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Obama’s Chicago Boys


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

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.” *

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