Forty years ago something seismic happened in Chicago: the Democratic machine candidate for mayor, indeed the current mayor at the time, lost. And to a woman, the first-ever woman mayor. Her name was Jane Byrne and they were heady times for a new Chicago. Until it wasn’t.
Just four years after Jane Byrne’s victory, she ran for reelection. But now she was the Democratic machine’s candidate. Sorta. Richie Daley, son of Da Mayor, Richard J. Daley, was running as well. Surely one of them would win. But then, again, something seismic happened in Chicago. Both candidates lost. And to a black. His name was Harold Washington. (Washington would go on to win the general election against Republican Bernie Epton.) Tragically, Washington died during his second term of office. But suffice to say Harold had limited success in transforming the city during his tenure.
In 1989, Richie Daley became mayor and held that office until 2011. Even with the strong support of a vast majority of Chicagoans and the business community, some of the major problems that plagued the city worsened. As many would revel in the singular downtown and lakefront, violent crimes increased and education declined in the poorest neighborhoods. It was easy to believe that there were still two Chicagos. And for some time it seemed no one was noticing that the city was facing an ever-increasing and crushing financial burden: mounting debt and underfunded pensions.
In 2011, enter wonder boy, Rahm Emanuel, truly one of the brightest and craftiest political minds ever. As his second term progressed, he had had enough and announced he would not run for reelection, not that he would have won anyway. No doubt he was tired of being pummeled for all the unappealing choices he had to make in trying to right a city on constant edge, financially and socially.
This week, not unlike the elections of 1979 and 1983, something seemingly seismic happened again in Chicago. It wasn’t so much that the city elected its first black woman mayor, who also happens to be the first gay mayor; it was the scope of her victory, garnering over 70% of the vote. It is difficult to imagine a more stunning mandate. Congratulations to Lori Lightfoot. But pardon me for not being overly expectant about her righting the ship of this great city on the lake. We have been here before, only this time it’s worse.