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For Better and Worse, Chicago Is Democratic Turf

Cities: The party and town have been enmeshed for decades. This union has yielded great urban success stories, and nagging shortcomings.


CHICAGO — It is, beyond all quarrel or quibble, the largest urban bastion of the Democratic Party in America. The last Republican mayor was elected in 1927. Only once since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt has a GOP presidential candidate carried Cook County: in 1956, when Chicago gave up on once-beaten Adlai E. Stevenson and concurred in the reelection of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Not content merely to vote Democratic, Chicago has lived Democratic. The New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, ethnic politics, racial politics, liberal and reform politics, the City of the Big Shoulders has drained the Democratic cup to the lees.

And Wednesday, as President Clinton's helicopter circled into an urban center whose architectural treasures gleam like a tiara, Chicago once more presents itself as "the city that works"--a model for a national leader hoping to guide America into the 21st century.

Putting aside civic pride, is such a claim valid? When Bob Dole denounces the Democrats as champions of outmoded liberal nostrums and failed experiments in big-government social engineering, can Clinton point to Chicago in rebuttal?

The answer is that, while much has been achieved in the 28 years since the last Democratic convention to be held here ended in violence and political disintegration, Chicago remains a cautionary tale nonetheless.

Party Central

In achieving a level of political tranquillity and economic revitalization unmatched among the nation's old industrial centers, Chicago's Democrats have built the kind of broad-based electoral coalition that has often eluded the party nationally. They have won significant commitments from business, forging partnerships that have allowed the city to claim progress against the problems common to all urban areas.

Moreover, Mayor Richard M. Daley has created a party structure that at some levels at least is more open and diverse than the one that existed under his father, who led the city in 1968.

"Saul Alinsky would have a hard time making a living here today," says one business executive, referring to the pioneer of radical community organizing who was long based in Chicago. "It's hard to get people worked up anymore because most of the leaders have access now."

What is less clear is whether Democrats here have found the answers to other, deeper-rooted challenges, including:

* Reconciling the tensions that exist between the agendas of the party's old-line constituency groups on the one hand and the attitudes and interests of the larger society on the other.

* Finding a way to achieve the expanded opportunity in a competitive global economy that Republicans promise and, at the same time, advancing toward the kinder society that liberals see as the party's reason for being.

On such counts, the jury is still out. And the evidence comes in pieces large and small:

"From the 1980s, when large parts of the Loop were vacant except for roving gangs, there has been a tremendous change," says University of Chicago urban affairs sociologist Gerald Suttles.

A Healthier City

On the other hand, when Bethel New Life, a church-related community organization, managed to create the first low-income condo building ever in West Garfield Park, the new sod on its modest front lawn was rolled up and stolen the night before the dedication ceremony.

"The political performance is first rate. There is no question about that. . . . The governmental performance is another matter," says Paul Kleppner, director of the Office of Social Policy Research at Northern Illinois University, who has studied the city's political history.

Without doubt, Chicago is healthier than it was during most of the last three decades--healthier, too, than Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis or almost any other comparable city.

Though suburbs have grown explosively here as they have around almost every major U.S. city, fully 30% of all the jobs in the Chicago metropolitan area remain downtown. Through a selective concentration of police and other resources, the downtown is not only safer for office workers but also a major destination for upscale shoppers and for tourists, who flock to its refurbished museums and other attractions.

Even before it won this year's Democratic National Convention, Chicago had begun to bring its once-matchless system of parks back to life, including long-neglected green spaces in the predominantly poor, minority neighborhoods of the south and west sides.

Older prime residential areas have been preserved, especially the affluent neighborhoods along the Lake Michigan shore. Large housing projects have been added for young professionals and other downtown workers.

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