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The Works

Is Obama a Chicago Politician?

Guess it depends on your definition—or redefinition—of the term.

Plus: Consensus Governing in Action

June 12, 2008

Now that Barack Obama has secured the nomination of Democratic candi­date for president, he and his handlers are ramping up their efforts to immunize him from his Chicago past.

We’ve already seen him distance himself from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, quit Trinity church, criticize Father Pfleger, and downplay his early ties to Tony Rezko.

But Mayor Daley presents a stickier wicket. He’s a big-city boss who has presided over a corrupt, inefficiently run, high-tax government for years. While Obama has mildly disapproved of a few of the most noto­rious scandals, he enthusiastically endorsed the mayor in the last election. They even share David Axelrod as a campaign strategist.

No doubt Republicans will try to link Obama to the worst aspects of Daley’s reign, but you can’t expect Obama to cast the mayor aside as easily as a south-side preacher. He can’t very well make a speech and claim he never heard about the hired truck scandal, the Duffs, Robert Sorich, or Donald Tomczak. He’ll have to be a little more clever.

A piece that appeared recently in Salon may be giving us a glimpse of the Obama team’s strategy. “Look Homeward, Obama” was actually written by a former Daley speechwriter, Dan Conley, who admits he got that job through a connection with Axelrod; Conley’s wife still works for the mayor.

The TIF Archive

See Ben Joravsky's columns on TIFs and property taxes.

Previously in The Works

The TIF That Keeps On Taking The city has found a way to extend the life of its oldest, fattest tax increment financing district.

The Mystery of the Construction Obstructionist Why is Alderman Ray Suarez blocking a new school that could ease overcrowding in his ward?

Worse Than We Thought A lawsuit brings new dirt to light on the Park District's sweetheart deal with Latin School.

As befits a writer who learned his trade from Axelrod—one of the great spinmeisters of our time—Conley retrofits Daley as a worthy role model for Obama. According to Conley, Daley is a “post-partisan” deal maker who eradicated “a toxic political environment,” “calmed the city’s political tensions,” built “a new model of consensus governing,” and made the city “more hospitable to community organizers like the young Barack Obama.” In Daley’s Chicago, “a general civility prevails,” as “details are usually ironed out internally before going public” and “policies are ratified in generally dull proceedings.”

It’s a nice little fairy tale, but of course it bears no relation to the truth. As Chicagoans all know, the reason City Hall’s so peaceable is that Daley’s got everyone there on such a tight leash. Anyone at City Hall will tell you—though generally off the record for fear of upsetting the boss—that his control over Chicago is less about civility and compro­mise than coercion. With Daley you have a choice: he’ll buy you off or beat you up. Want to make a deal? Good—here are his terms.

Soldier Field, Meigs Field, the proposed Children’s Museum in Grant Park—these are just some of the better-known examples of Daley storming over his opposition. If he wants a project, he’ll shove it down our throats. If anyone doesn’t like it, he’ll throw a temper tantrum. He’ll call them names and scorn their leaders, playing the race card if that’s what it takes. So much for overcoming a toxic political environment.

But those are the high-profile cases, where someone actually dared to mount an opposition. Much more insidious is the coercion we never hear about. Most aldermen are afraid to vote against him because they fear him and need him—they can’t hold on to their seats if Daley messes with how well they serve their constituents. Several have told me that they typically don’t know what they’re voting on: if an ordinance comes from the fifth floor, that’s all they need to know. Many still don’t understand how TIF districts work, yet the City Council has been routinely approving new ones for the last ten years, sucking millions of tax dollars into slush funds. Now the city’s gearing up to spend hundreds of millions of local property tax dollars on the Olympics.

Daley doesn’t encourage discussion—he stifles it. He loathes criticism and disparages debate. He takes credit for the good and shucks responsibility for the bad. Just a few weeks ago I heard an alderman in an unguarded moment tell his northwest-side constituents what happens to bills that don’t come out of the mayor’s office: If Daley doesn’t like a bill, he kills it. If he likes it, he rewrites it and claims it as his own.

As for Chicago in 2008 being a hospitable time for organizers “like the young Barack Obama,” the truth is that Daley’s pretty well destroyed community organizing in Chicago. Many of the fiercest groups have either disap­peared or been co-opted—they pull their punches because, like the aldermen, they don’t want to get on the mayor’s bad side. It took activists years to get the smoking ban passed over Daley’s opposition, and even then the mayor forced them into water­ing it down. Despite backing from Cardinal George and would-be independent alder­men, activists still can’t get an afford­able housing ordinance through the City Council, though they’ve been trying for more than a decade. There used to be several vigilant budget watchdog groups in Chicago, with the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group leading the pack. Now there are none.

Should Obama go along with all this? Well, look at it from his perspective. He first came to town in the mid-80s, working as a community activist for three years. When he returned in the early 90s, just out of law school, he was bright, young, and incredibly ambitious, and the first thing he learned—the first thing any ambitious young wannabe politician learns around here—is that there’s no future in Chicago for anyone who defies Mayor Daley.

The best you can do is discreetly look the other way. You might speak out occasionally against the more blatant examples of corrup­­tion—but only if reporters force you to. Other­wise you pretend not to notice. And it goes without saying that you enthusiastically endorse the mayor’s reelection—or his Olympic plans.

For Obama, kissing the mayor’s ring is like putting that flag pin on his lapel. It’s part of the game he’s had to play to get elected. It got him to the U.S. Senate. And if he makes it all the way to the White House, it probably will have been worth it.

So how should Obama play it when the Republicans launch their attack ads link­ing him to Daley’s Chicago? He should ditch the script that Conley so thoughtfully offered in Salon. He doesn’t need that fan­tasy of civility, consensus, racial harmony, and community empowerment. He can tell it like it is. If anything, Daley taught him to be ruthless, devious, and shrewd. He can say it’s prepared him for cracking down on Iran. R

For more on politics, see our Clout City blog.

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