Chicago — The irony of the election of the first Jewish mayor in the nation’s third largest city is that his religion seemed not to matter much at all.
Rahm Emanuel made history by winning 55% of the vote February 22 to become Chicago’s next mayor, obviating the need for a run-off by blowing away the opposition. The man who once worked steps away from the Oval Office is now set to be this notoriously rough-and-tumble city’s first new mayor in more than two decades, and the fact that he’s Jewish enough to take his son to Israel for his bar mitzvah doesn’t seem to have played a role in his success.
Abner Mikva, a former congressman, federal judge, White House counsel to President Clinton and mentor to President Obama, said that Emanuel’s Jewishness was not a factor during the campaign. Even a reference to Emanuel as a “Wall Street Judas” — made by a local union leader at an opponent’s rally — backfired, gaining Emanuel sympathy rather than costing him support.
Mikva recalled a similar incident during Emanuel’s first run for the U.S. Congress in 2002, when a leader in a local Polish organization made an anti-Semitic comment about Emanuel. The slur reduced support for Emanuel’s opponent, Nancy Kaszak, despite Kaszak’s condemnation of the remark and her strong record of support for Jewish causes.
“I was backing Nancy in that race,” Mikva said during a telephone interview. “She was a protégé of mine.”
“She was mortified” by the remark, Mikva added.
In 1947, when Mikva began his political career, Chicago was home to more than 300,000 Jews, who were confined to the city by restrictive covenants that blocked them from moving into most suburbs. The Lawndale neighborhood on the West
Side had more than 110,000 Jews, a concentration that ensured that Jews were well represented in the Democratic machine of the city’s legendary “Boss,” Mayor Richard J. Daley. Jews who were loyal to Daley’s machine had access to patronage jobs and overwhelming support from the party if they were selected as candidates.
But anyone who entertained notions of independence was summarily dismissed. A stalwart opponent of the machine, Mikva was once told by a ward commiteeman: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” a story that is often repeated by President Obama to explain how Chicago’s politics worked.
Mikva said he was happy those days are gone. “There was a time when there was a large population in the city that was Jewish and when a large part of the Democratic Party was Jewish.”
He added later, “Today, candidates are not going to get elected because they’re Jewish. But they’re not going to not get elected because they’re Jewish, either.”
Mikva stayed neutral in the current mayoral race because young people from the not-for-profit organization he started, the Mikva Challenge, sponsored a candidates’ forum during the campaign.
Don Rose, a Jewish political adviser from a different era, came to a conclusion similar to Mikva’s. And said the relative unimportance of a candidate’s Jewishness is nothing new.
Rose played a critical role in advising Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first African American mayor after a racially charged 1983 campaign.But first, Washington had to run against Republican nominee Bernard Epton. Back then, Chicago still went through the formality of a partisan election, although the city had been reliably Democratic for decades, and whites rallied to Epton, who had adopted “Before It’s Too Late” as his campaign slogan.
Neither Epton’s prior record as a liberal nor the fact that he was Jewish made any difference to his supporters. In fact, Rose noted that more than 30% of the city’s Jews voted for Washington, while more than 90% of whites voted for Epton. Washington won with near-unanimous turnout from African Americans and strong support from Latinos.
“White Chicago voted for the Jewish Republican, which was astounding because he was a Republican, not because he was Jewish,” Rose said.
The Illinois General Assembly eliminated primaries for Chicago’s city elections in 1995, officially making the contest ‘non-partisan’ in a city that is still a Democratic stronghold.
Most of the city’s Jews left for the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated restrictive covenants. Jews today make up less than 3% of the city’s population. Among Orthodox and strongly pro-Israel voters, Emanuel’s connection to the Obama administration is viewed as a negative factor.
Rose pointed out that Emanuel did not run as a Jewish candidate and did not base his support in the city’s Jewish political organizations that regularly field candidates for state and local offices.
“Rahm may be motivated by Jewishness, but only in part. He talked about wanting to be the first Jewish Speaker of the House, and now he talks about being the first Jewish mayor — he said it to Charlie Rose and that was the end of it,” Don Rose said.
Emanuel’s experience — rather than his Jewishness — is the key reason businessman, philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser Jay Robert “J.B.” Pritzker supported him. Pritzker said the current Mayor Daley, a son of the previous Mayor Daley, carefully cultivated an image for Chicago as a global city, rather than the home of gangster Al Capone and basketball superstar Michael Jordan.
As the new mayor, Emanuel will inherit the city’s substantial business infrastructure as well as a city budget beset by underfunded liabilities and restive public employees. To balance previous budgets, the current Mayor Daley forced city workers to take unpaid days off and privatized a major toll road as well as the city’s parking meters. But voters were angered by the parking meter deal, and teachers unions, police officers and other public employees are loudly resisting further efforts to make them shoulder the burden of more cuts. While Daley has vowed to leave office with a balanced budget, he has largely depleted reserve funds that were meant to last for decades.
For business leaders like Pritzker, Emanuel has the skills set and the contacts that Chicago’s mayor needs to succeed. “This is not an election about a Jewish candidate,” he said.
“Chicago begs for two things right now. We have a dire need for strong leadership to the fill the vacuum that’s been left [by the mayor’s pending retirement]. The other thing is that Chicago is on the verge of being an internationally recognized city.”
“When I go to Beijing, being recognized as coming from a city that matters, that’s important,” Pritzker added. “Rahm is someone who has the ear of the current president and the former president.”
If Emanuel’s victory in Chicago shows that it is no big deal to be Jewish in American politics, Pritzker also warned that there is a danger in that reality for Democrats, who currently enjoy overwhelming support from Jews. A liberal whose major philanthropic endeavor is early childhood education, Pritzker ran as a Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in 1998 and was a major fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton as well as Barack Obama in the 2008 election. He said that Republicans are actively seeking Jewish support, both by taking a strong stand for Israel and by promoting Jews into high-profile positions, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“The Democratic Party is being challenged even today for the support of the Jews,” Pritzker said.
“The Republican Party has shifted from being mute on Israel or anti-Israel to being pro-Israel. Now, the No. 2 guy in the House of Representatives is a Jew who was elected by his peers. That matters to the broader Jewish community.”
Contact Ethan Michaeli at firstname.lastname@example.org