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Shades of ‘80 race in Emanuel vs. Chico

Updated: November 26, 2011 12:28AM

The upcoming mayor’s race feels like a movie I’ve seen before.

Was it 1980? It was.

The two stars of that old election flick hailed from Irish political dynasties and there was no love lost between them.

One was a Daley. The other was a Burke.

The race, back then, wasn’t for Chicago mayor but for Cook County state’s attorney. The incumbent was also Irish. But Bernard Carey was a Republican — and thus a member of a far distant clan.

The Democratic primary of 1980 in many ways served as the prequel to the current contest for mayor. Though there are 20 contenders who have filed petitions to run in the Feb. 22 election, only two lead the pack in terms of money and visibility.

One is Rahm Emanuel (a k a Daley), the former North Side congressman and chief of staff to President Obama.

The other is Gery Chico (a k a Burke). A former chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, he has been chairman of the board of the Chicago Park District, City Colleges and Chicago School Board.

What is it about the contest now that reminds us of the dogfight then?

Let’s jump in the time machine to reread an article written for Illinois Issues by Roosevelt University’s resident expert on politics, Professor Paul Green.

Green called the 1980 Daley-Carey race: “An extraordinary contest even by Cook County standards, it was just one more episode in the larger struggle to decide, amid shifting alliances, the fate of the Chicago machine.”

Let’s remember that one year before, Jane Byrne had turned the Machine upside down by clobbering Mayor Michael Bilandic, the anointed-appointed 11th Ward successor to the late Richard J. Daley.

In the world of “shifting alliances,” Byrne backed her former enemy, Ald. Ed Burke (14th), against her continued enemy, Richard M. Daley.

But Daley, who actually ran as a Machine outsider in that race, crushed Burke and went on to beat Carey.

Daley and Burke both had eyes on the biggest prize, the mayor’s office. But we know how that story ends. Daley got dad’s office.

Burke kept his dad’s Council seat plus the powerful chair of City Council’s Finance Committee. Not a bad consolation prize — unequaled power, a hugely profitable “outside” law practice and round-the-clock police bodyguards as his coat holders and chauffeurs.

But Professor Green’s words are relevant as today as they were in 1980 when it comes to yet another “episode . . . to decide . . . the fate of the Chicago machine.”

And if you doubted that there still is a Machine in this town, then you just weren’t paying attention to the Nov. 3 contest for Cook County assessor in which Forrest Claypool, the good government reformer, was mowed down by Joe Berrios, lobbyist and head of the Cook County Democratic Party.

But no race — not U.S. senator or governor — is as important as the mayor’s race. And the opposing forces of Daley and Burke are hard at work. Though neither is on the ballot.

David Axelrod is returning home soon to dedicate himself to Obama’s re-election, but who doubts that just as he guided Rich Daley’s past campaigns, he also will be helping his old pal, Rahm?

Meanwhile, over in the anybody-but-Rahm camp, Burke and other warhorses of the City Council have had 21 years of Daley and don’t want another iron-fisted bully at the helm. They’re backing Chico.

Yes, there are 18 other candidates.

But at the moment, just as in 1980, there are really only two.

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