Photo: AP/Wide World

CHICAGO — At a union hall on the city’s West Side, two Chicagoans argued recently about next Tuesday’s mayoral election, which pits 10-year incumbent Mayor Richard M. Daley against Congressman Bobby Rush, a long-ago leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The first voter angrily denounced Daley for giving city jobs to private contractors who paid half the city rate. “But look what he’s done for my neighborhood and the computers in the schools,” the other voter replied. “You’ve got to admit he’s done a good job.”

It was an unexceptional debate — except that Daley’s critic was a white Democratic Party precinct worker, and his defender was a younger black woman. For the past two decades politics in Chicago has been polarized largely along racial lines. It was a black rebellion (abetted by Latinos and white liberals) against the old Democratic machine of Daley’s father, legendary “Boss” Richard J. Daley, that elected the progressive Harold Washington as the city’s first black mayor in 1983. After Washington’s death, the younger Daley became mayor in 1989 by inverting that coalition — uniting working-class white ethnics with Latinos and affluent white professionals.

Race has hardly disappeared as an issue in such matters as police brutality and hiring in the police and fire departments. But black anger no longer can sustain Rush’s candidacy, and Daley seems nearly unbeatable. He has a nearly 15-to-1 campaign cash advantage and all the incumbent benefits of economic good times: declining crime, rising revenues without having to resort to big tax-rate hikes, and booming housing and retailing, which is even spilling into long-stagnant black neighborhoods. Daley has invested disproportionately in the downtown and affluent lakefront neighborhoods, but he has also fixed streets, built schools and libraries, and helped subsidize moderate-income housing in neighborhoods throughout the city.

That helps explain why Daley’s share of the black vote rose from 6 percent in his initial mayoral bid to 28 percent four years ago. Moreover, Chicago today is no longer a study in black and white. While whites have declined to 38 percent of the city’s population over the past two decades, and the black share has held steady at just under 40 percent, the Latino and Asian communities have grown rapidly.

But what is most remarkable about that voter dialogue at the union hall is that citizens were debating politics at all. In the Washington years, politics not only rivaled basketball as a Chicago spectator sport; it was a sport of mass amateur participation. Since then, voter turnout in mayoral elections has plummeted by half — more so among blacks. The City Council has reverted to its classic role of compliancy and corruption. It offers only token opposition to Daley, who has been able to appoint 40 percent of the aldermen to their seats as a result of resignations and a steady stream of criminal convictions.

The once vibrant “independent” multiracial political movement of anti-machine progressive Democrats is now moribund. While traditional neighborhood organizations and advocacy groups on issues such as homelessness and the environment still abound, a number have lost their political edge.

Yet a progressive alternative to Daley could emerge in the future. Despite his party affiliation, Daley is closer politically to such Republican mayors as New York’s Rudolph Giuliani and L.A.’s Richard Rior-dan than he is to classic urban Democrats. He has not tried to reinvent the old machine. Instead he projects himself as a no-nonsense corporate-style manager who is pro-business and, as he once said, “pro-death.” He has made his career by being tough on crime, though his record as state’s attorney is coming back to haunt him. In recent weeks a black convict just two days away from his scheduled execution on murder charges brought under Daley was released from prison after another man confessed to the killing.

As mayor, Daley has crusaded against guns and launched an admirable community-policing initiative, but he has relied heavily on more repressive strategies such as sweeps of public-housing projects and an anti-loitering ordinance, both of which the courts overturned. Now he’s trying to resurrect police spying, which was banned in 1981 because of police abuse of legitimate political groups.

Like his Republican counterparts, Daley distrusts government and has pushed privatization of city services, even though one study showed that city savings were half of what Daley claimed. Daley fought a proposal to require all city contractors to pay a “living wage” of $7.60 an hour, only accepting a compromise last year as a cover to push through pay increases for himself and the City Council.

In recent years Chicago has been touted as a city on the rebound, as more middle-class singles and families have moved into the city or declined to move out; this in turn has led to an expansion of inner-city retail business. This turnabout was beginning before Daley took office, but he has cultivated the trend through an aggressive program of landscaping, tree planting, and decorating streets with new signs and flowerpots. However, he has done little to exploit the city’s federal-empowerment-zone designation, mainly because he refused to involve community groups sufficiently.

On the downside, gentrification and the destruction now under way of nearly half the city’s public-housing units have tightened the city’s affordable-housing crunch. As a result, many poor blacks are being pushed out of the city into desperately poor suburbs to the south.

Daley’s key political strategy has been to improve Chicago’s schools, once called the nation’s worst. The schools were a major cause of middle-class flight, and gave rise to a chorus of complaints over the quality of the area’s work force. Ten years ago, radical decentralization of school control unleashed a wave of creativity that led to some significant educational improvements. In 1995, the state Legislature gave Daley new powers over the schools, and his hand-picked leaders have instituted tougher testing standards for students and schools. The superintendent has directly intervened in failing schools. Students who fail standard tests even after summer school are held back to repeat a grade. Test scores have continued to improve, and the image of the Chicago schools has soared, with President Clinton touting the city’s policy of no “social promotions.”

But there is strong evidence that the policy of holding students back, rather than offering remedial teaching alongside promotion, simply increases the number of dropouts. School reformers, parent groups and many teachers are rebelling against re-centralization of control over education, which they contend will undermine the more fundamental improvements in education wrought through the original school reform.

More broadly, progressives criticize Daley for his insistence on centralized, corporate-style command of the city and his rejection of the kind of participatory democracy that Harold Washington had encouraged. Whether the focus is the schools, the police, economic development or nearly any other city policy, Daley’s initiatives have been weakened by his refusal to involve the city’s citizens and their organizations.

The challenge for progressives is to devise a new urban strategy that builds on citizen participation as a key to rebuilding the cities — fashioning a “machine of democracy” as an alternative both to Daley’s corporate management and to the long-faded Democratic machine of Chicago lore.

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