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Chicago voters, most of them living, set to pick a new mayor today: Rahm Emanuel or Gery Chico?

Gery Chico and Rahm Emanuel debate 2-17-11 to become mayor of Chicago

With the 82nd anniversary of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre safely behind them, Chicagoans will go to the polls today to -- probably -- pick the next mayor of the hometown political base of the president of the United States.

The city's voters will mainly be choosing between: Rahm Emanuel, former local political machine gofer, Bill Clinton money man, representative and Barack Obama's initial chief of staff; and Gery Chico, former Board of Education head and chief of staff to the retiring 68-year-old Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Daley family has controlled the fifth-floor City Hall office (and so much more in the toddling town) for 43 of the last 56 years.

And in case you hadn't noticed, another Chicago Daley, William, Richard's brother, now controls all access to Obama as Emanuel's replacement in the White House chief of staff office.

Also employed as a top Obama advisor is Valerie Jarrett, who used to ....

... be Mayor Richard's chief of staff, where she once hired an aide named Michelle Robinson, now known as First Lady Michelle Obama. And don't forget Obama's Education Secretary  Arne Duncan, who was Richard's city schools superintendent. But, hey, who wouldn't help friends succeed in today's tough economy?

Chicago mayors don't usually retire. They die, like Richard's father Richard in 1976.

Or they get ousted by a shifting coalition of neighborhood political clans enacting a Darwinian power plan whose organizational roots and political patronage plans harken back to the 1930s and that Democratic urban machine's architect Anton Cermak.FDR and Anton Cermak Moments before shooting 1933

Cermak, as some may recall, was assassinated in 1933 sitting in an open car in Miami near the presumed target of the shooter, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. (See photo at left moments before the shooting.)

Conspiracy theorists bemoan the assassin's prompt execution within weeks, precluding further investigation. And they note that the death of a seeming bystander made a very convenient cover story for the benefits of that fatality to the business operations of Windy City mobster Al Capone.

Al's boys were responsible for the sudden extinction by unanimous machine-gunning of seven of Bugs Moran's North Side gang on Valentine's Day just four years previously. Something about controlling illegal liquor distribution.

There hasn't been an open mayoral election like today's in Chicago since 1948, back when Joe Biden was a brand-new U.S. senator from Delaware. Just kidding, it only seems that long ago. Joe was only 7 back then.

The real question in Chicago today, as polls indicate, is whether Emanuel's big lead is large enough to capture 50% of the vote and end it. Or if he'll face an April 5 runoff to become the city's first Jewish mayor.Chicago Skyline off Navy Pier

The two main candidates (ex-Sen. Carol Moseley Braun is another) may be smiling all jolly-like in the debate photo above earlier this month.

But those smiles are as misleading as a warm May day on the shores of Lake Michigan. "Chicago politics," a scarred veteran of the city's arcane aldermanic wars once told a friend, "ain't touch football."

The election results will also be a revealing indication of the relative political strength of the city's organized unions.

Like their noisy labor brethren next door in Wisconsin, they're sensing an Alamo-like end to the days of cushy public contracts because of countless governments' belt-tightening responses to tough times.

The 51-year-old Emanuel, who would confront a projected $600-million deficit, among other woes, the day he takes office, has often used a word that scares union members: "sacrifice." The 54-year-old Chico has been more circumspect and acquired most labor endorsements.

Chicago's unions also don't like Emanuel's key role helping Clinton enact the North American Free Trade Agreement, and there've been some recent suggestions of shadiness in the inexperienced Emanuel's acquisition of a $17-million fortune during a 36-month business career with a local Clinton fundraiser. If you could imagine such a thing in Chicago.

There is also an intriguing, overlooked historical twist in today's city election: Chicago mayors like Cermak and the first Richard Daley are famous for ensuring the election of their party's presidential candidates by producing sufficient ballots of one kind or another to guarantee them Illinois' electoral votes, as with Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Today, however, it's the other way around. A Democrat in the White House provided the Chicago mayoral candidate in Emanuel and a high-profile political launch last fall, plus a powerful virtual endorsement for top job in the nation's third-most-populous city. Not to mention, of course, Obama's VIP absentee ballot.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images (Two jolly guys Emanuel and Chico debate Feb. 17, 2011); Associated Press (FDR and Cermak, 1933); Bonnie Trafalet / Chicago Tribune.

 
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Why do Chicago voters repeatedly elect and then re-elect such sleazy characters?


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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