ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The phrase Chicago politics has its own unique connotations. And today is Chicago’s mayoral election. A record 14 candidates are competing to run the city. So to talk about what makes this city’s brand of politics so distinctive, we’re joined now by Laura Washington. She’s a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and a resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.
LAURA WASHINGTON: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: You’re a Chicago native. You’ve covered politics in the city for decades as a journalist. And you worked for the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington - no relation - in the 1980s. So when I use that phrase Chicago politics, what comes to mind for you?
WASHINGTON: Well, when it comes to this mayor’s race, it’s about rough and tumble politics. Most of our mayors, at least in my lifetime, have been tough, hardball-playing, top-down mayors who consolidate power and money and run the city primarily through the Democratic Party machine. That machine is not what it used to be. But it’s still a major player. Harold Washington used to say, Chicago politics ain’t beanbag. You’ve got to come with your game on.
SHAPIRO: Rough and tumble, come with your game on, consolidate power and money - some people associate Chicago politics with corruption. Do you think that’s accurate?
WASHINGTON: What a surprise.
WASHINGTON: Indeed, there’s a reason for that. There’s been a university study here that says that Chicago is the most corrupt city in the nation when it comes to the number of elected officials who’ve been convicted and sent to jail. There’s a very thin line in Chicago politics between what’s legal and what’s illegal. And mayors and aldermen and other elected officials often use their power in exchange for campaign contributions, in exchange for political favors. It’s sort of a commonly known thing and highly tolerated.
SHAPIRO: You also mentioned the Democratic machine. And even in other big cities that are highly democratic, I don’t think people talk about the machine in the same way they do in Chicago. So what do you mean by that? And how influential is it today?
WASHINGTON: Well, the machine was always dominated, first by Richard J. Daley and then later by his son, Richard M. Daley - two of the most powerful mayors in this century and the last. It’s basically a network of political operatives, precinct captains, city workers who are beholden to the top people in city hall and who do their bidding in exchange for jobs, in exchange for political favors. And so on a typical election day, the machine candidates usually win because they are the ones that have the street power, the street muscle to get folks out and get them to the polls.
And back in the good, old days - I don’t think this happens so much anymore. You’d see politicians trade gifts, things like chickens and, sometimes, even cash, to get people out to vote. Now things are a little bit more subtle and above board.
SHAPIRO: So you’ve given a really vivid description of what makes Chicago politics Chicago politics. But the next question I have is, why? I mean, why is Chicago so different in these ways?
WASHINGTON: Well, you know, Chicago’s a very tribal city. It’s very segregated, very diverse but very segregated. And most people in the city live in neighborhoods with people that look just like them. So people tend to vote along ethnic lines. And so for many years, the ethnic groups that always won were white politicians and white voters because they were in domination. Now the city’s much more diverse. And, in fact, it’s a majority minority city. But people still feel most comfortable voting for and with people of their own.
So in a race like this, where you’ve got 14 candidates and a significant number of them are people of color, you may see a little bit of a different outcome because racial voting is also going to be split up in many different ways.
SHAPIRO: That’s Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and resident fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Thanks so much.
WASHINGTON: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
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