businesses tend to enjoy preferential treatment but none are singled out for harassment, the past two mayors were Latino and black without anyone noticing, and except for the infrequent anti-smoking crusade or occasional pointless resolution about some social issue or another the city mostly lets people screw up their own lives. Besides, the city’s system of government doesn’t even grant that much power to the mayor, with most decisions left to a city council that is usually content to defer to the city manager and his staff of credential professionals. The resulting apathy and the springtime scheduling elections ensures a low turn-out dominated by teachers and city employees and activist types who routinely choose a city government more liberal than city, which reliably votes conservative in the county and state and national elections in the fall, but so far they haven’t provoked sufficient outrage to shake things up.
This time around it came down to city councilman Jeff Longwell against local businessman Sam Williams, and so far as we can tell the big issue was what to do about bringing water to this exceedingly landlocked city in a state with few rivers, no natural lakes, and a diminishing aquifer, which is a problem but not yet so pressing that the government is timing people’s showers,  as they’re threatening to do in California, along with some mud-slinging that seemed rather harsh by local standards but wouldn’t have offended even the most sensitive Chicago sensibilities. Both were white guys, which no one seemed to notice, both had resumes that could plausibly suggest some level of competence, and neither seemed to have any fool-proof plan for providing water. Longwell had the support of the business community, or at least the portion of it that’s been getting preferential treatment from the city during his tenure as a councilman, and we suspect the teachers and city employees and activist types were on his side, while Williams seemed to garner his support from the out-numbered regular folk who actually bother to vote on such a lovely spring day as Tuesday. We wound up voting for Williams, mainly because he had a somewhat back-handed endorsement from Sedgwick County Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau, whose principled stinginess and anti-government instincts we have come to admire, but when we’d heard that Longwell won it didn’t cause us any anxiety.
The low turnout might have been even lower if not for a local referendum to lower the penalty for first time marijuana offenses, which passed even though it has no legal effect because the marijuana laws are the state’s doing. Perhaps the turnout would have been greater if not for all the “yes” voters who forgot the election date or got lost on their way to the polling places, but in any case the short lines at our local voting place did not distress us. Some people judge a community’s civic-mindedness by the turn-out in an election, but in Wichita’s case the lack of interest suggests a very healthy lack of the city government’s importance. Wichitans can also boast that at least Rahm Emanuel isn’t their mayor.

— Bud Norman

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