Compared to its neighbors, Illinois has fared better than most under the COVID-19 pandemic. The Illinois Troika of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot have managed to dance around the issue and pass measures that frankly worked in terms of stopping the pandemic but (per usual) were awful for the working class.
But the dance itself has lost one of its key players. Madigan’s woes regarding ComEd may have finally nailed the old-school machine Democrats’ coffin shut for good, because Lightfoot is not a Machine Dem. She, like her predecessor, is more beholden to the “progressive” Northsiders and the neoliberal business and professional class downtown. While neoliberalization started with Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emmanuel was the king of the neo-liberal project.
If you’re familiar with Chicago during the Occupy Movement, Rahm’s base was the coalition Lightfoot has now. Rahm was far more focused on defending businesses than any of the rights we were protesting for outside of the Chicago Board of Trade. Should the businesses that make up these neighborhoods close, she’s screwing her base. It’s partly why the response to the protests got so out of hand; she knows the hand that feeds her.
Unlike Rahm, Lightfoot was overwhelmingly elected as the Anti-Machine candidate. Because of this, the traditional leverage of the Mayor of Chicago is lessened. If you ask anyone who the most powerful person in Illinois is, anyone with any sense would have argued the Mayor of Chicago. But outside of the city’s key economic power the Mayor always had the backing of Illinois’ great power bloc: the Cook County Democratic Party.
She can’t push back against Pritzker, his influence is more powerful than hers, probably a first in Illinois politics. Pritzker being as wealthy as he is eclipses her influence tenfold. Ask a non-profit employee in Illinois who donates the most money. Unless it’s a small professional thing or conservative, Pritzker has his fingers in it. He wields power like Madigan has in the sense that he has the power of the purse strings.
If Preckwinkle was mayor? It’s more likely there would have been concessions towards the city for the sake of downtown restaurants and retail. Money can’t always beat institutional power, it’s why former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner floundered so much, mind his crippling stubbornness.
Of course this is entirely hypothetical; Pritzker himself wields considerable power and it’s a wonder if we reach the post-machine era in it’s entirety how things will shape. Is he the new machine? Who runs the Illinois Democrats now? These questions are not important entirely from a political trainspotting perspective, but a tactical one for all activists.
For a long time, we could accept the activism being headed up in Chicago, after all it’s where the power is. But the suburbs and Sangamon county matter just as much these days. We can no longer be solely a force for pressure in the cities. If we are to become a mass movement, we must organize where we’re at and also support our comrades when the struggle is elsewhere in our state. Illinois suffers from just as much regionalism as anywhere else.
The central Illinois DSA does great work and we should be working to support them once session starts up again. We can see the dance of the COVID-19 troika revealing where the dominoes may fall and whom we need to pressure to get our demands as socialists, whatever they may be, forward.