Rahm Emanuel heads into a runoff April 7 in his bid for a second term as mayor of Chicago. He’s the favorite going in, having won 46 percent in the Feb. 24 first round against longtime local officeholder Chuy Garcia’s 34 percent and topping 50 percent in recent polls.
Emanuel, President Obama’s first White House chief of staff and architect of the Democrats’ 2006 takeover of the House, is politically astute, energetic and profane. Given all that, it’s surprising that his support is down from the 55 percent he won in the first round in February 2011.
And it’s interesting that his strongest support comes from gentry liberals: high-income, high-education whites. In February, he won absolute majorities in only eight of Chicago’s 50 wards, six on the Lakefront running north from the Loop almost to the city limits and two just inland.
This comes 50 years after gentry liberals first emerged as a key electoral bloc in big city elections, with the election of then-Republican John Lindsay as mayor of New York in 1965. Gentry liberals gave him big margins in Manhattan, enough to overcome losses in the city’s other four boroughs that year and again in 1969.
This was something new. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1963 study of New York’s voting blocs, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” has chapters on Irish, Italians, Jews, blacks and Puerto Ricans — but nothing on gentry liberals. James Q. Wilson’s pioneering study of Manhattan’s reform movement, “The Amateur Democrat,” came out in 1966, just after Lindsay won.
Before the mid-1960s, gentry liberals were, like Lindsay, Republicans — liberal on civil rights, internationalist rather than isolationist on foreign policy, willing to accept the New Deal but suspicious of labor unions and big city political machines.
Lindsay constructed a new coalition of gentry liberals and blacks, setting up a police civilian review board and claiming credit for preventing a riot in Harlem. He showed disdain for ethnic and middle-class whites, a “new snobbery” as I called it at the time.
Lindsay’s policies played a major part in a negative national trend, as crime and welfare dependency roughly tripled in the 1965-75 decade, and New York City teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Other cities with fewer strengths went into death spirals, like my native Detroit.
The gentry liberal-black alliance later split up in New York, as gentry liberals supported and blacks opposed the brilliantly successful crime-fighting policies of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. The city felt free to elect the far-left Bill de Blasio in 2013, but turnout was lower than in any city election since 1929, and de Blasio hired Giuliani’s first police commissioner.
Chicago took a different course. Richard J. Daley, mayor from 1955 to 1976, juggled different ethnic groups, winning with black votes against Polish challengers early on and with majorities from all-white “bungalow wards” against candidates supported by blacks and gentry liberals later.
In 1983, Congressman Harold Washington beat his son, Richard M. Daley, with a coalition of blacks and gentry liberals. But after Washington’s death, Daley was elected in 1989. His base was the bungalow wards, and he reached out shrewdly to Hispanics and gentry liberals. In 1992, I asked Bill Daley what his father would have thought of his brother marching in the gay rights parade. “Our father,” he said, “always said that if a group was big enough to control a ward you should pay attention to them.”
Obama’s original political model was Harold Washington. But Daley blocked the way, and Chicago’s elite gentry liberals shunted him off to less important jobs out of town.
Today the balance has changed. Gentry-liberal Chicago is expanding inward from Lake Michigan. Only four white-majority bungalow wards are left in the northwest, out by O’Hare, and one in the southwest. The black population is not growing, as blacks head to the southern suburbs and to Atlanta. The Hispanic vote, growing toward its potential of one-third of the electorate, is Chuy Garcia’s political base.
Rahm Emanuel is scrambling for votes in bungalow and black wards that went for third and fourth candidates in February and will probably get enough to win. That’s important for Chicago, but not so significant for the nation, because the central city electorate is contracting. The number on Richard J. Daley’s license plate was 708,222 — the number of votes he got in April 1955. In February 2015, Rahm Emanuel got 218,217.