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Editorial: A new Chicago hands reins to Rahm

Updated: March 24, 2011 12:20AM

For the first time in 22 years, the words Mayor and Daley are no longer inextricably linked.

In a remarkable victory Tuesday, Rahm Emanuel trounced five opponents. Emanuel won 55 percent of the votes, besting even the most pie-in-the-sky projections.

Emanuel is now mayor-elect, poised to take over a dramatically different city from the one Daley first encountered as mayor in 1989.

Though a fast and furious five-month sprint, this campaign offered a real education. A few nuggets, then, about what we learned about Chicago, circa 2011:

Race ain’t what it used to be

Race, ethnicity and religion, to be exact. The majority of Chicagoans on Tuesday embraced a Jewish man for mayor without making much of it. Thirty-five years ago, Ald. Edward M. Burke captured public sentiment when he said: “There is a latent anti-Semitism in Chicago and a large population that will never vote for a Jew,” Burke said in 1976. “They would vote for anybody before a Jew.”

Burke this week told Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg that the world has changed much since then, thankfully. The proof is in Emanuel’s easy victory.

The same goes for race, though in the fall we feared racial politics would dominate. An early search for a “consensus African-American candidate” set a worrisome tone. Divisive comments by then-candidates U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and state Sen. James Meeks followed. Davis said former President Bill Clinton jeopardized his relationship with Chicago’s black community when he chose to stump for Emanuel, ignoring Clinton’s right to endorse whomever he considered the best candidate for all of Chicago.

Once Braun emerged as the sole black candidate, the racial talk mostly stopped, and a new political reality bubbled to the top: Chicagoans of all stripes gravitated to Emanuel and Gery Chico, the two candidates they deemed the most competent, regardless of background. Braun didn’t win a single ward Tuesday, including mostly black ones. (Admittedly, it didn’t hurt that Emanuel had labored for the first black president.) Heck, Chicagoans even forgave Emanuel for having grown up in the suburbs.

Life post-Daley is possible

Let’s admit it: There was a moment of shock, doubt even, after Daley announced he was done.

Love him or hate him, most of us know nothing about — or have long forgotten — living in a Chicago run by anybody else.

That passed quickly, we’re happy to report, and a new sense of ownership among everyday Chicagoans took over. A record number of candidates filed for alderman, and the public appetite for a City Council with a backbone grew. After living under Daley’s iron fist for years, an impotent Council seemed almost normal. It took the emergence of quality aldermanic candidates here and there to remind us aldermen can be more than hand puppets.

Despite Tuesday’s relatively low turnout, Chicagoans showed up for candidate forums, some talking politics with neighbors for the very first time. Once the primal desire to have a say is unleashed, it’s hard to go back (here’s hoping, anyway).

The piggy bank is empty

If you didn’t know it before the campaign, most Chicagoans are now aware, at least vaguely, that Chicago city government is broke.

With a deficit approaching $700 million, austerity is the new reality in Chicago. Daley staved off dramatic cuts with one-time fixes, but that no longer cuts it. For Daley, being mayor was mostly about more — new buildings, new programs, new spending.

Those days are now officially over.

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