• Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
  • Chuy Garcia pictured not too far behind Rahm Emanuel.

Next month Chicago chooses a mayor who will be either a Latino former right-hand man of Chicago’s first black mayor or a Jewish former right-hand man of America’s first black president. Where’s the Irish candidate from Bridgeport, the Slav with headquarters on Archer Avenue or Milwaukee? Nowhere to be found.

When Richard J. Daley ran Chicago with an iron fist, candidates with these credentials couldn’t have been imagined by Chicago’s progressive fringe. Today’s progressives take the election in stride and jump on each other over who should win it. “Historically, I think progressives and liberals often turn on our own,” says a friend of mine who’d rather be called “pro-Chicago” than “pro-Emanuel.” “Rahm is certainly progressive. But he has had to make tough decisions . . . and when that happens, progressives often savage their own for not being ‘pure enough.'”

Wonders a lawyer active in Harold Washington’s 1983 campaign, “By what definition is Rahm a progressive?”

A lot of people I know would ask that. But Emanuel is hardly the kind of machine creature who ran the city under Richard J. back in the day. He’s an outsider who sought power, acquired power, and knew what to do with it once he had it. It’s the same arc that would be followed by a lot of seething independents from the 70s who wanted in on the action. Today a few are one percenters.

Ask the comrades of old who they’re voting for this time around and, in the best tradition of internecine combat, you’re met with not only disagreement but exasperated anger. As in, they just don’t get it! “As we know, Rahm is not a warm fuzzy,” says the friend quoted above (who knows Emanuel socially). “He is arrogant and sometimes profane. But he has worked his butt off to try to save what is basically a bankrupt city and he has run a clean administration. He knows that the way to increase our tax revenue is to bring new businesses into the city which provide both jobs and tax revenue. But some people see his courting of these businesses as ‘siding with the fat cats.’ They don’t understand. . . . . I truly worry about our city if Chuy gets elected.”

But other progressives say that what they understand is that Garcia is a smart and righteous homeboy and Emanuel’s a rootless jerk. A friend who’s been at dinner parties with the mayor says it’s a little unfathomable how hard Emanuel makes it even in a cozy social setting to put up with him. Emanuel says as much in a new TV commercial. “They say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness,” says the mayor, staring serenely into the camera. “I’m living proof of that. I can rub people the wrong way, or talk when I should listen. I own that.”

A friend who once ran for alderman in the 43rd Ward back when the ward was thought of as not merely independent but insurgent (she lost) thinks this is a terrific commercial. Her husband, a doctor, mutters as he watches, “And he’s going to be any different going forward?” I don’t think Emanuel is even pretending he’ll be different. He’s billing himself as Chicago’s own horse’s ass, whose “greatest strength” gets things done for Chicago while his “greatest weakness” is a minor personality disorder that just takes more getting used to.

Yet even the friend who admires the commercial announced at a dinner party I attended that she was seriously considering a primary vote for Garcia. A dumbfounded developer at the table, a Rahm man who’s put plenty of money where his mouth is, told her she was nuts. My friend stuck to her guns: like a lot of other people I know, she justified a primary vote for Garcia as a vote for the runoff that would make Emanuel have to earn a second term. I heard this explanation so many times—including from my own mouth—that I wondered if Garcia would get any of these votes at all in round two.

Now I’m beginning to wonder if that explanation was a kind of bridge rationale making it easier for the practical person every aging idealist believes he’s become to vote for Garcia anyway. Now Garcia looks more mayoral simply for having survived round one, and a second vote for him might be easier to cast than the first one was. I don’t know what kind of audience the TV debates will attract, but I keep talking to friends who say that, personally, the debates will seal the deal with Garcia or eliminate him.

But let me wonder in a postscript if a more important factor in the runoff will be the date it’s held. There’s no bloc of voters Emanuel has offended more than the CPS teachers, and April 7 falls in the middle of spring break for the public schools. Will teachers head out of town on vacations or stay around and work precincts?