Chicago has enjoyed a lot of attention the last couple of years thanks to the White Sox fan in the White House. A couple of examples: On the left, HuffPo has a “Chicago” section on its front page, and on the right, major conservative publications like the Weekly Standard have dedicated thousands of words to detailing the way politics are conducted in the Windy City. Today, New Geography and Real Clear Politics have must-reads about Chi-town. New Geography examines the legacy of the Mob, which was often synonymous with the First Ward Democratic Machine, and how it’s ironic that President Obama ran his campaign and celebrated his victory in this ward. RCP looks at how Republican Congressman Mark Kirk can win the Illinois Senate seat by running strong in metro Chicago.
If there’s one common takeaway from both articles is that’s Chicago politics have long been dominated by Democratic ethnics – Roti, Daley, Blagojevich, Giannoulis – that have a lock-tight system of turning out votes in the city but that don’t necessary play well in the rural parts of the state. Perhaps this can be said for a few states, but in Chicago, the scale of power and the scope of the plotlines just seem to be mightier.
New Geography blogger Steve Bartin tells the story of how Al Capone’s gang took overthe First Ward Democratic Machine in the late ‘20’s. Later, in the ‘50’s, it was “made man” John D’Arco who became First Ward Democratic Committeeman and was elected to the City Council. When D’Arco stepped down because of FBI heat, "the Chicago Mob sent Fred Roti, one of their most effective high ranking made members, to the City Council." Roti served on the Council with distinction for years until being indicted on RICO charges in 1990.
Bartin implies that the legacy was passed on to Alexi Giannoulis, the leading Democrat in the contest for Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, who, he says, “is so tainted by Chicago Mob allegations that Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Mike Madigan refused to endorse him in a past race for State Treasurer.” Which brings us back to Kirk.
Kirk is from a district in affluent, suburban Lake County north of Chicago that gave Obama over 61% but has reelected Republican Kirk since 2000. RCP blogger Sean Trende suggests that the GOP can win statewide campaigns two ways in Illinois: By running up the margins in rural areas outside Chicago, or by doing well in metro Chicago and the collar counties. Trende think Kirk can win with the latter strategy.
Kirk is moderate on social issues but generally conservative economic issues, so “he won't easily be parodied as an ally of Southern religious conservatives,” notes Trend. He also suggests that Giannoulis will likely be tagged downstate as the “consummate Chicago insider: ethnic name, Chicago [politician], liberal politics.”
The two blog posts today focused on Chicago corruption and Kirk's advantages, so neither one was particularly friendly for Giannoulis. For all I know, the Democratic nominee represents a fresh start for the state party, and it appears from some light research that he cut off payments to two "debt-ridden" and "politically-connected" hotels.
So in this sense, Giannoulis could represent a change of direction for an Illinois Democratic Party whose most prominent association behind Obama has been Blagojevich. And similarly, on the R side, Kirk's ascendency marks a shift in focus. The top Republican in the state was previously Denny Hastert, a guy who oversaw the DeLay Congress and corralled Bush legislation. Moderate Kirk would be a significant departure from that wing of the GOP.
Ultimately, this race is a departure from recent trends in Illinois politics, or a return to normalcy, depending on how you look at it. A moderate, suburban Republican is facing an ethic, Chicagoan Democrat. It’s the kind of race we’d see in here in elections around 1960, when Illinois was the most closely contested states in the nation. In that's year presidential election, Mayor Daley demonstrated the power of his GOTV machine. The question this time around, as always, may be can the Chicago Democrats spark the same kind of turnout as yesteryear?
This RCP map shows how Chicago has trended blue.