Sunday, July 20, 2008

Obama's Chicago

"Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary."

Ryan Lizza, Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama, New Yorker, July 21, 2008

The question is which Chicago shaped Obama -- the political machine of the Daleys and Black Wards, the populist moment of Mayor Harold Washington, liberal, independent politics, or the feisty neighborhood world of Saul Alinsky and his followers?

One of Obama's strengths is that he fuses all of these Chicagos. A weakness of the article, at times, is that it reads as if these strands are all of one cloth.

One strand of Obama's story in particular gets short shrift in the article--the legacy of Mayor Harold Washington (1983-87). Many of the people mentioned in the New Yorker article got their political training wheels under Harold, or at least accelerated their abilities and access as political players. Sure, some of them puffed up their Harold resumes a bit, but that should be read as the magic of Harold himself, and the import of his few short years in office.

Harold Washington fought the Machine but he was also a product of the Machine. His father was a minister and a precinct captain--a potent political combination. Washington beat incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne because of his smarts, coalition backers, voter registration, and Richard M. Daley's role as spoiler against the Byrne faction of the Chicago Machine. Daley's comment about learning from this defeat says a lot about him. Nevertheless, when Daley finally became Mayor he sent Washington progressives packing into the political wilderness of exile, except for those who made up and played nice.

This year is the 25th anniversary of Harold Washington's mayoral election in 1983. It's worth remembering the racial divisiveness of the general election campaign. See:
Gary Rivlin,Fire on the Prairie and Paul Klepner'sChicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor. Also see my collection of gems from Washington's speeches: .

By his second term Washington had won the grudging support of white ethnic wards by showing them that he was Mayor of the whole city. Every ward got new infrastructure investments; Wrigley Field got lights; and the downtown boomed. Washington's agenda and governing style shaped subsequent Chicago politics.

There is no doubt that Richard M. Daley is a better, more up-to-date version of his father and, despite patronage gaffs and budget debacles, has modernized Chicago's Machine and turned Chicago a different shade of green. His combination of economic growth and municipal and social innovation reminds me of Mayor William Donald Schaefer of Baltimore, but with better economic cards to play.

And then here comes a bi-racial community organizer, law professor, state pol, and U.S.Senator who has consciously synthesized these multiple and varied Chicagos, including all their wrinkles.

It will be interesting to watch this new political synthesis from Chicago, in all its dimensions, play out on America's national political stage.

1 comment:

Josh said...

I too was intrigued by that New Yorker article. I knew Chicago politics had a reputation for being brutal but the article did a good job of placing Obama into that context.