Year in Review: Chicago Came to a Political Crossroads in 2016
By: Defender Senior Writer, Mary L. Datcher and Defender Contributing Writer, Erick Johnson
The marathon of political mayhem has brought an onslaught of surprises along the way to kick off the year with non-stop coverage of the primaries on the national and local fronts.
Democratic presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was off to a great start, raising close to $1.2 billion since her official announcement in the summer of 2015. The rat race of contenders on the Republican side read like “Who’s Who” of the conservative party, all of which hadn’t imagined that their biggest challenger would be reality show celebrity and real estate tycoon Donald Trump.
The Clinton name is familiar within the African-American community and still carries credibility among die-hard Democrats that held an allegiance to Bill Clinton’s days as our 42nd U.S. president. Unfortunately, his wife, who stood by his side since the beginning of his political career in Arkansas politics, was not met with the same fanfare.
Hillary Clinton, a native of Park Ridge and tough as nails, fought a hard race against her critics — traveling several times to Illinois preparing for a primary win. Vermont Sen., Bernie Sanders, the oldest candidate in the race, captured the largest following of young and progressive voters since Barack Obama’s candidacy.
Sanders’ loss to Clinton in the election primaries was a sharp wedge in the party advocates that pressured her to lean toward social issues, such as criminal-justice reform, police misconduct, enforcing bank regulation, reducing prison privatization and student college debt that weighed heavily among minorities and young millennials.
As Clinton triumphed toward the Democratic Party endorsement and Trump with Republicans, Americans witnessed a regurgitation of racism that was brought to the surface.
We understood the nature of distaste for Trump as Chicago’s history of “no-holds” barred protests shut down Trump’s attempt to hold a rally at the UIC Pavilion.
Trump’s honorary street sign near his hotel on Wabash Avenue was removed after city leaders grew angry to his negative references to Chicago as a city infested with gun violence.
Every day, the media coverage centered on election polls. Surrogates representing both sides made their cases to television viewers why their candidate wasn’t a crook, a criminal, a liar, or a racist.
Between presidential debates, repeated speculation about Trump’s tax returns, President Bill Clinton’s past extra-marital affairs and FBI Director James Comey’s statements about Secretary Clinton’s email server, it was enough doubt to steer voters away from a Clinton victory. Traditional Dem-friendly states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan turned red.
Although Clinton won the popular vote overwhelmingly by over 2 million. Trump won the electoral college with 304 votes over her 227 — sealing his win as our 45th U.S. president.
Moving forward, it will be a hard road as we witness President-elect Trump’s unconventional decisions in selecting cabinet members that have little or no experience in the public sector. We have scratched our heads in disbelief by one appointment held by an African-American — heart surgeon and former presidential Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The Black community began the process of grieving a long time ago, believing that our first Black president would somehow raise the red, green and black flag on the White House lawn and declare that reparations be awarded for the racial genocide that took place against so many of our ancestors in the last 400 years. So, we accept our fate, sign up for Obamacare, thank God gas prices have dropped, and find out a way to pay our student loan debt while finding a decent-paying job.
How Dorothy Brown Won the War
Candidates who choose to run for office in districts that represent a majority in Cook County rely heavily on the support of the county’s Democratic Party.
However, when speculation centered around the business dealings of Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Dorothy Brown’s husband, Dr. Benton Cook, sparking a federal investigation, some party members removed their support.
An attorney and certified CPA, Brown entered the clerk’s office in 2000. Her tenacity to work and her dedication in building relationships over the years have earned her uncontested loyalty throughout Cook County, repeatedly winning her seat by over 70 percent.
She won without the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, which also included a proposed resolution to challenge the office’s role as an elected position to an appointed one sponsored by Cook County Board Commissioner Larry Suffredin.
The public’s dismay at this attempt shelved the idea with the additional support of long-time allies Congressman Danny K. Davis, Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin with other business and faith leaders in tow.
Her primary election victory against 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris paved the way to her fifth-term win in November.
No Budget, No Peace
In the history of Illinois legislation, we have never witnessed a stand-off of this nature regarding the priority of passing a state budget.
As we move into the second year since Gov. Bruce Rauner’s role as the highest state official, the battle between the Democratic majority General Assembly and the Republican governor has unraveled the budgetary thread that has kept so many social programs together.
According to a report by the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, Illinois faces a record $7.8 billion deficit. As former Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger exits, the state is hemorrhaging at the seams with programs being slashed and shutting down altogether.
Now, newly elected Susana Mendoza will enter the office as state comptroller, managing a possible $10 million backlog of bills.
The temporary education funding for CPS schools from the governor brought an onslaught of criticism from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union — putting more financial pressure on the budget to meet certain pension obligations.
In our Black and Brown communities, violence continues to rise and lack of youth programs force more young people to idle in the devil’s playground with nowhere to go.
Nothing was ever more impactful than the child care and home care service providers whose jobs have been threatened by the budget stalemate. One long-time state representative felt the heat when he decided to miss an important General Assembly vote that would’ve bypassed Gov. Rauner’s opposition to pass a child care credit, allowing 30,000 children from low-income households in day care assistance.
The absence catapulted into State Rep. Ken Dunkin’s election loss to Democratic Party-endorsed Juliana Stratton. The legislator launched a campaign that revolved around his independence of ”plantation-type” politics with Speaker Mike Madigan at the helm. With a $5 million war chest provided by the support of Gov. Rauner, the 3rd District was overrun with printed collateral.
Andrea Zopp was not a household name before the U.S Senate race . Her extensive experience as a hot shot attorney at companies such as Sears and Exelon as general counsel propelled her into running the Chicago Urban League for five years as CEO/president.
To the business community, her name rings loud and her relationships in some of the key power circles encouraged the New York native to run for the seat that Carol Mosey Braun and President Barack Obama once held.
Her toughest Democratic challenger was Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran who was injured in the line of duty. The former U.S. director of Veterans Affairs is highly decorated and built up a strong war chest with the support of women advocacy groups such as Emily’s List.
With little presence in the African-American community and limited open debates among the other candidates, Duckworth was at the top of the ballot and won the majority of the Black wards. Over the campaign, Zopp had gradually grown awareness among Black voters, but the popularity of State Sen. Napoleon Harris also split votes — pushing Duckworth farther toward the finish line ahead of the pack.
Throughout the campaign, Zopp showed a great affinity for the community, and as the race progressed, so did the many young women she’s mentored throughout the years. Toward the final leg of the campaign, both Democratic candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, and Andrea Zopp joined forces to show public support of each other’s campaign run.
In the end, Duckworth won the primary and general election, but the Black community made it clear that our vote wasn’t going to be that easy to attain in the general election with work and presence.
Zopp went on to become the first African-American woman to be named deputy mayor of the city of Chicago, appointed by Mayor Emanuel.
Black Chicago at a Political Crossroads
With new political leaders, a fresh police oversight agency, a new Cook County state’s attorney and national upscale stores flourishing in the Black neighborhoods, 2017 has become a pivotal year for change, one that has the potential to make 2017 even greater.
2016 was a time when Black activism rose to greater heights. Fueling this spirit was once again the case of Laquan McDonald, a story that many activists will not let City Hall forget. As the case makes its way through pretrial proceedings, the death of McDonald continues to redefine Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s leadership and dramatically reshape Chicago, perhaps more than any other police shooting in the city’s history.
Fall of Dunkin, Alvarez
Political veteran and State Rep. Ken Dunkin’s 14-year career came to an end as he was ousted at the polls by challenger Julianna Stratton in the March Primary election. Dunkin drew heavy criticism after going against his own party by siding with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget cuts to child care and social problems that benefitted thousands of low-income Chicago residents. It was a high-stakes race that became a proxy war between Rauner and his political adversary, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who backed Stratton. The highly publicized race also drew heavy political contributions for both candidates. In an unprecedented move, Obama publicly endorsed Stratton, sealing the fate of her opponent
During the primary, voters also ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who faced public backlash for her botched handling of the Laquan McDonald case. For Black Chicago, it was a major victory and a statement to a controversial and defiant official who for years angered Black leaders who repeatedly call for resignation.
Alvarez’s successor, Kim Foxx, a former tenant in the defunct Cabrini-Green housing project, has moved into her sprawling office as she prepares to usher in a new era of transparency after years of distrust and disillusionment among Black Chicago.
In her new role, Foxx promised to be more involved in cases and has vowed to implement a more expedient process in bringing charges to police officers accused of using excessive force. Alvarez waited 13 months to charge Officer Jason Van Dyke with first-degree murder for shooting McDonald 16 times. In an interview with the Chicago Defender in December, Foxx said she plans to put protocols in place to achieve greater transparency and restore confidence in a justice system that many believe has favored police officers who police with impunity.
Power of Preckwinkle
In 2016, the rise of Stratton and Foxx signaled the emergence of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as a powerful player in Chicago politics. Preckwinkle publicly backed the two candidates to unseat two incumbents who many voters wanted out of office. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in February, Preckwinkle sat next to former President Bill Clinton in a scene that some political pundits viewed as a shift in political power from Mayor Emanuel to Preckwinkle.
As head of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Preckwinkle in October led the effort to raise the minimum wage to $13 by 2020 for workers in Cook County. The raise would come in gradual increases and follows a similar move by the Chicago City Council, which passed its own minimum wage hike in 2015.
In November 2016, amid lingering weariness from a string of taxes, Preckwinkle managed to pass the unpopular sugar beverage tax, which would cost 1 cents per ounce on soft drinks in stores in Cook County. Preckwinkle said the tax will not only help reduce obesity among consumers, but it will generate $224 million a year and cover a $174.3 million budget deficit in the county’s $4.9 billion budget for 2017.
At City Hall, Mayor Emanuel led an effort to pass a new checkout bag tax that will charge customers everywhere 7 cents per plastic bag they use to pack their grocery items. The tax also applies to all mom and pop stores. City officials hope the tax will discourage customers from using disposal bags, which stay intact for years and harm the environment. Chicago joins other cities that have passed a similar ordinance.
In the general election Nov. 8, the fate of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds was sealed after voters approved a referendum that called for the elimination of the predominantly Black office, whose responsibilities merged with the larger Cook County Clerk’s office in 2020. Black commissioners on the Cook County Board tried to prevent the referendum from being put on the ballot, saying the proposal was racist. But they were outnumbered as the board voted 10-5 in favor of the referendum, saying the merger would save the county between $800,000 and $2 million a year.
Aldermen in Trouble
For some Black incumbents, 2016 was a challenging year. In February, Ald. Will Burns (4thWard) abruptly resigned to take an executive job with the travel accommodation company Airbnb. Residents in his ward cheered after months of complaints about Burns, who revoked their parking permits and fell out of favor with community leaders for his handling of the Dyett High School controversy.
On Dec. 14, Ald. Willie Cochran was indicted on corruption charges after prosecutors said he looted a charity fund to pay thousands of dollars in personal expenses. The 15-count indictment from a federal grand jury also includes 11 counts of wire fraud, two counts of extortion and a bribery charge. At his arraignment on Dec. 23, Cochran pleaded not guilty.