CHICAGO – It used to be that getting elected in Chicago meant relying on the ward boss, the precinct captain and the small armies they deployed to fix potholes, hand out frozen turkeys and even drive people to the polls.
Court rulings and corruption convictions have ended the primacy of the Machine, leaving get-out-the-vote efforts in the hands of what officials say are volunteers. But the city's first real mayor's race in more than two decades will test how far Chicago has advanced since the Machine's heyday, and how badly big-name, well-funded candidates like Rahm Emanuel still need that old street-level help.
"Never underestimate the power of the precinct worker," said Tom Manion, a longtime political operative who directed Mayor Richard M. Daley's first re-election campaign in 1991. "This is going to be a Generation X campaign with Facebook, Twitter and all that ... but you should never forget the power of friend talking to friend, neighbor talking to neighbor."
After resigning as White House chief of staff, Emanuel is expected to reintroduce himself to Chicago this week with visits to neighborhoods to meet voters. He has launched a new campaign website, ChicagoforRahm.com, with the promise of "a special video announcement" on Sunday. He easily has greater name recognition than other contenders, and he is among several candidates seeking the support of wealthy businessmen and politicians.
But election time in Chicago means the phones of ward committeemen and aldermen are ringing once again, with candidates asking how many volunteers they could put on the street and whether they would do so for them.
The modern campaign is a twist on the kind Chicago became known for, when city workers campaigned like their jobs depended on it — which they did — and ward bosses were expected to know how every firefighter and teacher was going to vote.
In the 1970s and '80s, court-backed agreements called the Shakman decrees made it illegal to hire and fire city employees for political reasons. So party officials now are careful to say volunteers are truly working out of sheer loyalty — though recent prosecutions prove the Chicago way of politics isn't completely gone. Some say it's just gone underground.
The jockeying for street help has already begun.
"I've talked to some folks in different campaigns," said David Fagus, the Democratic ward committeeman in the 49th ward on the city's North Side, who said he has about 100 volunteers at his disposal if and when he commits to a campaign.
Gery Chico, the Chicago School Board president and a close Daley ally who has announced he's in the race, said he has 500 volunteers working the streets, concentrating mainly on garnering the 12,500 signatures needed to secure a ballot spot. But, he said, those volunteers also send a message to larger ward organizations that a candidate has a strong campaign.
"They want to see if you have the resources," he explained.
Some candidates have enough support to put hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers on the street. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who has been telling allies that he's running, has the ability to quickly dispatch 250 or 300 volunteers, said Thom Serafin, a Chicago political analyst.
State Sen. James Meeks might have a lot more, thanks to his other job: pastor of a huge church on the city's South Side. "Meeks can go to his church; there are 20,000 people there," Fagus said.
After his time in Washington, Emanuel faces doubts about his support in the neighborhoods. Daley gave him street support when Emanuel ran for Congress from the North Side, but the mayor has so far has pledged neutrality.
With a political war chest of more than $1 million, there is little doubt Emanuel can hire plenty of people, said Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist and former city alderman.
But it is unlikely the candidates will be able to field anywhere near the 10,000 volunteers that Manion said worked on Daley's first re-election campaign. Among the other changes is a parade of city workers charged with corruption in recent years — some of whom were brought down in an investigation that touched Emanuel.
In 2002, he and other candidates, including Daley, received campaign help from water department employees at the direction of their boss, who was convicted of corruption. Neither Emanuel nor Daley was accused of wrongdoing, but Emanuel's opponents will certainly mention the episode.
The biggest recent case involved Robert Sorich, Daley's "patronage chief," and three others, who were convicted of falsifying interviews and test scores of employment applicants to make sure jobs went to those who got out the vote.
"Any operations that survived the publicity (of those cases) have gone deep underground out of fear of the U.S. attorney," said lawyer Michael Shakman, whose crusade against patronage led to the court decrees.
But expect no shortage of door knocking and rides to the polls offered on a chilly February election day. "Friendly committeemen will be out there to encourage the senior citizen to vote early, and if they can assist with a cup of coffee and companionship while they vote, they'll do that," Serafin said.
Federal prosecutors will watch the process closely, but the real scrutiny will come after the election, said David Hoffman, a former inspector general at City Hall.
"The key issue will be if there is a link between political work and handing out ... jobs, contracts or something else," Hoffman said. "The first six to 12 months (after the election) will tell you a lot."