Look homeward, Obama

Anyone who doubts that a toxic political environment can be overcome should look to Chicago. Are you listening, Senator?

Topics: 2008 Elections, Barack Obama, Chicago, David Axelrod

Look homeward, Obama

When the words “Chicago” and “politics” collide, a multitude of images arise. From the mythical voters who rose from the grave to elect John F. Kennedy in 1960, to the tear gas that separated hard hats and cops from billy-clubbed war protesters in 1968, most of those images have to do with corruption and conflict.

In the 1980s, Chicago was famous for bad blood and racial friction in city government. There was a series of theatrical City Council disputes dubbed the Council Wars by comedian Aaron Freeman, and then there was the bitter, racially charged 1983 primary that pitted sitting Mayor Jane Byrne against mayor-to-be Harold Washington, and future mayor-for-life Richard M. Daley, a battle of titans that now seems like a precursor to the 2008 Democratic presidential nominating fight.

Various articles during this campaign — including some in Salon — have attempted to tie Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to that outdated vision of the Windy City. But over the past 25 years, Chicago politics has evolved. The city is still divided along racial lines, and other layers of government here — from the Illinois Statehouse to the Cook County government — feature as much grandstanding and as many ad hominem attacks as anywhere. But anyone who doubts that a toxic political environment can be overcome should look to Chicago. Consensus has become more conspicuous than conflict. Deal-making is more important than showboating. In short, the city’s politics has become post-partisan. It’s a concept that should be familiar to anyone who has followed Obama’s presidential bid.

A line from one of Obama’s stump speeches sounds very much like words that could have been spoken in his adopted hometown at the end of the 1980s: “This election is about whether we settle for the same divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach for a politics of common sense, and innovation — a shared sacrifice and shared prosperity.”

They don’t sing “Kumbaya” in City Council meetings, but a general sense of civility prevails. In the same chamber that during the Council Wars featured endless parliamentary maneuvers and more than a few fistfights, policies are ratified in generally dull proceedings; details are usually ironed out internally before going public. Ideas hatched at City Hall are floated with community activists, business leaders and aldermen first — and woe onto any mayoral staffer who presents a plan to the mayor that did not receive the full sign-off before making it to his desk.



It’s a far cry from the Chicago politics Barack Obama first experienced when he moved to town in 1984. While this city hasn’t been divided along party lines since the New Deal — everybody’s a Democrat — racial divisions have largely defined Chicago politics. In the 1980s, during the administration of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, racial animosities were at their height. In his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama tells the story of an asbestos removal problem at the Altgeld Gardens housing project and how the residents came together to make sure the problem was dealt with and that the Chicago Housing Authority heard about other problems in the public housing community.

But just as momentum was shifting toward dramatic change at Altgeld that addressed a wide range of resident concerns, a public event featuring housing residents and the CHA commissioner devolved into a comical media circus that featured the commissioner grappling with a pregnant Altgeld resident for control of a microphone, then the commissioner sprinting out of the hall to his limo, to audience jeers. This led some to conclude that the entire event was set up not by Obama and the CHA residents, but by Mayor Washington’s intra-party political nemesis Alderman Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, looking to embarrass the mayor.

Chicago in 2008 is a city far more hospitable to community organizers like the young Barack Obama. Community leaders have real power in Chicago today — and they have the ability to raise funds not only from City Hall, but from a vibrant philanthropic community that includes heavyweight donors like the Chicago Community Trust and the MacArthur Foundation.

Obama knows about Chicago’s political evolution very well. In his 1995 autobiography, Obama noted how the petty divisions of the Council Wars made community action difficult — even with African-American mayors in charge for most of the 1980s. Obama’s wife, Michelle, worked in the Daley administration, in his Department of Planning and Development. It has been during the Daley administration, which began in 1989 and will never end, that Chicago has changed. Michelle saw firsthand the transformation of city government to its new model of consensus governing. Obama’s team includes Daley stalwarts like Valerie Jarrett, a possible White House chief of staff, and John Rogers, a major fundraiser. And Obama’s top political aide — David Axelrod — also happens to be Mayor Daley’s prime political advisor.

But with Obama’s nomination now all but assured and the general election rapidly approaching, Obama’s post-partisan politics remains largely undefined. It has led detractors — many of them loyal, liberal Democrats — to question whether there is a commitment to progressive policies behind the mantras of hope and change and to wonder if he’s a bit too naive, too academic and too “Dukakis” to win — or if he wins, to govern effectively.

Obama addressed this characterization directly during the MTV/MySpace Forum in November 2007: “The politics of hope … is not based on us all holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’” Obama said. “It is based on the idea that instead of people operating on the basis of fear, instead of people operating on the basis of division, I want people to come together and focus on the problems that we face: healthcare, education, global warming. We are not going to be able to solve those problems if we don’t talk about them honestly.”

Still doubts persist. And no one has expressed them more forcefully and consistently than New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. In a March 3 column, one of more than a dozen about Obama he’s written this year, Krugman says, “Obama, instead of emphasizing the harm done by the other party’s rule, likes to blame both sides for our sorry political state. And in his speeches he promises not a rejection of Republicanism but an era of postpartisan unity.”

Here’s the specific danger that Krugman envisions: “If Mr. Obama does make it to the White House, will he actually deliver the transformational politics he promises? Like the faith that he can win an overwhelming electoral victory, the faith that he can overcome bitter conservative opposition to progressive legislation rests on very little evidence — one productive year in the Illinois State Senate, after the Democrats swept the state, and not much else.”

Krugman has a point. Despite the rhetoric, it’s hard to find evidence of what post-partisanship means to Barack Obama in his legislative record. Obama likes to note the way he’s worked with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., on security issues and with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to create a federal database of government spending. But on a range of issues, such as ethics reform, Obama’s been a valuable soldier for the Democratic side, even helping Democrats to take on John McCain.

So like everyone else, I’m left wondering just what post-partisanship means to Barack Obama and how it could possibly work as long as the Republican Party has enough votes to stop a Democratic president from enacting his or her ideas. But having worked in Chicago for Mayor Richard M. Daley, I would like to suggest, gently, to the senator and his staff that an imperfect, but helpful model for post-partisanship can be found right here in his hometown and in a brand of politics a world away from “Kumbaya.”

When I arrived in Chicago in 1995, I expected hardball. I had just taken part in a brutal four-way U.S. Senate contest in Virginia featuring Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb, Republican nominee Oliver North, former Democratic Gov. (and the nation’s first elected African-American governor) Doug Wilder and former state Attorney General Marshall Coleman. Having worked for the failed campaign of Wilder, looking for a new job was not easy. The Democrats had just been booted from power in Congress, making it a mini-Great Depression for Democratic political operatives seeking work. And to make matters worse, I was a conspicuous supporter of a Democrat who had run as an independent. It was an opportune time to get out of Virginia and the Washington, D.C., area and head to the last place in America where Democrats retained a stranglehold on power.

I landed in Chicago right before the city elections, which always take place in the dead of winter and several months after regularly scheduled elections for Congress and statewide posts. That was my first tip-off that the city of Chicago had its own customs and mores — and the powers that be were eager to keep it that way. In Chicago, politics isn’t a spectator sport, and if you don’t pay enough attention to know how to participate, that’s all on you.

In the course of a haphazard job search, somehow my résumé found its way to the Axelrod & Associates fax machine just as Mayor Daley’s speechwriter had decided that he’d like to move into a policy position in the mayor’s next term. For all the talk about patronage hiring in Chicago city government, my experience — a complete outsider with no history in the city and no ties to any powerful person in it — could best be described as a mixture of 10 percent merit and 90 percent good timing.

After a few rounds of interviews, Mayor Daley offered me my introduction to Chicago politics. I only remember the first and last things that he told me that July day in his office. First, he said that national Democrats tried on several occasions to get him to endorse Chuck Robb in the 1994 Senate race. But Mayor Daley wouldn’t do it. “I’m a Doug Wilder guy,” Daley told me. It was nice to hear — not just for the respect he showed my old boss, but to receive the signal that the old Chicago of opportunistic racial division was at least in part passing from the scene.

He drove home that point with his final words to me as I exited his office, job offer in hand. “You’ll like it here,” Daley said. “There’s not a lot of partisan politics.”

That was a good thing, but writing speeches for Mayor Daley presented a few unique challenges. First, his Bridgeport accent tends to create strange sounds when applied to longer words (for example, “community” comes out sounding like “cuh-mun-ah-tee”). David Axelrod put a positive spin on it while I was interviewing for the job, saying that being a speechwriter for Daley forces you into a form of simplicity and clarity that makes you a better writer. Maybe true, but I still missed using words in the English language with three or more syllables.

The second challenge was that Daley demands full staff input into all speeches before they reach his desk. Daley, in this regard, is incredibly well-grounded for such a public person — he knows his own liabilities and relies heavily on experts to ensure that all bases are covered. Once I presented an education speech for his approval and he asked if I had run it past his education advisor — an advisor who had been hired only days earlier and whom I had not even met. When I answered no, I was subjected to a grilling that included the phrase “How dare you!” Over the top, certainly, but I never made that mistake again.

The third challenge for me was that Daley has strong beliefs about personal responsibility. He doesn’t believe that it’s the proper role of government to promise a solution for every problem — citizens have a responsibility to take care of their children, join block clubs, go to police beat meetings, run for local school councils and take ownership of their own communities. It’s a powerful message — one that defines him as a public servant and has made him an effective mayor for two decades — but it can be a difficult message to write without making the speaker sound like a scold.

I believe that this definition of post-partisanship — a return to community values in politics — works for Obama because it’s authentic. Early on, shortly after graduating from college, Obama showed a desire to create change by building coalitions, not employing media stunts or demonizing opponents. As detailed in “Dreams From My Father,” Obama’s early career as a community organizer forced him to find areas of agreement. Working to organize industrial plant workers who had lost their jobs, Obama would run into people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, but who were experiencing the same hardships. They wanted nothing to do with each other politically, but discovered that the only way to get their jobs back was to find common ground with each other.

And again, Obama would find this common ground among parents concerned about gang activity and a lack of police presence in their community. Action required bringing these parents together, getting the local church and small businesses involved and then arranging a meeting with the district police commander. And even when the efforts failed and the action lagged, the process for change was on target. There was no magic formula for success, but rather just enough incentive to keep working it until a major success — like the opening of a job training center — convinced activists that their hard work was paying off.

Somewhere between Obama’s arrival in Chicago at the beginning of the Harold Washington administration and my entrance at the end of Richard M. Daley’s first full term in office, a sea change engulfed Chicago politics. The community-based, coalition politics of wards and blocks had overwhelmed the theatrical sideshows of the Council Wars. Much of the credit belongs to Mayor Washington for empowering community groups that had long languished — organizers like Barack Obama suddenly had a friend in City Hall eager to build the community anchors, like modernized schools, job training centers and new parks, in black communities that had for generations gone to meet Irish, Polish or even Swedish-American needs. By the time Washington won reelection in 1987, he had become a true coalition mayor with substantial support from business interests and lakefront liberals.

But there’s no question that Mayor Richard M. Daley continued this momentum and, to the surprise of many, calmed the city’s political tensions. Mayor Daley adapted to the times and recognized early that he had a great deal to gain by reaching across racial lines to build coalitions with African-American and Latino leaders. He’s now routinely reelected with more than 70 percent of the vote despite the fact that white voters comprise only about a third of the city’s voting population.

Daley’s form of post-partisanship can lead to surprising government actions that defy ideological labels. Just last month, Daley responded to a wave of murders across the city with a very non-governmental suggestion — not new gun control, not more police on the streets or new drug laws. Rather, he called on people in all Chicago communities to organize — hold block club meetings, talk to neighbors, go to police beat meetings. Daley said that the solution to violence will come from citizens taking action and demanding change — finding their own unique solutions. And when they found solutions with a chance at success, government would be glad to help them succeed.

The authentic Obama has always believed in political organization and activism — and he’s often seen politics-as-usual as the enemy of real change. In “Dreams From My Father,” Obama recounts his job interview in New York with community organizer Marty Kaufman, who wanted Obama to work for him in Chicago. After talking a bit about Obama’s background, Kaufman asked, “What do you really know about Chicago anyway?”

After some fits and starts, Obama responds: “America’s most segregated city. A black man, Harold Washington, was just elected mayor and white people don’t like it.”

What follows is an illuminating dialogue. Kaufman says that the racial division in Chicago has created a media circus and nothing is getting done. The young Obama replies, “Whose fault is that?” And Kaufman says: “It’s not a question of fault. It’s a question of whether any politician, even somebody with Harold’s talent, can do much to break the cycle. A polarized city isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a politician. Black or white.”

And that’s the precise question facing America today. Not necessarily the racial part — although this year’s Democratic primary battle raises fears the party might be going down that path. But rather, even if Obama lives up to his potential and offers America hope of real change, given the pitched partisan battles of the past two decades, can any politician, no matter how skillful, break the cycle? Or are we stuck in a permanent state of battle over questions like: How badly was John Kerry really injured in Vietnam?

Are Americans ready to shout, “Who cares?” And if so, can a politician like Barack Obama seize this sense of exhaustion and forge a new style of politics in a political company town that once excelled in, that was built on, the examination and exploitation of divisive trivia?

If this approach has worked anywhere, it’s here in Chicago. This city — seemingly a liability to Obama’s electoral hopes — is actually the best, most authentic way for Obama to explain to voters precisely why some of the prominent controversies of his campaign so far are largely beside the point.

In a city as big and diverse as Chicago, creating a working coalition requires people to put aside old rivalries and past political disputes. When controversy erupted recently over Barack Obama’s longtime association with Hyde Park neighbor and former Weather Underground member William Ayers — who is unrepentant about his radical political past and the violent acts he committed — Mayor Daley immediately came to Obama’s defense, noting that he worked with Ayers in shaping school reform programs and that Ayers is a valued member of the Chicago community.

Daley then went on to say, “I don’t condone what he did 40 years ago, but I remember that period well. It was a difficult time, but those days are long over.” That answer may not pass the smell test in Washington, but it’s the way politics is practiced here. In Chicago, it’s more important that Ayers is the son of the former chairman of Commonwealth Edison and has become an expert in public school reform. He wants to participate at the table and he brings something to that table, so he’s taken seriously. This attitude helped former Black Panther Bobby Rush attain and hold a congressional seat. And it’s why former Students for a Democratic Society peace activist Marilyn Katz — who regularly battled Mayor Richard J. Daley, the current mayor’s father — owns a lucrative public policy P.R. firm that does a great deal of business with the city.

It’s also why the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has been judged here more for the community work performed by the Trinity United Church of Christ than for what he said in the pulpit. And it’s also why, when someone like Tony Rezko starts doing favors for you and helping you to raise money, Chicago politicians don’t immediately question his motives or check into his business dealings. In Chicago, as long as you bring something to the table, people are willing (almost eager) to ignore the less flattering dimensions of your character.

Doug Wilder, who, like California’s Jerry Brown, decided to run a city after serving as a governor, agrees that the open-seat-at-the-table style is essential to managing a modern American city — especially at a time of declining government ability to solve problems directly. Wilder, now mayor of Richmond, Va., likes to quote from Charles Landry’s landmark book “The Art of City Building,” especially a passage where Landry calls city management “more like improvised jazz than chamber music. There is experimentation, trial and error and everyone can be a leader, given a particular area of expertise. As if by some mysterious process, orchestration occurs through seemingly unwritten rules. …There is not just one conductor, which is why leadership in it’s fullest sense is so important — seemingly disparate parts have to be melded into a whole.”

Of course, Obama isn’t campaigning to lead a city, but a nation — the world’s richest, most powerful nation in a time of economic distress and lingering war. How is an open seat at the table going to improve the economy or win the war on terror? How does assembling a winning presidential campaign create a lasting coalition that can change the way the nation is governed?

The honest response is that greater activism, in and of itself, guarantees nothing. Maybe the level of civic education in America is so low that voters may be unprepared to meet this challenge. Critics might also argue that leaving a seat at the table open — and allowing a multitude of unelected leaders to emerge — opens the door to corruption.

Chicagoans would respond that the true naif is anyone who thinks that citizens who are inactive in politics — who bring nothing to the table — should share equally in the largesse of government. Politics does not reward passivity. And those who think that only the purely virtuous should be allowed to participate in public life care more about living out a grand-scale morality play than using the levers of politics to take action to build a more perfect union, or more livable city.

Also, if Obama were to embrace Chicago openly and use it as a model of change, there’s no question that it would invite Americans to place Chicago under the microscope. I live here, but believe me, I don’t want our tax rate, school system and, in early 2008, at least, level of violent crime replicated elsewhere.

Furthermore, many Americans fear our big cities — and no sane political advisor would recommend exporting the urban lifestyle to the suburbs and small towns that define the idyllic American life. But, for better or worse, big cities already define the dominant cultures of our nation. New York defines our economy, Los Angeles our entertainment and Washington our government.

So perhaps the best, fairest way to frame Chicago as a model for change isn’t to look at the policy specifics — because they are unique to Chicago. The city’s government is a better example in structure and process than policy. And it certainly isn’t fair or useful to offer a choice between Chicago and the rest of America. Rather, the most informative way to frame the discussion is to draw the distinction between Chicago and Washington. Do the American people want to remain tethered to the political treadmill of personal destruction and political grandstanding? Do they think that Washington — that most dysfunctional of all major American cities — should continue to dictate to the rest of us how we have to be governed?

Like Barack Obama, I became a lifelong Chicagoan when I married a Chicago native. Marry a Chicagoan and you are married to the place. And like Obama, I married a Chicago city employee — so my views are not only somewhat biased, but connected. For us, that kind of personal and professional attachment is normal.

What Obama promises is an America where politics is a good thing, where arguments on the merits are encouraged, where a seat is always open for anyone eager to sit at the table and contribute what they can.

I made my choice 13 years ago. And given all the facts, I’m confident that America too will pick Chicago over Washington.

Dan Conley is a freelance writer and former speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder.

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