Rage Against the Machine: On February 5, a few local elections saw winds of change

On January 31, the Chicago Reader ran a feature exploring the local elections taking place on Super Tuesday. The message of change dominating the presidential primary was also infecting local races, the Reader argued, and for the first time in a long time, true reformers had a chance in local elections. While the results were mixed–few newcomers won–a few elections affecting the South Side and the city at large showed some cracks in Chicago’s vaunted political machine. More interesting, the winds of change came not from political outsiders, but from emerging power establishments and insurgent insiders. We examine some of the most interesting races and find that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anita Álvarez, Cook County State’s Attorney
The mother is a complicated figure in Mexican society. In his essay “Sons of La Malinche,” Octavio Paz elucidates a few of her manifestations: there is la Llorona, the suffering virgin mother; la Virgen de Guadalupe, symbol of indigeneity and protector of the poor Mexican masses; and la Chingada, passive victim of violent rape on a cosmic scale, humiliated and inert.

Democratic nominee for Cook County prosecutor, daughter of Mexican immigrants, and Pilsen native Anita Álvarez is more than familiar with many of these roles. Álvarez made her name as a state prosecutor by avenging la Chingada: “Girl X,” of the case the State of Illinois vs. Patrick Sykes, in which Sykes, a resident of the Cabrini-Green public housing complex, lured 9-year-old Toya Currie into his apartment and proceeded to rape, beat, strangle, and poison her with roach spray, leaving her wheelchair-bound, blind, and mute for the rest of her life. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Currie is “totally dependent, physically” and her condition will only worsen with time.

Álvarez was the one who broke through to Currie, convincing her to testify against Sykes, who is now serving 120 years in prison for his crime. Taking on the role of la Virgen de Guadalupe, protector of orphans, Álvarez learned the “Eye Gaze System” of communication, where Currie nods in response to the alphabet in order to spell words out, so she could build up trust with Currie. The two remain in contact, and Álvarez went to her grade school graduation. It’s not exactly the sort of emotional response you would expect from a state prosecutor, but Álvarez wants to change people’s ideas of what a prosecutor is and should do–and this rang true with voters sick of years of scandal and abuse.

Arguably, Álvarez’s mothering tendencies reaped concrete rewards: Girl X’s testimony is widely believed to be the deciding factor in the case against Sykes. The message is that “soft” factors like the ability to empathize and listen well can be just as important as aggressiveness and relentlessness, traditional attributes of a good macho prosecutor. Álvarez makes it clear that she wants to give another dimension to prosecuting in Cook County. To the Chicago Tribune, she said, “You can do this job and you can be tough when you have to be tough in court, but I think you have to have a soft side, you have to be sensitive [because] you are dealing with people who are experiencing some of the most horrific things.” She also spoke of “the need to hire and promote more minority and female prosecutors to bridge the gulf between local law enforcement and communities, especially young people who mistrust the authorities.”

Álvarez, who does not shy away from advertising herself as an overprotective mother of four in campaign ads, takes her role a step further: the mother-from-hell who will destroy the lives of anyone who harms the innocent, and that has gotten her results. But when facing five men as her opponents in the primary race, Álvarez’s gender has been singled out as both the reason she won and the reason she’s not qualified for the job. The Tribune noted that she “relied heavily” on her husband for campaign funds, and the Sun-Times refers to her husband’s donation of around $640,000 as the “turning point” in her campaign. Third-place winner Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin grumpily noted that “It helped [Álvarez] being the only woman in the race, and the money from her husband helped her get on TV in the last week.” It’s hard to miss the implication that she couldn’t have done it without the strong arms of her husband holding her up, or with “soccer moms” foolishly voting with their estrogen. As an insider with much experience in the scandal-ridden Cook County State’s Attorney Office, it would be hard for Álvarez to come off as the candidate of reform. But if nothing else, she’s breaking down the doors of the good ol’ boys club, and they aren’t happy in the least. (Katie Buitrago)

Will Burns, 26th District State Representative
The 26th State Representative District hugs the lakefront. It has its source in the Near North and runs through the Loop all the way down to 51st Street. There it dodges most of Hyde Park by continuing southwards to the west of Ellis Avenue, severing the Hospitals from the rest of the University, until it ends abruptly around 75th. This is one of the more diverse cross-cuts of Chicago–public housing and financial district skyscrapers, shoreline and Millennium Park. The 26th overlaps with Obama’s old 13th Senate district, where he got his political start back in 1996, and for the past few months the area has once again been the site of fierce rhetoric and campaigning.

The word is that Springfield, where the Illinois House of Representatives convenes, has had a rotten last few years. Few have anything nice to say about Elga Jeffries, the incumbent Representative of the 26th who fought for (and lost) her seat on February 5.

Her four competitors included Paul Chadha, an attorney and professor at Northwestern, Phillip Jackson, a former official of Chicago Public Schools and former head of the Chicago Housing Authority, businessman Kenny Johnson, and Illinois Senate President aide Will Burns. They all pushed the same issues, to varying degrees–education, transit, health care, development, gun control–and they all shared the same framings: “I’m going to change the way politics are played at the Capitol, but I have the experience and connections to get things done.” Given the number of players, the campaigns were heated. Glossy mailings flooded the streets, computers dialed irked residents, endorsements were conspicuously flaunted, and no less than three of the five candidates claimed to have the numbers on their side, simultaneously. When the ballot storm settled, Burns was proclaimed the victor by a margin of 1000 votes.

So who is Will Burns? The thirtysomething, who is married with children and lives in Hyde Park, is a University of Chicago alumnus. His campaign material was heavy on three things: his commitment to fighting gun violence and improving education, his connection to “Our Next President,” and his various endorsements. He was a former staffer for State Senator-era Barack Obama, as well as for the Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, Jr., for whom he developed legislation and policy. While the Obama glow surely helped (and Burns, like all the other candidates, was explicit in his donning the mantle of “Change”), so did his high-profile endorsements, including State Senator Kwame Raoul, four Aldermen (including Toni Preckwinkle), a host of organizations, unions, political mainstays, and the big bad Mayor Daley. Daley has historically kept away from endorsements, probably to stave off age-old allegations of Machine-ing. So of course this begs the question of Burns’ affiliation, and of its possible repercussions.

But this question, of to what extent Burns is a Machine guy, and therefore of whether he will be capable of any meaningful reform in the needed places, will not be answered by his overall performance, which looks promising. Rather, it will be visible in his actions on divisive South Side and city issues such as the ultimate fate of public housing residents, the competing approaches to (and problems of) development, the looming Olympic bid, and ballooning property taxes, where straying from the Democratic party line might be in the best interests of his constituency and of his brand new slice of the city. (Juan-Pablo Velez)

Sandi Jackson, 7th Ward Committeeman
Nearly one year ago to this day, Sandi Jackson was elected to the Chicago City Council as an alderman of the 7th Ward. Her ascent was heralded as a welcome change in the machinations of the Chicago Daley machine, the system of favors kept running by the likes of good Mr. Daley, former Cook County Board President John Stroger, current Cook County Board President (and fortunate son) Todd Stroger, and ex-Cook County Commissioner William Beavers. In fact, it was Beavers’s daughter, Darcel, who was trounced by Jackson in the competition for the alderman seat. Darcel had been given the position–once held by her father–in an elaborate deal that gave Big Daddy Beavers Stroger’s old position as County Commissioner, gave Big Daddy Stroger’s Board President position to Little Stroger, and gave Little Beavers the alderman position. But it wasn’t too long before Mr. Beavers’s nepotistic bubble was summarily burst.

If the conclusion to the first paragraph left you puzzled and a bit disgruntled, then you can count yourself among the constituents of the 7th Ward who no doubt felt the same way upon discovering that the public servant who was supposed to be serving as their representative was none other than another surname-established Chicago crony who they did not, in fact, vote into office at all. And for Sandi Jackson, that was the proverbial last straw. “Our [African-American] ancestors fought long and hard to get the right to vote,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2006, “And to have people selected for you time and time again is discouraging.”

So Jackson, a former TV reporter and then-deputy political director of training for the Democratic National Committee, decided to take on Darcel Beavers herself. In the process, she got the support of such venerable institutions as the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Federation of Labor, not to mention popular presidential candidate Mr. Barack Obama. And come Election Day, she won handily, taking home about fifty-seven percent of the vote to Beavers’ thirty-four percent.

Jackson ran on a number of platforms, including economic development, education reform, and improvements in breast cancer research legislation. But her main attraction to voters was most likely the break from backdoor politics her election would represent. And indeed, she has been a break from the vilified family ties of Daley’s machine. That is not to say, however, that she is a break from political family dynasties in general. If her last name seems familiar, it’s not just because there are a million Jacksons out there: she’s the wife of Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., and daughter-in-law of the (in)famous Reverend Jesse Jackson.

To say that Mrs. Jackson benefited from her family ties would be irrelevant, and a moot statement in general. To separate her general appeal from any potential family recognition influence would be an impossible endeavor, and one that is probably not worth looking into. And of course, her family members have supported her in her campaign. Just last December, Jackson, Jr., wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune blasting the Strogers and William Beavers, attacking their dubious political methodology under the headline “Legacy of tax-fed patronage must end.” And in his own attempt to derail their corruption, Jackson, Jr., had planned to challenge Daley for the Democratic candidacy in the next mayoral contest, at least until the Democrats captured the majority in the House, lending his current political position greater significance.

On Sandi’s part, she’s been quick to downplay the rivalry between the traditional Daley political machine and her own family’s rising political clout. In the same December 2006 Chicago Sun-Times article, she stated that “There is no feud between the Jacksons and the Daleys. I think that’s largely a media creation.” Nevertheless, the heat intensified when she recently beat out Mr. William Beavers himself in this month’s race for the 7th Ward’s Democratic Committeeman position. Clearly, her own family ties have not worried Chicago’s constituents to a great extent, considering she received nearly seventy-five percent of the vote. And, regardless of the extent to which her reforms have been enacted, the mere break that she symbolizes from the typical institution signifies that the voters may be getting fed up with traditional Chicago politics.

To be sure, there’s plenty of precedent for successful political families. Just look at the John Adamses, or the Clintons, or even the Bushes (at least as far as success can be judged by simply being elected). But after a while, voters tend to get tired of seeing the same established family names on the ballot, over and over again–a predicament Hillary can surely attest to. Whether or not Sandi and her Jackson brethren will face the same dilemma remains to be seen–right now voters are probably just thankful to be rid of the old rusty political machine. But South Siders be cautious at the potential sight of further Jacksons on future ballots to come. After all, all corruption aside, one family-entrusted political machine doesn’t necessarily deserve another. (Sean Redmond)