Publisher's Note — October 17, 2012, 9:43 am

Is Obama Merely Warming the Seat for Chicago Politics?

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the October 17, 2012 Providence Journal.

If I had any doubt that Chicago is the center of American politics, it vanished when I disembarked at Midway Airport last month and opened the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper reported Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s implausible denial that he had been an intermediary between the Israeli government and the Obama administration at a recent United Nations General Assembly session. According to the Sun-Times, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his defense minister, Ehud Barak, to transmit a message to President Obama, through Emanuel, that Netanyahu “is not attempting to interfere in the U.S. election to benefit Mitt Romney.”

“All politics is local,” said the late U.S. House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, and local political power imposed on the country at large is why I had traveled here—to refresh my memory about why it largely still runs the Democratic Party and, for the time being, the United States. I had come to the Southwest Side to interview Alderman Edward Burke, the longtime Democratic leader of the 14th Ward.

He is probably the smartest and most eloquent person on the 50-person City Council, where he rules the powerful Committee on Finance. I wanted to learn more about how Barack Obama was launched to the presidency by the Chicago machine, but also to find out how Emanuel, a son of suburban Wilmette, came to be mayor after being a congressman and then Obama’s White House chief of staff.

Alderman Burke recently made national news by holding hearings on using local government’s right of eminent domain to buy mortgages on which owners owe more than their homes’ current value. Such “underwater” mortgages, having been issued when prices were inflated by the housing bubble, would then be written down to fair market value. Copying a plan in San Bernadino, Calif., Burke says his goal is to slow “epidemic” foreclosures in Chicago by forcibly reducing principal and interest payments.

At 68, with his impeccable South Side Irish political lineage and seniority in both the party and the City Council, Ed Burke might have been mayor by now. And yet here he was receiving me in his offices on West 51st Street, still the natty dresser and with the lively mind that I remembered from more than 30 years ago. Traditionally, much power in Chicago resides with ward committeemen. The huge sign above Burke’s modest storefront announces, “14th Ward Regular Democratic Organization—Edward M. Burke Alderman/Ward Committeeman” and underneath, in smaller type, “Daniel J. Burke State Representative,” underlining the status of Burke’s younger brother.

But Emanuel, who never was a ward boss and didn’t grow up in the city, is mayor, and it’s easy to imagine how much this must grate on Ed Burke. No surprise, then, that Emanuel, a former investment banker and friend of hedge funders everywhere (especially those who donate money to the Democratic Party), immediately announced his opposition to Burke’s suggestion that the city consider buying up part of its estimated 667,000 troubled mortgages. I tried to provoke Burke into the criticism that Emanuel doesn’t want the government subtracting profits from the speculator owners of securitized loans but he wouldn’t bite.

“I don’t know [why the mayor] opposed it,” Burke replied with studied blandness. “Because I thought that he’d . . . keep that question open and that it would enhance his leverage with the banks.” Burke said he had received no warning of Emanuel’s position.

But Burke’s problem with “Rahm” goes deeper than any disagreement about the policies or lack of political manners of the famously rude mayor, or Burke’s endorsement of Emanuel’s foe, Gery Chico, in the mayoral primary. His problem is with the Daley Machine, which still appears to be running the show since Richard M. Daley declined to seek re-election for mayor last year after six terms. Burke had already been thwarted once in his ambition to advance in political office, in 1975, when an incumbent Polish congressman died and Burke had every reason to believe that he would be the successor; instead, as Burke told a biographer of Mayor Richard J. Daley, Richard M.’s father, the legendary Daley patriarch installed a Polish “seat warmer” in case later “he wanted to send one of his kids to Congress.”

A former police officer, Burke was standing near the elder Daley on the floor of the raucous 1968 Democratic Convention in plain clothes; in 1989, he made a pact with the younger Daley not to help split the party again, as it was in 1983, when Richard M. challenged the incumbent, Jane Byrne, and allowed the election as mayor of the renegade African-American Harold Washington. Burke is a party man whom one would think is due for a bigger reward.

So how did Rahm Emanuel go directly from the White House to being the presumptive favorite in last year’s mayoral election, jumping the line ahead of Burke and such other local barons as Tom Dart and Lisa Madigan? How could someone who enjoyed the patronage of the Daley family, but didn’t grow up Irish Catholic inside the Democratic machine, get slated?

“Well, don’t you think [the former mayor’s brother William] Billy engineered this?” said Burke. “Billy went to the White House and Rahm went to the fourth floor [of City Hall].” When I pressed, Burke bridled at my apparent ignorance. “He [Bill Daley] didn’t have to have somebody installed. He just had to have the ability to get Rahm to run for mayor and open up the position of chief of staff.” I persisted: “But why give it to Rahm and not to somebody who’s part of the fabric of Chicago?” Burke replied impatiently: “But then there wouldn’t be any vacancy in the office of White House chief of staff.” At this point we were only disagreeing on semantics.

Throughout most of the interview, Barack Obama was curiously absent, as if his wishes were irrelevant in matters concerning the local power structure. Burke’s earliest memory of Obama was in 2000, when, as a state senator representing part of the 14th Ward, the future president asked for Burke’s support in his race against incumbent Congressman Bobby Rush. “He sat where you’re sitting,” Burke recalled. “Very, very intelligent, very engaging, pleasant, a nice personality.” But Burke declined to endorse Obama. Perhaps he sensed a losing cause, but he didn’t tell me why. “If he had won that congressional race, perhaps he’d be an obscure back-bench congressman today,” was all that Burke offered.

More interesting was Burke’s explanation of “Rich” Daley’s early endorsement of Obama for president when Hillary Clinton, a Daley family ally, looked as if she would easily win the nomination. “That was a local decision,” said Burke, made “because the population of Chicago is 40 percent African-American.” But, I protested, what about angering the Clintons? “What’s Hillary Clinton going to do to Rich Daley?” replied Burke, almost incredulously. “There’s no negative there.” I press on: Bill Daley was commerce secretary in the Clinton administration and the Clintons’ staunch ally in enacting the North American Free Trade Agreement. Why would Rich risk so early an endorsement when he didn’t know who was going to win?

“Who cares who wins?” said Burke, imagining the Daleys’ view and certain of the staying power of the Daley family and the Chicago Democratic Party, no matter who occupies the White House. The Daleys have a lot of children and grandchildren. And so, if I follow the logic correctly, Rahm Emanuel is just a seat warmer at 121 N. La Salle Street, and in some real sense so, too, is Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As the man said, all politics is local.

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