Digital summer school


Chicago Elections Project

This summer I talked with the editors of The Metropole, the blog of the Urban History Association, about the collection and the plan for the CEP.

The career of Barack Obama prompted several projects examining Chicago politics, from the Making Obamapodcast to David Garrow’s book, Rising Star, and Gary Rivlin’s book on Harold Washington, Fire on the Prairie. What does this project have to contribute to our understanding of the already well-trod topic of Chicago politics?

All of those very good projects rely on narratives that are fairly triumphant about racial dynamics – either voters’ acceptance of African American candidates or black elected officials’ skillful navigation of racial politics.

David Axelrod, who worked for both Harold Washington and Barack Obama, tells a tale about how Harold Washington’s mayoral tenure helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s rise. It’s a neat story, and he illustrates it by saying on election night for the Senate primary in 2004, Axelrod checked a northwest side precinct where Washington had faced protests and white opposition. Washington lost the precinct, 10 to 1, but in 2004, Obama carried the precinct. Axelrod’s takeaway is that Chicago grew more tolerant, even in its most regressive neighborhoods, because of Harold Washington.

It’s not as tidy as that. Groups like the “lakefront liberals,” who were supposedly strong supporters of Washington, voted for his opponents, in many precincts, by large majorities. Northwest side precincts were changed as much by demographic transition as by any changes in hearts and minds, and this spatial and voting data helps us investigate that in detail.