Congratulations, Governor Rauner. Having gained barely 50% of the vote, you are about to become Illinois’ first Republican Governor in more than a decade. That’s the good news for the Illinois GOP…all of it. Here’s the rest of the picture.
You were the only Republican to win statewide. Democrats retained their veto-proof majority in the State Assembly. You have no political leverage, no established constituency in either party or in any geography, and no experience in Springfield.
Investing heavily in an effort to gain a foothold in Chicago’s black neighborhoods was a great idea for the 2014 campaign, but it failed. Your support in the black wards was about as close to zero as it is possible to get in politics. Remember Rev. Meeks? You won 3% in his home ward. Earning black votes will take more than showing up. To be credible, you will have to change the Republican narrative in a meaningful way.
Your opponent in the last election was astoundingly unpopular and ineffective. As the second most vulnerable Republican Governor in the country (that guy in Maryland is out in front by a mile), you can be certain to draw a strong challenger in 2018. Unless you can figure out what failed in Chicago, and do it soon, it is difficult to imagine how you can hope to influence Illinois politics in the slightest manner before prematurely returning to private life in 2019.
Perhaps what Illinois Republicans need is a man with nothing to lose.
What if there was one move that might fix what failed in your 2014 campaign? What if that move could also scramble the poles of Illinois’ partisan alignments so dramatically that the whole structure might crack? What if that one move cost $0 and bypassed Madigan and Cullerton entirely, requiring no action by the State Assembly? Would you be willing to do something honest, courageous and impossibly bold that might change everything for Illinois, reshape partisan politics, and brighten your fortunes in Chicago and Springfield while costing you nothing?
Gov. Rauner, do I have your attention?
Within a few weeks of the inauguration and prior to the debut of your legislative agenda, go to Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood. Stand up in front of the cameras and tell the truth about what happened to that neighborhood. Speak honestly about blockbusting, redlining, the Contract Buyers League, and the institutional racism that looted an entire generation of black wealth, turned working class whites into suburban refugees, and transformed a thriving Chicago neighborhood into a war zone.
That’s all. No need to use that platform to announce a policy initiative or donate money to a credit union. No need for an awkward apology. You did not commit the acts that ruined Lawndale and you can’t change what happened. Just say what everyone in Chicago already knows but no Republican, and few white Democrats, will openly acknowledge.
It sounds like a small thing, but if it was a small thing the idea wouldn’t make you so uneasy. In fact, such a move would be huge, so huge that it could recast everything you propose to do in Springfield and change the basic premise that defines partisan alignments in Illinois.
Republican orthodoxy states that Chicago’s black wards are poor because of government anti-poverty programs and a “culture” that “traps” them in poverty. This is convenient, false and insulting. It is convenient because it implies a policy response that fits wider Republican priorities. It is insulting because it blames the victims for conditions we placed them in. It is false because only a lie can shield us from confronting a shameful history.
Needless to say, it is a dead appeal and standing next to Rev. Meeks will not cover its odor. Whether you embrace that ideology or not, it will hang around your neck next to your Republican label unless you reject it explicitly.
Any plan you may have to impose fiscal discipline in Springfield will require you to weaken the power of public employee unions. Any plan you may have to bring hope and economic progress to Chicago will force you to confront an entrenched city bureaucracy that traps Chicago’s low income families in permanently under-performing schools.
In both battles you will be cast as the disinterested wealthy tourist threatening to destroy institutions that protect the livelihoods of working class union households. Fail to change the narrative and you will accomplish nothing and return promptly to the private sector.
Unions provide workers with higher incomes and job security. They impose costs not only in wages, but in inertia, making it difficult for a unionized industry to adapt to changing conditions and serve its customers Traditionally the costs of a union are born by wealthy capital owners and the benefits flow to lower income workers who otherwise have little access to power and limited opportunities to support their families.
Now turn those conditions around. What happens when the beneficiaries of the union are college educated, sophisticated white collar workers and the people bearing the cost of unionization are politically powerless and economically exploited? What happens now is what happened then. African-Americans and other low-income, under-represented constituencies find themselves on the losing end of the bargain.
Telling the truth about what happened in Lawndale and elsewhere across Chicago in the age of blockbusting opens the door to a very different narrative about the challenges Chicago faces now. Back then African-Americans with no reliable access to justice were systematically looted by cynical realtors and lenders. Working white families with little money and little access to justice were victimized right along with them as their racist fears were exploited and their neighborhoods torn apart.
The culprit back then was conventional racism, aided by laws and institutions that blocked African-Americans from gaining access to justice. Talking about what happened in Lawndale half a century ago opens the door to understanding one of the most miserably frustrating political and economic problems of our time – racism without racists.
What traps minority students in underperforming Chicago public schools is best understood as institutional racism. There might not be one person in the entire Chicago bureaucracy who possesses a deliberate intention to victimize black students, yet those students are smothered under the weight of institutions that devalue and disenfranchise them for their race while serving the interests of others.
Every family in Chicago’s collar counties takes for granted the influence they possess over their local schools. They can select and replace school board members from their neighborhoods. A Chicago family has no similar influence over their schools. Board members are all appointed by the Mayor of America’s third-largest city. No ordinary Chicago family is going to influence a board member’s replacement by hosting a candidate coffee in their living room as their suburban peers regularly do.
Black families in Lawndale in the Fifties and Sixties had their capital and power drained away to serve the interests of real estate speculators. Black families in Lawndale today have their access to the lowest rungs of our economic ladder lifted away from them to protect the interests of bureaucratic institutions that feed on their disenfranchisement. What happened in Lawndale then is what’s happening in Lawndale now. So why do Republicans find this so difficult to discuss?
Comedian Chris Rock once said that black Americans have a very complex relationship to patriotism. America for them is like the uncle who paid their way through college, but molested them. For too many years Republicans have been like the family who invites the rapist to Thanksgiving while hushing up what happened. It helps everyone avoid an ugly confrontation, but the truth seethes and the victims continue to suffer.
Republicans do not need this legacy. Democrats bear far more direct responsibility for discrimination and its aftermath. Here in Illinois they still benefit from that heritage. Tell the truth and break the cycle.
Let’s be clear, you need not mention unions or CPS or any specific policy position in your Lawndale speech. It is better that you don’t. The theme of that speech can be both historical and forward looking without tying it to a specific agenda. The gravity of the moment will come from seeing a wealthy white Republican finally stand up in broad daylight and acknowledge that systematic looting, not welfare or rap music, decimated Chicago’s old black middle class.
When Reagan visited the Berlin Wall he didn’t introduce any radical new policy positions or make any threats. The simple observations he shared were only remarkable for the refusal of so many others in power to candidly acknowledge them.
Let others connect the dots. Such a speech could gain national attention while laying the groundwork for a new narrative. In a State Assembly over which you have no influence and lack the power to even carry a veto, you could effectively challenge Speaker Madigan to “tear down this wall.” In so doing, you might open up new avenues for credible Republican urban policy and transform the political relationship between minority groups and the dense, unaccountable bureaucracies that “serve” them.
Governor Rauner, in your campaign you promised to “Shake up Springfield.” You earned your shot, just barely. Go big or go home.