Youve heard it and seen it and read it dozens of times: Obama is bringing Chicago politics to Washington! Obama, part of the Chicago machine, is doing business old school! The President is showing the world the Chicago way of working
Except, none of it is true.
Take this from someone who has lived in the Chicago area for decades and has studied the intricacies of its political engine. Not only is Obama not part of the Chicago machine, the machine doesnt even like him all that much.
Chicago has obviously always had a bizarre love-hate for its politicians, even back to the 19th Century. The current Chicago machine functions surprisingly well (if you dont mind the odd death here and there, but those are almost always from negligence). Indeed, one can easily argue that the current mayor, Richard M Daley, has done an outstanding job of transforming the city from a hole of inner city blight to million dollar condos and Starbucks on every corner.
What is the machine?
First, know that the Chicago machine covers the entire state: the Chicago machine fully owns and operates Springfield The machine is run like organized crime, but is not organized crime like you think of it.
Like organized crime, it operates many interests across a wide geographical area, involving union labor as its willing stooge, with many different functions. There are multiple levels, with big fish gobbling up whatever they can, and little fish trying to become bigger fish. It exists to meet their personal needs, but also fulfills countless functions that clients desire. And it is entangled in so many legitimate businesses that it is difficult to point to anything illegal.
Unlike organized crime, its membership is pretty open. White, black, or hispanic members are welcome. No family in Sicily collects the loot: it invests and divests itself fully. It also oddly seems to want to help people: trash is collected, potholes get fixed, and events are fun and well attended. Boondoggles are rare. And again, if you cross them, you simply tend to have to pay out a lot of money in bizarre fire inspections and code violations until you leave. People rarely wake up dead.
Corruption is a given. Here is a theoretical example of Chicago politics: you announce you want to have a fund-raising event for charity. Your alderman gets on board, and says it will be a major success. Suddenly, you are contacted by planners and organizers who seem to be producing all sorts of media releases and cornering celebrities. A company you never heard of insists on providing the chairs and tables; another group will provide audiovisual entertainment, and a third company will handle set up and garbage collection. The mayor shakes your hand for the press, and now the fire regulations limiting you to 2,000 people are waived, and you may have 4,500 people crammed into the room. Not a problem, because the City is providing you the room at a discounted cost. Because its a charity, you wonder why you are paying sales tax to these mysterious vendors showing up with stuff. The Illinois legislature bangs a gavel, and you are informed all your taxes will be paid back.
Two weeks later, your event is attended by 4,500 people, and you raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. You could not be more happy. The event winds down, the people go home, and the trash and tables and leftover food all goes away. But when you pay your bills, you suddenly find bizarre charges and taxes you did not expect. In fact, by the end of the week, you find your charity raised a grand total of $1,100.
A month later, your trash is found floating in the Chicago river. An investigation shows that the trash pickup was handled by a company owned by the aldermans brother-in-law, and the mayors cousin provided the food and beverages. And the audiovisual gear was discovered to be stolen by a Chicago street gang, and the owner of the company mysteriously settled his insurance for the stuff at twice the usual rate through another aldermans brother. The tables and chairs were provided by a state representatives sister, and her company is being indicted for links to suspicious purchasing activity through your same aldermans cousins company. And when you call about the state tax exemption, no one has heard of you, and the money is not returned. And then youre fined for violating fire regs, and no one heard of the fire prevention clerk who told you that you were good to go, even though it turns out shes a state senators sister-in-law.
Thats how its done in Chicago. You got what you wanted, but everybody got a bit richer than you.
Who is in the machine?
Three big names are Mayor Richard M. Daley, Richard Dick Mell, and Mike Madigan. Daley is, in the Czars opinion, far more powerful and effective than his oft-cited father. Dick Mell is, of course, Rod Blagojevichs father-in-law. Rod was very much part of the Chicago machine, but got greedy and took a profit for himself at the expense of one of Dicks financial interests. This caused a terrible fued between them. When Blagojevich also turned on Madigan, it was time for Rod to go. And suddenly, the long-standing charges of corruption against Blagojevich were acted upon. By the state AG, Lisa Madigan (yes, shes the daughter).
Mell runs the day-to-day workings of the machine which involve most if not all the alderman in the city. Madigan exerts and maintains its control over Springfield. Daley is a visible face, but tends to have few obvious linkshe keeps a good distance from the ugly stuff and is an excellent capo.
The late John Stroger was a powerful member when he controlled Cook Countys interests in the machine; shortly before his death, he undemocratically appointed his son, Todd, to replace him. Todd was an apple who fell far from the tree, and was recently ousted in an election. This has greatly weakened the machines control over Cook County, but give it time.
Other names are Dan Hynes, Bill Lipinski, and Ed Burke. In the old days, under the former Mayor Daley, Jesse Jackson was part of the machine. He was hired to be a toll booth collector by the Mayor, and rapidly moved his way up. He is no longer part of the machine, as he lost his support in the late 70s after Daley (elders) death. Jackson now stays around as a media whore who has little useful to say, although he evidently saw dollar signs in Obama that, alas, never materialized for him.
What does the machine do?
Effectively, its a straightford influence peddling network. Each of its members has the ability to direct money from one group of people to a private company, directly or indirectly receiving financial gain or material benefits. In exchange, they counter the unions slightly to keep the city, county and state (until quite recently) in the black. Yes: you read that correctly. Although they are all democrats, who profit immensely from organized labor, they actually dislike the unions. Daley has become quite out-spoken against the union influence in Chicago. However, the unions stay quiet because the money is good for them, toothese companies who seem to win the sweet jobs are invariably union, and owned by someone close to the machine.
When it breaks down, its spectacular. Typically, three elements are involved: someone gets killed (because a safety inspection did not happen, repairs never occurred on time, or some was asleep at a switch), money is revealed to have switched hands in a questionable fasion, and there is a direct relation to a member of the machine (spouse, brother, sister, in-law, cousin, child, parent).
So Obama is not part of the machine?
Far from it. He has of course touched it: he saw a lot of it as a state senator. But Obama was not born in Chicago, did not grow up here, and had no ties here until the mid-to-late 1980s when he became a community organizer. This was not a politically connected job (it was tied to a church, not the City), and within a couple years he was gone again, traveling overseas. He did not return to Chicago until he worked as a summer associate at two different Chicago law firms not tied to the machine. He returned to Chicago after law school but became a professor at the University of Chicagoagain, academia being pretty far removed from the machine.
His first experience with politics did not come until 1996 when he became a state senator. He served queitly there, and no doubt made many machine acquaintance therebut he almost immediately started a run for the US House of Representatives (losing in 2000), which took him out of the day-to-day machine operations. In 2004, he ran for the US Senate and won, and almost as quickly target the Presidency. His total time of exposure to the Chicago machine? Less than four years. Thats not enough time to make friends there.
As a result, Obama never established strong links to the machine, never earned its trust (note the utter lack of support shown by Daley, Madigan, and others throughout Obamas political career), and never learned its rules or tricks. Which is why his attempts to act like a Chicago-style politician blow up in his face.
But didnt Blagojevich try to sell Obamas senate seat for cash?
Yep. And Obama didnt even know him or know much about it. Blago would have sold a Republicans seat for cash. Blago was still part of the machine. A defective part, but still a party. If Obama had been part of the machine, Obama would have sold his own seat for cash.
Aha! But what about Rahm Emmanuel?
Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel would very much like to say he is part of the machine; indeed, he doubtless convinced the President he was the machine and could get things done. He had the background: his maternal grandfather was a big time Chicago labor union organizer and Rahm himself was part of the Daley camp as early as 1989. But Emmanuel came and went from Chicago politics, eventually leaving it to be a reckless member of the Clinton administration. After this, Emmanuel went into Illinois politics, but never really kept his ties to Chicago terribly strong.
The thought here in Chicago is that Emmanuel has utterly failed to impress Obama in quite the same way he impressed Clinton (and perhaps that has a lot to do with it). Rumor is that Valerie Jarrett has been a stronger influence and is better at foretelling events than Emmanuel. The expectation is that Emmanuel will resign sometime this year to be replaced by Jarrett. So even if Emmanuel remains a distant cog in the machine, his influence is dwindling fast.
Aha! But what about David Axelrod?
Mmm. Actually, Axelrod is almost opposed to the machine. He was a newspaper writer who dealt with stories on the machine, and eventually went on to become a political consultant. His first big client was Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago but quickly ran afoul of the machine (hes a whole separate story!). Although Axelrod eventually went on to consult for Daleythe machine man himself in 1989, he did not stay long (only months), but went on to help politicians in other states (and even Canada!). It was not until 2006 that he returned to Chicagoto help Rahm Emmanuel. So Axelrod is even further removed.
Is anyone in Obamas inner circle part of the machine?
You know who makes the best case? Michelle Obama. We forget, but she was heavily tied into the Daley administration, and worked in a variety of roles, moving higher and higher up each time. What hurts her influence there was that she largely cut off direct ties with Chicago politics in 1996. You can leave the machine, but dont expect it to continue working for you.
Obama may be from Chicago, and he may have seen and touched the machine, but he is not of the machine. The machine does not seem to appreciate him, does not trust him, and certainly would not acknowledge his successes but will underscore his failures. Proof of this is the severe criticism he received for getting involved with the Chicago Olympic bid at the request of Michelle. Many in Chicago incorrectly blame no one but Obama for losing it (the machine itself was the reason it failed).
So when journalists, radio talk show hosts, bloggers, and comment captains all deride the President for his Chicago-style politics, theyre wrong. Obama is as far from being a product of Chicago politics as Ronald Reagan was.