For a city with a political tradition as rich as Chicago’s, the field of mayoral candidates in the upcoming primaries and the general election beyond is a joke. As far as that goes, this field would be a laughing matter for a city with no political tradition whatsoever. Of course cynicism is all the rage right now, especially where politics is concerned, so that affecting a sharp-witted Roykoesque stoicism appears to be the only way to get through the day. Even a normally high-minded pol friend of ours described the Democratic primary as a battle between a joke, a bigger joke, and a potentially dangerous mystery. Yet the realization that there is, after all, some danger involved is important; it’s what puts the edge on a cynic’s fatalism. For those who can’t tell their candidates without a scorecard, the dangerous mystery is the one leading in the polls.

The joke is the one who just dropped out. A Jewish friend of ours refers to Alderman Larry Bloom as Walter Jacobson’s younger brother. Or is it older brother? Both appear to be adults, but they brandish personas about as well-developed as that of the average fifth-grader. That Bloom went through his campaign as the candidate with the best reputation in the general media is an indication of how bad things are. When Larry Bloom passes as the quixotic longhair, the man of high ideals, the alternatives have to be practically subhuman.

Bloom’s self-proclaimed campaign of racial harmony–as displayed in last week’s debate and elsewhere–was nothing more than a persistent statement of “let’s you and him fight,” so that he could then appear to be above the fray. The worse things got between Gene Sawyer and Rich Daley, the better for Bloom. The limitations of this argument ought to have been apparent, but they were so apparent in this case that they sometimes passed for wisdom among the city’s political commentators. Larry Bloom said that neither Sawyer nor Daley was capable of running the city; the fact was obvious. Larry Bloom was therefore a prophet, the designated Cassandra candidate. Of course Bloom was, at heart, no less jaded about his own chances, and so he played the same demographic games as his opponents. Politics on both the local and national levels appears to have descended to the slight talents of carving out a constituency and maintaining it, with polling the one essential tool of the art. That Bloom was aware of this was reflected by his persistent attacks on Daley and his kid-gloves treatment of Sawyer. Bloom the politician paid lip service to racial harmony, but Bloom the mayoral candidate realized that his black support had peaked and that his only hope was to siphon off Daley’s more progressive supporters. Of course his cynical support for the home-equity bill was also an appeal to Daley’s less progressive supporters, so that the general Bloom strategy became simply strike wherever Daley was weak. That, Bloom found, was everywhere and nowhere. To his credit, Bloom established himself as the one candidate with a sense of humor, meaning the only one with even a modicum of personality. His best joke, however, went almost unnoticed at the two-man debate with Sawyer at WBBM TV. Bloom bemoaned Daley’s failure to show up, and said he was surprised because he had even offered to get Daley a copy of the debate questions. No one laughed, so perhaps Bloom was too high-minded for his own good after all.

Acting mayor Sawyer–the bigger joke–appears to be the man for whom the phrase “hangdog expression” was invented. He sometimes seems a character out of some medieval intrigue, the weak emperor placed in power so that the real shakers and movers may do what they please. The one unanswered question remains, who was it who came up with the brilliant gambit of putting Sawyer in power in the first place? So obviously intended to splinter the political support in Chicago’s African American community, it nevertheless succeeded. When the execution of the plan is complete, someone had best find out. Was it Eddie Burke? It has all his markings. Yet perhaps it was an idle remark made by a dimwit like Richard Mell or Terry Gabinski that Burke then seized upon. Or perhaps it was even something said over a complimentary dinner by Steve Neal or Ray Coffey– pondering the worst possible scenario for the city’s black reformers in the wake of Harold Washington’s death.

Yet even as the catalyst of doom for reform, Sawyer at this point is not so much an Uncle Tom as he is a black Jane Byrne. Placed by something of a fluke in a position clearly out of his depth, Sawyer has strengthened his most loyal (read corrupt) supporters and, when necessary, has run to other corrupt sources of power for political loans. This explains why he was so reluctant to fire Steve Cokely, why he nominated Erwin France to head the school board, and why he moved to extend the O’Hare Hilton lease. Then, like Byrne, having blundered his way through, he runs for reelection as a person who’s grown into the office, as a person who’s matured, as someone suddenly in control. This explains why his boring recitation of statistics and jargon at the debate was praised by the more weak-minded commentators. They didn’t expect him to act like a mayor, so when he almost did it was seen as a great victory.

He remains, however, a man out of his depth, and his increasing African American support reflects extremely poorly upon that community. Sawyer is a turncoat and a sop. That many elements of the African American community have seized upon him as their best chance to retain the office is testimony to the poor state of their priorities.

Of course, they really can’t be blamed when Tim Evans is the alternative. When Evans assaults the other candidates as having no vision, it is truly the blind acting as eyewitness against the blind. As the one candidate trying to hold the Washington reform coalition together, he is laudable. As a politician trying to do so for his own personal gain, he is subject to the usual contempt. Washington’s floor leader and City Council arm twister, Evans is first and foremost a tactician, not an idealist. It makes no sense for him to take on the trappings of good intentions. And whatever it was that he did to slight Alderman Luis Gutierrez during one of those floor fights, it has now come back to haunt him. Gutierrez is supporting Daley. Whether he would support Daley against a candidate such as Alderman Danny Davis is the one question that holds the key to the future of the Washington reform coalition.

State’s Attorney Daley looks into the camera with his head twisted at an angle, like a precocious child. My wife finds that he resembles Michael Dukakis in his delivery, and in fact he does, trying to project competence and leadership by talking of them relentlessly. Yet having isolated himself from the city’s political battles since 1983, and having earned his marks as an administrator by running an office of lawyers that one would expect to pretty much run itself, he remains the unknown quantity as a would-be mayor. Certainly he must realize that the days of the machine are over, that a mayor can no longer reign over a city as his father did. Sometimes he reflects that seeming realism. Of the three candidates espousing school reform at last week’s debate, he was the only one to say he would take on the bureaucracy. One would expect the school administration to be an easy target for a politician affecting the reform mantle, that someone could easily win votes with a stand such as, “All right, I’m putting the school bureaucracy on notice. The party’s over. If elected, I’ll send efficiency experts through the school administration and eliminate no fewer than one in every four administrators, with the money gained to go to the new local councils.” None of the so-called reformers has made such a stand, and only Daley has even hinted at it. Yet are we to believe that Daley would fight bureaucracy? That he wouldn’t find a way to go into the school administration, seek out contributions, and turn waste to his advantage? That Richie Daley, the son of the man who drew his very essence from bureaucracy and patronage, would fight the hard fight against it?

The debate, too, was a joke. Sawyer defended his base, unfair advertisements that suggest Daley is a near dolt with the noble sentiment: “The commercials clearly reflect that we want an open discussion of the issues.” He followed that by misquoting the Bible and too accurately describing himself as one who is “slow to speak.” Then, in a gaffe rivaling Ronald Reagan’s “facts are stupid things” at the Republican convention last summer, Sawyer admitted, “There’s been no decisiveness on my part.”

Within 30 seconds, Daley followed that by saying he is “working for child abuse.”

Bloom stayed on the high road by admonishing Daley, “Reading is hard, but we have to do it sometimes.”

These were our Democratic candidates for mayor, the highest elected office in the city.

For anyone who was planning to piss away a protest vote on Bloom, the sudden opportunity to push Ed Vrdolyak into the race with a Republican write-in ballot is almost too delightful.

Whatever the case, whatever the outcome, if it’s true that a city’s mettle is shown not in how it reacts to greatness in its leaders, but in how it endures mediocrity, then Chicago is in for a demanding test.