Article — From the June 2010 issue

In the Loop

Obama’s hometown takes Washington

( 3 of 8 )

the city that works

“It’s not an accident that a lot of the people Barack chose worked for Rich Daley,” Frank Kruesi told me. Kruesi, who has himself worked for Daley since well before the mayor took office in 1989, met me at a food court in a shopping mall two blocks from the White House. He had been the president of Chicago’s transit system—before stepping down, in 2007, during an outcry over shoddy service—and he now ran the city’s lobbying office in Washington. (Until recently, Kruesi’s wife was Daley’s scheduler, and several Chicago natives told me that if you upset Frank, you could forget about an appointment to see the mayor.) Kruesi said of the Chicagoans new to the capital, “As far as government policy and politics, I don’t think they could have been trained by someone better. It’s a strong alumni group.”

Michelle Obama and Valerie Jarrett have both said they took jobs at City Hall in order to dedicate themselves to “public service.” It is common in Chicago for people to shift between the private and public sectors and, if liked by Daley, to take on a wide range of roles for the city. Jarrett, for instance, served as Daley’s deputy chief of staff, the commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development, and the chair of the transit-system board before she returned to the private sector. Prior to his congressional run, Rahm Emanuel worked at the Chicago office of a large investment bank, earning $18 million in just two and a half years, a windfall due largely to the network of clients he tapped from his days in the Clinton White House and the Daley City Hall. Few Chicagoans would think of a job at City Hall as an opportunity to “give back.” Lynn Sweet, the Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, told me with a laugh, “You might think, That person has a good pension, or Maybe they know someone, or They don’t have to work very hard. But you’d never say, It’s public service. It’s not the Peace Corps.”

Many of the Chicagoans now in Washington, though they may have close ties to Mayor Daley, are not the machine operatives that conservative critics tend to envision. Neither are they the former political radicals and civil-rights activists who settled on the city’s South Side, nor even the reform-minded independents who once dominated Hyde Park politics. Indeed, in his 1996, 2000, and 2004 campaigns, Obama ran independently of Daley but never as an anti-Daley candidate—illustrating the careful balancing act that must be executed by a Hyde Park politician with greater ambitions. Don Rose, a veteran political consultant and organizer in Chicago, described Jarrett, David Axelrod, Duncan, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff Susan Sher, and other members of the administration who worked for Daley as technocratic apparatchiks; they were the mayor’s loyal managers and policy people. Rose said that Leon Despres, Hyde Park’s independent alderman from 1955 to 1975, had a name for their type: curiae. “He used it in the medieval European sense of one who attends a ruler and is delegated for numerous sequential tasks. I believe Despres spoke specifically of the Medicis.”

For nearly two hours, as the food-court tables around us filled with the lunch crowd and then emptied, Kruesi recounted his boss’s two decades as mayor in the most glowing terms. He dismissed as “cynical” the view that Daley had abused his power—that, in other words, he was anything like his father, whose mayoralty lasted from 1955 to 1976, when he died in office. “There’s this talk of unanimous votes in the city council, of Daley with his thumb on everybody. Nonsense.” Kruesi explained that people didn’t see the real work the mayor did to win over critics and to reach consensus. “It’s like a duck gliding effortlessly along the water. When you look under the water, you see his feet paddling furiously. That’s part of the secret of Rich Daley. He works so hard, and it looks so effortless.”

It’s true that Chicago no longer has a political machine as it existed under the first Richard Daley, with tens of thousands of patronage workers beating the bushes to deliver the vote. Campaigns in Chicago, like elsewhere, now depend less on ground troops than on corporate donations and television ads; the spoils come less as patronage jobs than as government contracts. Yet the city remains a kingdom of pragmatic dealmakers, of politicians who view ideology as weakness. During his years in office, the current Mayor Daley has personally appointed to the city council thirty-five aldermen, nineteen of whom are still serving in the fifty-member caucus. He has built strong ties to the city’s business community and the more conservative suburbs. He has taken direct control of the schools and public housing, while at the same time privatizing numerous public services. In short, like his father, he has imposed his vision on the city. During the planning of a downtown museum campus, in 2003, Daley ended debate over whether the city had the authority to close a private airport on the proposed site by sending over bulldozers late one night to tear up the runway. By way of explanation, the mayor said he was protecting the Loop from terrorist attack.

Daley’s long tenure and many successes stem in part from a willingness to embrace social change in ways his father refused to do, such as hiring African Americans and supporting gay rights. “Richie is a very smart person,” Abner Mikva said. “He has some of the deeses and doses of his father. But in addition to street smarts, he has an awareness of what’s going on in the city that his father didn’t.” The independent political movement that formed in opposition to the first Daley has also mostly dissipated. There are still a few causes that mobilize the small number of reformist aldermen—fighting the mayor’s plan to lease the municipal water system, for example—but progressive politicians largely have had little to rally around since they helped to elect Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, in 1983. “Daley hasn’t ignored the independent movement; he hasn’t dissed it,” Kruesi said, illustrating the word by slapping an imaginary face with the back of his hand. “It’s hard to demonize someone who is responsive and able.”

Many of the onetime reformers are now part of Daley’s network. Marilyn Katz, who along with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn was a member of Students for a Democratic Society, runs a communications firm and works closely with the mayor. She explained that Daley’s father despised her and her SDS compatriots, but that the son “looks under the police record or the rhetoric and asks, ‘Are you working to build this city?’” Katz has been friends with Obama since the early 1990s, when the two of them worked together on community—development issues and occasionally played golf. She said that Daley and Obama both learned a brand of transactional politics in Springfield; as state senators they made it a priority to get to know downstate Republicans and to work across the aisle. “Politically as well as culturally, Obama is moderate, a progressive moderate,” Katz told me. “I am by nature a radical, an outlaw. But there’s not really a radical bone in Obama’s body. It’s pretty funny.”

is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His previous article for the magazine, "End of the Road," appeared in the August 2009 issue.

More from Ben Austen:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content