Obama’s Chicago Boys

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 4:00 pm
David Axelrod, Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel (WDCpix and Wikimedia Commons)

David Axelrod, Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel (WDCpix and Wikimedia Commons)

In the days following his election, it has become clear that President-elect Barack Obama is bringing a little bit of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s City Hall to Washington.

The White House chief of staff will be Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a former Daley fund-raiser. Emanuel is stepping down from his district on the city’s northwest side to help Obama govern.

Obama’s senior adviser will be David Axelrod, a long-time friend and ally who wrote speeches and ran campaigns for Daley for almost 20 years.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

And a key player on the Obama transition team is none other than William Daley, the mayor’s younger brother and rumored to be in line for a Cabinet post.

What will it mean for the country to have so many denizens of Chicago’s City Hall in charge?

Well, speaking as a Chicagoan who’s been watching these guys for years, you can put aside any notion that the White House will be run by left-wing ideologues. By and large, this is a bunch of pragmatic deal makers who view ideology — especially extreme left-wing ideology — as a weakness.

In this regard, they’re a lot like their boss. Mayor Daley acts as though he’s above ideology — in part because he has so much power he doesn’t really need it. Yet for all his power — and, believe me, he controls absolutely everything in Chicago, including the city’s legislative body — Daley is primarily a deal maker. He’d rather win you over than roll you over, though he relishes the second option if the first one fails.

That may explain why Daley seems to have a deep affinity for Republicans, especially President George W. Bush. In the aftermath of the 2004 presidential campaign, Daley sang in the Karl Rove chorus, assailing the national Democratic Party as a collection of “Washington elites” who lost the election because they “don’t like faith-based organizations” or people “who might read the Bible or read the Koran.”

I don’t know why Daley was so harsh on Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. Kerry only had nice words for him.

But I’ve always felt that Daley got along with Republicans because he knew they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, challenge his dominance in a Democratic town like Chicago. In contrast, his Democratic underlings — everyone from aldermen to congressmen — are constantly maneuvering to be well-positioned to replace him when he leaves office. After awhile, that sort of ceaseless plotting can make even the most powerful of politicians paranoid. In fact, I suspect  Daley endorsed Obama for president to get him out of Chicago once and for all.

In any event, Daley’s admiration for Republicans is mutual. In 2006, Bush spent his 60th birthday whooping it up with Daley at a restaurant on the city’s near south side. More important, the president has poured in more than $15 billion to help Daley expand O’Hare Airport — a huge boondoggle in which the city forced hundreds of homeowners in Bensenville, an adjoining predominantly Republican suburb, to sell their homes. As you can see, power politics is truly a bipartisan affair in Chicago.

William Daley has picked up his brother’s affinity for Republicans. So much so that if young William had not been raised in the household of his father, the legendary Democratic Party chieftain, Mayor Richard J. Daley, I doubt he would even be a Democrat.

Examine William Daley’s resume, and you’ll see he’s essentially a businessman who would fit in well with what’s left of the moderate wing of the Republican Party. He was vice chairman of Amalgamated Bank, and then a partner in a corporate law firm before President Bill Clinton brought him to Washington as a special counsel. He soon upset the Democratic union base by helping negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

OK, so Daley did spend a stint as a Democratic partisan when he chaired Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. But less than a year later, he went to work as president of SBC Communications, the giant phone company based in San Antonio, Tex. Daley went from fighting Republicans to urging their legislators and regulators to pass legislation that, as The New York Times put it, “would make it easier” for SBC “to roll out high-speed Internet service.” That, my friends, is flexibility.

Now, it’s true that Emanuel enjoys beating up Republicans. But I sense he does so more out of a love of winning than advancing any particular Democratic ideology.  He reminds me of Frank Kruesi, Donald Tomczak, Tim Degnan and other great mayoral arm twisters who terrorized City Hall on behalf of Mayor Daley through the years.

Guys like these never seemed happier than when wielding the considerable power they spent their days accumulating. If they have a philosophy, it’s a simple one: “Crush your friends — just for the heck of it.”

In the long run, I predict Emanuel will be reviled as much, if not more, by Democrats as Republicans, who won’t feel quite as much pressure to obey his commands.

Finally, there’s Axelrod, the spin artist supreme. He’s at his best on election night, when he parades before the cameras to explain why a loss for his candidate is really a victory, or a victory for the opposition is really a loss. For awhile I was starting to think his reputation was overrated — after all, how hard can it be to run the campaigns of an unbeatable mayor like Daley?

But in retrospect, I’ve come to realize that it can’t be easy making the Daley Machine look efficient and smart.

Not to bore you with too many sordid details from my hometown. But consider the four years preceding Daley’s 2007 run for reelection. His administration got nailed for awarding $100 million in affirmative-action contracts to a politically connected white-owned firm. His top City Hall aide went to prison for overseeing a hiring operation rigged to favor the well-connected over the well-qualified in tests and interviews. There was the Hired Truck scandal, in which his Transportation, Streets and Sanitation Depts, doled out $4-million worth of contracts to private truck drivers who did little more than campaign for the Machine on Election Day. And some city employees got nailed for running a heroin operation out of his Water Dept.

Have I forgotten anything? Oh, yes, the Red Line and the Blue Line — two of the city’s main train lines — fell apart for lack of regular repairs.

Yet, with Axelrod writing the propaganda and running the campaign, Daley still won re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote. That proves that either Axelrod’s a genius or the voters of Chicago are fools.

Either way, spinning for the White House will be a breeze.

Ben Joravsky is a staff writer for Chicago Reader newspaper, where he writes a weekly column about politics, and the co-author of “Against the Tide: The Middle Class in Chicago.”



Comment posted November 12, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

Don't forget Meigs Field.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 4:18 am

Ben, fantastic work! I love it, love it, LOVE IT.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 9:47 am

The assumption that the President-elect, a man of obvious ability to control all around him, would allow Emanuel the latitude to run roughshod over anyone is pure speculation designed to fuel controversy for the sake of justifying your salary.

Obama does nothing without a plan in place, and Rahm will be on a short leash.
Bet on it.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 9:54 am

I think Obama will be keeping an eye of these folks – it's way to soon to pass judgement

Eric Anderson
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 10:10 am

There is such a thing as too much news. With our 24 hour news cycle, so much of what we get is this type of filler. Prognosticating for a week before a football game is a ridiculous waste of time, but it happens week after week. It becomes even more ridiculous when applied to domestic and global affairs of importance.

I believe that writers should stop being paid by the word and/or article and start being paid for the newsworthy content of their articles. This guy would be out of a job.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 10:26 am

I agree with you and not just writers like him…take some of the pundits with him.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 10:30 am

Hey – they don't call it “the City that works” for nothing and Chicago voters definitely aren't fools. All you have to do is go to Millennium Park, walk down Miracle Mile, watch a game and have some beers and a dog at Wrigley or Comiskey, or simply take a commuter train or a bus into the City everyday and walk the streets to your office – it works, because in general, for a huge City – the People and the Politicians Care about the city. Can you tell I love Chicago? I was the happiest I've ever been sitting in my office on Randolph Street, with the exception of last Election night, of course!

Are Chicago politics rough? Yes. My favorite story is the overnight demolition of Meigs Field, an airport located on prime lakefront property in Downtown Chicago. In the middle of the night, March 30, 2003, Daley ordered the demolition of one runway, shutting the airport down, leading to its eventual complete destruction. The City then developed park and entertainment venues including a prairie preserve, a concert area, and a bird rehabilitation area in place of the airport. Did some political connections benefit? Probably. But the use of this large public site by an exclusive group of citizens made much less sense. Daley weighed the benefits, the risks, paid a few minor FAA fines, and made the lakefront more accessible to the masses – the best for the City. Phew! These socialists! What are they thinking?

Chicago politicians, like Richard Daley and his father before, know the lessons of making sure that the community is the primary beneficiary of any deal they make. They do not take the best for themselves and leave the dregs for their constituents. Obama, the Chicago Politician, the American Politician, will give the best to our Country not to Oil Company family and friends, not to Military/Industrial Complex cronies. Obama will not employ entirely the same tactics as the Daleys (especially in light of ethics rules he has proposed… bless him), but he has learned well how to develop and use his political arsenal (ask Sarah and John, oops! ask John and Sarah). He is positioning himself to hit the ground running. He and his team won't need to crush anyone, they will be fit enough to outrun them all!

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:00 am

please. the mayor is a big ass. yeah millennium park looks great. take a look at humboldt park. or any of the countless neighborhoods where the rich tourists and members of the international olympic committee don't visit. yeah mag mile is great for the moneybag tourists, but we chicagoans now choose to drive to indiana or wisconsin–or at least out of cook county–to avoid the highest taxes in the country. wanna sell your house? well, it'll cost you, because there's a tax on that. wanna go to the corner bar? it's probably not there anymore because the mayor taxed it out of existence. wanna order take-out food downtown, or go to a play or musical, or stay in a hotel? you'll pay more than the advertised price, because it's all taxed with special fees. and where does all this tax money go? besides prettying up the tourist sites and buying swank dinners for IOC members, it's hard to say. it's no secret that city and county finances are woefully mismanaged by cronies and crooks, so certainly a lot of our taxes go into the pockets of the mayor's childhood chums from bridgeport and other power players. don't be too keen to overcelebrate “the city that works” until you've lived here in an average economic bracket. it ain't all that. and king richard the second hasn't done that much to improve the quality of life for anybody who doesn't in turn line the pockets of his extensive network of thieves and liars.

alice fried
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:08 am

Now that we have a new president who wants to change the tear-your-opponent-down idealogy, can reporters follow suit? Will you guys please get out of personalities and focus on the issues. You have no idea how much venom and stupidity you spread.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:11 am

why is Chicago the murder capital of the USA?

John Wheeler
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:11 am

I was just watching a show yesterday how the FBI has been trying to clean up Chicago from MOB influence that reached all the way to the Mayors office. It involved a corrupt, administration, Judiciary, and law enforcement, and rendered the citizens of Chicago helpless. The FBI stated while they received several breaks in the early 1990 in fighting the MOB's stranglehold on the city, the MOB still exercises a strong influence over Chicago but has adapted a lower profile. I thought GW's corruption was bad but if Chicago is the mold that made Sen. Obama this is not the kind of change we need. It appears from Obama's choices for his administration thus far our country may be lost to even more rampant corruption.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:15 am

Whoa. Dude. Obama has yet to take office and already you're telling us what life will be like for the next 4 years? Hey, let's ALL just make stuff up…it's so much easier than actually, you know, doing that *reporter* stuff. I mean, why act like a journalist when you're a gifted clairvoyant? At least wait til Obama embraces the right and shuns the left before you open your mouth. Ya think??? Hillary LOST. Get over it, already. Geesh.

tanya johnson
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:29 am

DAMN!!!! I can't wait to get started….

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:31 am

Oh come on Ben – give Rhambo a chance. Probably should wait until this new administration is installed before you start your carping and speculating.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:34 am

I'm truly appalled at your guilt by association rhetoric. You may despise Daley and wonder what will be but please, let Emanuel do his thing before chopping off his head. I despise the assumptions and wonder where you are coming from. Oh yeah! Chicago. Can we just let Obama take office and wait a year before determining what is to happen or do you use a crystal ball?

Charlotte Stevens
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:34 am

Finally! Our Government will have a Northern influence, which has been missing since Kennedy!

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:53 am

Being from Chicago doesn't give you any special decoder ring as to what's going to happen in the future. What's going on here is that you just can't wait to pile on. Your predictions are meaningless.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:53 am

SO WHAT!!! Obama is a political juggernut hook him up with Axelrod,Gibbs, and Plouffe and we the world saw what can happen so what if Rahm Emmanuel is part of his new admin, I found that it is better not to doubt Obama's actions because since now they have been excellent!!

Rahm is going to get the job done and link him up with a brillant mind like Obama's and Axelrod and you've a hard-working administration.

Is this a conservative paper???

Pat Ryan
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 11:55 am

I'm willing to take all of your assertions about the various players as gospel, and would add that “The Left” already hates and distrusts Emanuel for his Hatchetman stint with the Democratic Leadership Coucil in support of their Third Way agenda under the Clintons.

I'm regisistered Dem but I self-indentify politically as None of the Above, and I suspect that Obama will do as he wishes and thinks best for the country.

Emanuel seems, as the author implies, to be a pretty non-ideological operative. He was hired to be the Guardian Rottweiller, and will no doubt perform superbly in that role. I do not expect Obama to give undue weight to specific policy initiatives advanced by said Rottweiller.

So too, with Axelrod. He has been very good at his specific job and Obama would be remiss to ignore his talents and track record.

Obama will indeed redifine centrism. That's been his message for the past 20 months. Why would anyone besides the Rabid Right think any differently?

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

Ehhhh – it's the old story. Good cop, bad cop. Rahmbo's the Rottweiler, Obiwon gets to look nice. Everybody will hate Rahm, & Obama can make the sweet deals, soothe feelings. YAWN. Given the shitstorm of trouble Obama is inheriting, some staunch Chicago political muscle is just what's called for.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

Ben– A whole list of Daley's “sordid details” and not a word about TIF's and the Chicago Public Schools? You're slipping…

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

Wasn't this piece supposed to be about Emmanuel? For a moment there I thought Daley was Obama's Chief of Staff.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

Oh, hogwash. Did you happen to notice that Rahm Emanuel is going to be working for Barack Obama, the man who just won the presidency by running what EVERYONE calls the most disciplined campaign in history? Whose side do you think he's going to be on, sir?

Russell H Manning
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

Ben Joravsky must have teethed on the staff of The Weekly Reader before his current assignment. Sounds like he's just bitter the Axelrod, a brilliant strategist and tactician, blessedly replaces kallous Karl. Sounds someone who admires success only when its Republican. Rahm Emmanuel earned my support during his Clinton years and is a worthy choice for Chief of Staff. Maybe David Addington wasn't available yet!

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

Right? That was my feeling as well while reading this…

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

And you'll notice the author carefully avoided mentioning ANYTHING about Emauel's years under Clinton. Didn't fit his thesis, I suspect.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

So the Chicago Democratic in crowd always played ball with Republicans and eschewed
“left wing” ideologues. I guess I woud have to describe them as Republican lite opportunists.
About all this nonsense regarding Obama having to reach across the isle – how often did the
Republicans, with the presidency for eight years and majority control of congress for six, do
that? I hope I'm not going to have to regret voting for Obama, the candidate for “change,” because
he gets in bed with those who would stab him in the back at first opportunity.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

Great start for the incoming administration. It is much easier to get elected a second time should you choose to govern in such a way that neither the far-left or far-right are given much voice in our government. As I have always thought Obama is a smart capable man who for the most part believes in the middle/moderate America. Of course it would be ignorant to think that an Obama administration would only placate one side over the other but you can be assured that his policies will most likely look pragmatic today and a decade later will then become true progressive policies. He can look moderate and centrist now because our economy and our nation's image abroad has been so tranished by Bush and co. Surely he will be attacked on the right by radio talk show host such as Limbaugh or Savage, as they are already doing, but their voices become all the more ridiculous with every passing day where the average American (the centrist american) simply wants policies that are explained and defined that work towards providing a more stabel future for themsleves and future generations.

Bill Rush
Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

Apparently Joravsky thinks he is a genius and could run the city of Chicago better than Mayor Daley and the Democratic Party. It's easy to be a critic. If he believes he has a better way to run this city, then it shouldn't be too difficult for him to get campaign funds and run for office. Or, he could move to a suburb.

The last Republican to be mayor of Chicago was William Hale Thompson. His second term ended in 1931 during the Depression. Republicans haven't been invited back since. This alone proves the voters aren't fools, particularly In light of the second bailout of financial institutions under a Republican president during the past 20 years.

Comment posted November 13, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

From article in today's (Nov. 13th)Time Magazine:
(Article includes description of Emanuel's father's participation in Irgun, an Israeli terrorist organization in the 1940s.)
“This is from the Jerusalem Post's account of an interview Benjamin gave after news of his son's appointment to the Obama administration was announced:
“In an interview with Ma'ariv, Emanuel's father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, said he was convinced that his son's appointment would be good for Israel. “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,” he was quoted as saying. “Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House.”
In a letter sent Tuesday to Rahm Emanuel, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee asked the congressman to “disavow and repudiate these remarks publicly.”

'”UPDATE: Statement from Rep. Rahm Emanuel's office (released Thursday afternoon): “Today, Rep. Emanuel called Mary Rose Oakar, President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, apologized on behalf of his family and offered to meet with representatives of the Arab-American community at an appropriate time in the future.”'

J Albert
Comment posted November 14, 2008 @ 10:06 am

Your exactly right by comparing this new administration to the Chicago Mob-run Kennedy machine of 1960-63. Wonder where we would have been then. We're repeating history folks, in so many bad ways. I guess we don't have to worry about Biden being completely insane like LBJ…. Rahm Emanuel?

tom bose
Comment posted November 14, 2008 @ 10:43 am

I sure hope so, especially in middle east matters. The Jews do not need any more. May be we will be controlled from Jerusalem. All moslems pack your bags!

Comment posted November 16, 2008 @ 8:24 am

Since 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue is the murder capital of the World, Chicago can't possibly hold that title.

Comment posted December 31, 2008 @ 5:50 am

IF you rea it carefully, you would notice the difference

Comment posted January 2, 2009 @ 9:48 am

Ben, you say “Have I forgotten anything?”

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Comment posted January 7, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

I think these guys look sharp

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Comment posted July 15, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

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