How the Chicago Way Helped Obama

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Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Campaign staff at Obama's headquarters

Chicago may be "my kind of town," as the song goes, but since Barack Obama's election, conservatives have been busy warning that it could be his kind of White House as well. "Dozens of Chicago advisers, officials and fundraisers have helped grease Obama's ascent from community organizer to President-elect," reads one typical report. "[They] may also be looking to ride Obama's coattails." The President-elect's selection of Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff and Chicago native John Podesta as his transition chief, as well as the news that his Chicago-based campaign senior strategist, David Axelrod, will be a White House adviser, has only fueled grumblings that machine-style patronage politics is on its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

John McCain trotted out a similar attack against Obama in the last few months of the campaign. In late September, the Arizona Senator released a television ad called "Chicago Machine." The spot began with a narrator intoning, "Barack Obama — born of the corrupt Chicago political machine," before running through a list of Obama's allegedly unsavory cronies. A few weeks later, McCain started using what became one of his favorite lines on the stump: "I don't need any lessons about telling the truth from a Chicago politician." (See pictures of Obama's victory celebration in Chicago.)

It was a snappy line, the kind of zinger McCain loved. But as with so many of his attack lines during the campaign, this one didn't resonate with voters. The jab was based on an outdated caricature of Chicago, and more than anything, it further underscored McCain's age. What he and fellow Republicans didn't (and probably still don't) understand is that being from Chicago is now an asset for a presidential candidate, not a liability.

Certainly there is no denying that the Windy City's storied political history is cartoonishly coarse and corrupt. The charge that in Chicago, residents "vote early and vote often," dates back to the election that followed the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Finger-pointing about who was to blame for the fire and its spread raised fears about electoral hanky-panky and led some voters to cast more than one ballot. In the early 20th century, a compromised police force and city administration allowed organized crime to thrive. Even the city's first commissioner of public welfare, a woman named Louise Rowe, had to resign within a year of her appointment in 1915 after running a kickback scheme in the welfare department.

Chicago politics isn't for the faint of heart. In the 19th century, Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne famously remarked that "politics ain't beanbag," and that's still the town's reigning motto. Emanuel, a Chicago native, is a typically colorful figure, known for once mailing a rotting fish to a political opponent and for a post-election dinner in 1992 at which he repeatedly stabbed a steak knife into a table as he yelled out the names of those he considered President Bill Clinton's enemies.

The Daley family has ruled the city for the better part of a half-century. And while the current mayor is considered tamer than his father, who was accused of swinging the 1960 election for John F. Kennedy with the help of some Chicago voters who had already drawn their last breath, Richard M. Daley has been dogged by problems of his own. At least one of his aides has been convicted in a contract-scam case, and the city council is rarely scandal-free.

The problem with trying to taint Obama with the label of "Chicago politics" is that most Americans no longer make the association with corruption. "We're not looked at the same way we might have been years ago," says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and chair of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We're not Al Capone's city. We're not the stockyards of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle." These days Chicago is known for blending working-class kitsch — Da Bears and the Cubbies — with cosmopolitan shopping and restaurants on Michigan Avenue. Its graceful mix of cutting-edge, environmentally conscious modern architecture and classic parks and buildings has actually given it a reputation as a model of a 21st-century metropolis, which the city is hoping to use to help land the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The attack also missed because it was hard to square with Obama himself. The description "old Chicago pol" conjures a stout machine boss wearing a porkpie hat and chomping on a stogie — not a whip-thin black guy trying to quit smoking. Nor was the Chicago machine an ingredient in Obama's political rise. "He didn't rely on the machine for his success," says David Moberg, who has covered Chicago politics closely as a longtime writer for alternative magazine In These Times. "When he ran for the state senate, Congress and the U.S. Senate, he was opposed by the party organization."

Chicago didn't only not hurt Obama's political prospects — it ended up helping him with the electoral map. In recent presidential elections, Democrats have struggled to hold on to their once solid base in the Midwest as they focused much of their energy on Southern candidates who could help broaden their appeal in culturally conservative parts of the country. With Obama, the party eschewed that strategy and instead found its standard bearer in its industrial Rust Belt roots, a place where Obama's reputation and early ground game could have maximum impact. It was no accident that on election night, Obama captured six of the states that ring Illinois, including three — Ohio, Iowa and Indiana — that John Kerry lost in 2004. (Obama lost adjacent Missouri by less than 5,000 votes.)

Illinois Democrats like Obama have also learned that their Midwestern base provides some inoculation against charges that dog their coastal colleagues. When Republicans call Nancy Pelosi a "San Francisco liberal" or derisively refer to Upper West Side and Cambridge lefties, they tag those Democrats as ideologically extreme and culturally élitist. Politicians from Chicago can be just as liberal as those from New York, New England and California, but they come from the much-fetishized heartland, which makes attacks on them a tougher sell to swing voters. And they have an advantage within the Democratic base as well: while party leaders have long assumed that only a Southerner could successfully take the White House, the party faithful have been skeptical of the centrist politics of many Southern candidates.

Of course, Chicago roots aren't always enough for a candidate, as Adlai Stevenson proved twice. But for now, Republicans might need to look for a new line of attack. With Obama on his way to the White House, the Axelrod-Emanuel-Podesta trio by his side and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin the new center of influence in the U.S. Senate, Chicago Democrat appears to be a winning label.

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