THE BLOG
08/20/2014 06:12 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Karen Lewis: Will She Give Rahm Emanuel a Real Fight?

Paul Velgos via Getty Images

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

This quote, which is often attributed to the satirist Mark Twain, is worth remembering when considering what a bid by Karen Lewis to replace Rahm Emanuel as mayor of Chicago might look like. One meaning of Twain's quote is that study of relevant history can shed insight into present-day events, even if the specific details may differ.

With that in mind, it may be worthwhile to look at four historical Chicago mayoral campaigns: Benjamin Adamowski versus Richard J. Daley in 1963; Harold Washington versus Michael Bilandic in 1977; Jane Byrne versus Michael Bilandic in 1979; and Harold Washington versus Jane Byrne in 1983. There are no relevant comparisons for Emanuel's immediate predecessor, Richard M. Daley, because Daley was much more popular during his five mayoral re-election bids than Rahm is now.

In 1963, Richard J. Daley was the popular sitting mayor of Chicago and had just completed his second term. In the Democratic primary for re-election, however, he was challenged by Benjamin Adamowski, a skilled Polish-Catholic politician who actively opposed open housing for blacks. Daley lost the white vote to Adamowski and barely won the Democratic primary. For the rest of his career, Daley "learned his lesson," becoming much more of a reactionary, especially on the issue of race. He consistently signaled to white voters that he was tough and that he would use his power to "draw the line" with respect to black civil rights. Historical lesson: the incumbent won, but was so shaken by his narrow victory that his leadership began to deteriorate.

In 1977, Harold Washington, one of Chicago's most well-known black politicians, broke with the local Democratic Party and ran against acting-mayor Michael Bilandic in the special mayoral election. Washington focused on campaigning in African-American neighborhoods on Chicago's south side. "There is a sleeping giant in Chicago," said Washington, "And if this sleeping giant, the potential black vote, ever woke up, we'd control the city." Washington struggled with fundraising, however, and lost to Bilandic in the Democratic primary. Historical lesson: the incumbent won, and the challenger learned that it was difficult to achieve victory with a narrow constituency and a lack of campaign funds.

In February 1979, Chicago Democrats picked Jane Byrne over Mayor Michael Bilandic as their next nominee to run the city. Byrne was a charismatic, high-energy campaigner who accused the somewhat dull Bilandic of mishandling the snowstorms of January 1979. In addition, many blacks, a key voting block for Democrats, felt that Mayor Bilandic was hostile to their race, and so they shifted their votes to Byrne. Upon winning, Byrne, a five-foot-three-inch political free spirit claimed that she "beat the whole god-damn machine singlehanded." Historical lesson: Voters may elect a charismatic challenger if they are dissatisfied with the incumbent.

In 1983, the charismatic and personable Harold Washington won an overwhelming percentage of the black vote to defeat states attorney Richard M. Daley and Mayor Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary. His victory was aided by Byrne's alienation of significant voter blocks and the splitting of the white vote by Daley and Byrne. Historical lesson: Even a talented, charismatic challenger may need to be lucky. It helps to run against a divisive incumbent and a field of candidates who divide up one of the important voter groups.

So what lessons could Karen Lewis learn from these four campaigns? First, incumbents have an electoral advantage, but only if they are popular. Unpopular incumbents can lose (i.e., Michael Bilandic in 1979, Jane Byrne in 1983). Second, challengers with a narrow constituency and a lack of campaign funds have a difficult time winning (i.e., Benjamin Adamowski in 1963, Harold Washington in 1977). Third, voters will vote for a challenger if they are charismatic and fun (i.e., Jane Byrne in 1979, Harold Washington in 1983). Finally, it is easier for a challenger to achieve victory if there is a field of candidates that splits core voter groups away from the incumbent (i.e., in 1983 Rich Daley and Jane Byrne split the white vote, enabling Washington's victory).

Based on these principals, what should Karen Lewis do if she wants to win? First, she should run a fun, upbeat campaign. Second, she should seek out a pragmatic, pro-business candidate and encourage him or her to also run against Emanuel. This would split off voters from one of Rahm's core group of supporters. Third, she should campaign as a potential mayor for all Chicagoans, rather than as a mere representative of unions or other narrow constituencies. Finally, she should raise as much money as possible.

Would these steps guarantee Lewis a victory over Rahm Emanuel in the upcoming Chicago mayoral race? Not necessarily. Rahm is a very skilled political operative with a thirst for victory. In 2006, as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee he overwhelmed the Republicans, leading the Democrats to a pick-up of 31 seats in the House of Representatives. He did it without apologies. "You've got to have a thirst for winning," Emanuel said. "You know what our party thinks? We're good people with good ideas. That's just enough, isn't it? Being tough enough, mean enough and vicious enough is just not what they want..."

It's too early to tell whether history will repeat itself, or even rhyme. However, if Karen Lewis does follow the steps outlined above, the upcoming mayoral race against Rahm Emanuel may become a knock-down, winner-take-all, Chicago-style political fight.