The lesson we can learn from Chicago's "nonpartisan" election

Chicago wrapped up its mayoral election yesterday with predictable results. Rahm Emanuel will serve another term leading a city which is in more trouble than you can shake a stick at. The vanquished foe, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, made a valiant effort but came up short by more than ten percent. For much of America, however, there was something strange about this process which they wouldn’t recognize in their home towns.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel outdistanced a lesser-known challenger to win a second term and the daunting prize of steering the third-most-populous U.S. city away from financial collapse.

Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, had 56 percent and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia had 44 percent with 96 percent of precincts reporting Tuesday, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

The campaign, the first runoff since Chicago switched to nonpartisan elections in 1999, was shadowed by the prospect of insolvency. With the city burdened by $20 billion of unfunded pension debts, Emanuel has scant opportunity to celebrate.

In 1995 a new law was passed which said that “candidates for mayor . . . no longer would run under party labels in Chicago.” It’s not an entirely unique feature in American politics. Judges who must stand for election are frequently forced to run without a party label and that’s probably not a terrible idea. But cities embrace these non partisan elections for their executives and legislators in many places. (You can see a list of the largest cities and how they handle their elections here. Non partisan races are the rule rather than the exception.)

I haven’t exactly been a cheerleader for the two party system because it probably causes nearly as many problems as it solves, but I’ve generally advocated for more parties, not the elimination of them. But the parties do more than simply provide fundraising and infrastructure. They respond to the people who sign on with them (hopefully) and adopt platforms which spell out general outlines of principles and beliefs. There are entirely different theories of governance out there and having a mechanism where voters can evaluate them is a worthy goal. So what happens when you eliminate them from the electoral process as Chicago has done?

Because of the overwhelming power of the Democrats in the Windy City, things weren’t exactly competitive before the rules change. The last time a Republican held the office was in the 1920s. During the last “partisan” election in 1995, Richard Daley took more than 60% of the vote against an independent (read “Democrat”) candidate, Roland Burris, who got 36%. The Republican in the race, Raymond Wardingley, scored a whopping 3%. In fact, the last time there was an old fashioned showdown between the two major parties was 1983. But shockingly, when that did manage to happen, the Republican – Bernard Epton – managed to score 48% of the vote and came within three points of defeating Democrat Harold Washington.

So why does this matter? Because Chicago is facing significant problems beyond the budget deficit and pension problems which dominated much of the debate this year. In 2014 the city was actually “celebrating” the fact that the number of murders finally dropped below 500. Their school system is a mess and there are still sections of the city in disrepair with insufficient police forces to maintain order. Last year they managed to get their unemployment rate down to 6.2% (still above the national average) but part of that is explained because the nation’s 3rd largest city has lost nearly 300K in population over the last decade while other cities have grown.

Chicago as a lot of systemic problems which have been around for ages. And all of those troubles have taken root and expanded under the stewardship of Democrats. If the city had a two party primary system and both a Republican and a Democrat could reach the general election, there is at least a chance that half the citizens might become fed up enough with the status quo to take a look at the other candidate. (After all, look what happened in 1983.) But under the current system, they essentially just have a Democrat primary which serves as the general election. The Republicans are drowned out by Democrat power structure during the multi-person scrum and never have the chance to reach a one on one contest in the general. This may be one of the few excuses available to favor a two party system.

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