Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Chicago political primer

I've lived almost my entire life in and around Chicago, so I'm pretty accustomed to how politics works around here (though I'm certainly no expert). I guess it's natural that I would forget that other people don't understand it, which would explain some recent outrage. Let me take one issue and try to frame it in Chicago/Illinois politic-think.

As a base for this discussion, I will try to convey some sense of the power of Mayor Richard M. Daley. He has been the mayor of the city of Chicago (by the way, it is always said that way, the city of Chicago, I guess so it won't be confused with the state of Chicago) for 19 years, and he will be mayor as long as he wants to be. His father was mayor for 21 years, and it is very likely that his son will take over for him. But numbers don't come close to explaining the hold he has over this city.

Let me put it this way: Daley has the ultimate power, in that he doesn't have to involve himself in any issue he doesn't want to. During the recent transit crisis, in which it appeared that thousands of Chicagoans would have serious problems getting to work, the mayor was absent. Even though there are few things more basic to the livability of a large city than moving people around it, Mayor Daley did nothing to break through the logjam in Springfield - he didn't have to, or want to, so he didn't.

Nothing of any importance occurs outside of the mayoral purview. Only the incredibly naive believe otherwise. Therefore, if you want to accomplish something, if you want to be someone in Chicago or Illinois politics, you go through the mayor. The remarkably inept current governor of Illinois is there largely because he married the daughter of a stooge alderman.

Now let me tell the stories of two people, two young men who wanted to make a difference.

The first grew up wealthy, the son of a utility company executive (again, I can only imperfectly relate how important the leaders of public utilities are in Chicago, but they are extremely important, and need to have very close ties to the mayor). The young lad went off to a Big Ten school, where he, as young people will, became suffused with the power of change. There was a war on, and society seemed to be turning, and many students of the time joined groups, marched, burned draft cards.

But this young man was a high achiever, and hooked up with a group that believed bombs were useful instruments of change. (I know, we call them terrorists these days, but it was a different time.) After three of his friends blew themselves up, he and his future wife went on the run. About ten years later, he turned himself in, and all charges ended up being dropped due to misconduct by the prosecutors.

He went back to school, made himself into something of an expert in education, and came back to Chicago to teach. In no small part because of his family ties, he has become an important figure in school reform, and has been praised by, that's right, Mayor Daley. Despite his past, he's got serious juice, so much so that he can be unrepentant about his past and not see any diminution in his power.

The second man didn't have any connection to Chicago until he was 23 or 24, worked as a community organizer, then, after three years, went east to get a law degree from Harvard, then returned to Chicago. (An important note here: you might think that a Harvard J.D. would be a real plus, but it absolutely isn't in Chicago. You're far better off with a degree from Loyola or DePaul; you can't trust those high-falutin' Ivy League lawyers.)

Within six years, this young man, articulate, intelligent, persuasive, had worked his way into the Illinois Senate. He tried for the U.S. House, failed, then ran for the U.S. Senate. He was up against a very attractive Republican candidate. The Republican wasn't ideal, as he had two graduate degrees from Harvard, but he had redeemed himself by retiring from an investment banking company and taking a job as a teacher in a Chicago high school. He was articulate, intelligent, and persuasive.

(By the way, Republicans can do fine in state-wide office, despite the fact that the Daleys are Democrats. The issue is, will they do anything to hurt Chicago? Almost no one will, so there is no conflict; Mayor Daley might not openly support a Republican for Congress or governor, but he won't necessarily have a problem with it.)

The Republican did turn out to have a problem; he had been married to a glamorous actress, and, apparently, had wanted to take her to (and "in") sex clubs in various cities. He dropped out, and the Illinois Republican Party, having no uncorrupted candidates, imported a fringe (if perpetual) candidate from out of state, who lost big to our young man.

After a couple of years in the Senate, this young man decided to run for president, a preposterous idea if ever there was one.

By now it's painfully obvious to anyone that I'm talking about William Ayres and Barack Obama, two men that have been linked, most obviously in the painful Democratic debate in Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago. And I think I've given enough context to understand the dynamic.

On the one hand, you have a man with a, to say the least, checkered past, but one who's parlayed his connections into remarkable success. He knows the right people, most notably the mayor of the city of Chicago, and has a long list of accomplishments.

On the other hand, you have a man with no family connections, no background in this city - he doesn't come from Bridgeport, or Palos, or even Lincoln Park, and he sure didn't bring a lot of money he could spread around.

Again, remember that Chicago isn't close to being a meritocracy, and it doesn't pretend to be. If Obama had any chance of effecting change through politics, he would have to do it through the system. Being African-American wasn't necessarily a problem, not any more, but he certainly had to play within the system, pay tribute where needed.

And he meets Bill Ayres. This is a guy who knows the right people, moves in the right circles. No one cares about his past, inexplicable as that might be - he's a good person to know, and he lives right around the corner.

Explain to me how Barack Obama turns him away. Explain to me, given the context I've described, how Obama purses his lips and says coldly to a friend of Mayor Daley, "I will not associate with you because of your past." How, indeed?

[Personal disclaimer here: a good friend of my mother was related to one of the members of the Weather Underground, one of those who was blown up. I guess that makes me unsuitable for any future political positions.]

(By the way, this post was "inspired" by a Matthew Yglesias post from yesterday. He questioned how Ayres could have this "banal-yet-prominent position on the scene." I hope I've given the reader some idea as to how this has happened.)

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