Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How Chicago shaped Obama

An article from the New Yorker, probably the same issue as the cover unveiled on this blog earlier, about Barack Obama is a very interesting piece. If there are those of you out there who are young and seeking to start a political career then perhaps this is the article for you. This excerpt should pertain to that segment:

While it’s true that nobody sent Obama in the sense that Abner Mikva meant it, one of Obama’s underappreciated assets, as he looked for a political race in the early nineties, was the web of connections that he had established. “He understands how you network,” Mikva said. “I remember our first few meetings. He would say, ‘Do you know So-and-So?’ And I’d say yes. ‘How well do you know him? I’d really like to meet him.’ I would set up some lunches.”

The 1992 voter-registration drive, Project Vote, introduced him to much of the city’s black leadership. “If you want to look at the means of ascent, if you will, look at Project Vote,” Will Burns, the former Obama aide, said. In Chicago progressive circles, Burns, who is thirty-four, is described as an up-and-coming African-American legislator in the Obama tradition. Obama’s refusal to endorse Burns in his primary earlier this year infuriated and mystified a number of Chicago Democrats, though Burns himself displays no bitterness and is now an adviser to the Obama campaign.

At Project Vote, Burns said, Obama “was making connections at the grassroots level and was working with elected officials. That’s when he first got a scan of the broader black political infrastructure.” It was also the beginning of a dynamic that stood out in Obama’s early career: his uneasy relationship with an older generation of black Chicago politicians. Project Vote “is where a lot of the divisional rivalries popped up,” Burns said.

In this early foray into politics, Obama revealed the toughness and brashness that this year’s long primary season brought into view. As Burns, who has a mischievous sense of humor and a gift for mimicry, recalled, “Black activists, community folks, felt that he didn’t respect their role”—Burns imitated a self-righteous activist—“in the struggle and the movement. He didn’t engage in obeisance to them. He wanted to get the job done. And Barack’s cheap, too. If you can’t do it and do it in a cost-effective manner, you’re not going to work with him.” Ivory Mitchell, the ward chairman in Obama’s neighborhood, says of Obama that “he was typical of what most aspiring politicians are: self-centered—that ‘I can do anything and I’m willing to do it overnight.’ ”

During Project Vote, Obama also began to understand the larger world of Chicago’s liberal fund-raisers. “He met people not just in the African-American community but in the progressive white community,” David Axelrod said. “The folks who funded Project Vote were some of the key progressive leaders.” Obama met Axelrod through one of Project Vote’s supporters, Bettylu Saltzman, whose father, Philip M. Klutznick, was a Chicago shopping-mall tycoon, a part owner of the Bulls, and a former Commerce Secretary in the Carter Administration. Saltzman, a soft-spoken activist who worked for Senators Adlai E. Stevenson III and Paul Simon, took an immediate interest in Obama. “I honestly don’t remember what it was about him, but I was absolutely blown away,” Saltzman says. “I said to several people that this guy, who is now thirty years old, is someday going to be President. He will be our first black President.”

Obama’s legal career helped bring him into Chicago’s liberal reform community. In 1993, after he finished his work with Project Vote and was seeking to join a law firm, instead of returning to Sidley Austin he took a job at Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a boutique civil-rights firm led by Harold Washington’s former counsel, Judson Miner. Miner had perfect anti-Daley credentials, routinely filing lawsuits against the city, and was a founding member of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, which was to Chicago’s legal √©lite what the Independents were to the Democratic machine.

Working at Davis, Miner enhanced Obama’s profile. “When you go work for Judd Miner’s law firm, that’s another kind of political statement,” Don Rose, a longtime Chicago political consultant, who ran Jane Byrne’s campaign, told me. Will Burns said, “I think it might have been helpful with a certain group of people that Barack may have wanted to have at his back at the outset. So you get the support of the liberals and the progressives and the reformers, and then that gives you a base to then expand to pick up other folks. And then folks would be willing to give money to the bright, shiny new candidate.” Joining Miner’s firm, like living in Hyde Park, was a way of choosing sides in the city’s long-running political battle between the machine and the Independents. Toni Preckwinkle explained Miner’s legal work this way: “They’ve shown a remarkable willingness to take on the Democratic organization and the Democratic establishment in this city and win. Which is why I like them and a lot of people hate them.”

If Project Vote and Miner’s firm introduced Obama to the city’s lakefront liberals and South Side politicians, it was his wife who helped connect him to Chicago’s black √©lite. One of Michelle’s best friends was Jesse Jackson’s daughter Santita, who became the godmother of the Obamas’ first child. Michelle had worked as an aide to the younger Daley—hired by Valerie Jarrett, who is now one of Obama’s closest advisers. (Jarrett, an African-American, was born in Iran, where her father, a doctor, helped run a hospital; she and Obama formed a bond over their unusual biographies.) It was also through Michelle that Obama met Marty Nesbitt, a successful young black entrepreneur who happened to play basketball with Michelle’s brother, Craig. (Nesbitt’s wife, Anita Blanchard, an obstetrician, delivered the Obamas’ two daughters.) Nesbitt became Obama’s closest friend and a bridge to the city’s African-American business class.

It's a very good article and it includes a bit of a knock against the governor that Bill Barr blogged about. A knock by Obama's current political operative on his thoughts before the governor ran for that spot some 7 or so years ago.

I hope when reading this article you understand how hardcore politics can be in Chicago. I suppose if you can make it in such a tough system you can make it anywhere. Of course, one shouldn't want to be defined by Chicago politics, as I think even Obama seeks to distance himself from.

Read the whole thing. I'm still not thru, but it's very long.

Also the interview with the Washington correspondent to the New Yorker mag, Ryan Lizzi discussing the dynamics of Chicago politics on NPR. The Sixth Ward will send you there.

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