July 14, 2008


Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama (Ryan Lizza, July 21, 2008, The New Yorker)

One day in 1995, Barack Obama went to see his alderman, an influential politician named Toni Preckwinkle, on Chicago’s South Side, where politics had been upended by scandal. Mel Reynolds, a local congressman, was facing charges of sexual assault of a sixteen-year-old campaign volunteer. (He eventually resigned his seat.) The looming vacancy set off a fury of ambition and hustle; several politicians, including a state senator named Alice Palmer, an education expert of modest political skills, prepared to enter the congressional race. Palmer represented Hyde Park—Obama’s neighborhood, a racially integrated, liberal sanctuary—and, if she ran for Congress, she would need a replacement in Springfield, the state capital. Obama at the time was a thirty-three-year-old lawyer, university lecturer, and aspiring office-seeker, and the Palmer seat was what he had in mind when he visited Alderman Preckwinkle.

“Barack came to me and said, ‘If Alice decides she wants to run, I want to run for her State Senate seat,’ ” Preckwinkle told me. We were in her district office, above a bank on a street of check-cashing shops and vacant lots north of Hyde Park. Preckwinkle soon became an Obama loyalist, and she stuck with him in a State Senate campaign that strained or ruptured many friendships but was ultimately successful. Four years later, in 2000, she backed Obama in a doomed congressional campaign against a local icon, the former Black Panther Bobby Rush. And in 2004 Preckwinkle supported Obama during his improbable, successful run for the United States Senate. So it was startling to learn that Toni Preckwinkle had become disenchanted with Barack Obama.

Preckwinkle is a tall, commanding woman with a clipped gray Afro. She has represented her slice of the South Side for seventeen years and expresses no interest in higher office. On Chicago’s City Council, she is often a dissenter against the wishes of Mayor Richard M. Daley. For anyone trying to understand Obama’s breathtakingly rapid political ascent, Preckwinkle is an indispensable witness—a close observer, friend, and confidante during a period of Obama’s life to which he rarely calls attention.

Although many of Obama’s recent supporters have been surprised by signs of political opportunism, Preckwinkle wasn’t. “I think he was very strategic in his choice of friends and mentors,” she told me. “I spent ten years of my adult life working to be alderman. I finally got elected. This is a job I love. And I’m perfectly happy with it. I’m not sure that’s the way that he approached his public life—that he was going to try for a job and stay there for one period of time. In retrospect, I think he saw the positions he held as stepping stones to other things and therefore approached his public life differently than other people might have.”

...have been the ones who didn't spend their whole lives calculating how to get there: Washington, Coolidge, Ike, Reagan, W. They have vision that extends beyond their own career, so are able to compromise, because it isn't a personal affront to do so and are less vulnerable to the sort of petty scandals that engulf the schemers, like Nixon & Clinton, who have to try and protect their administrations at all cost.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 14, 2008 9:36 AM

From community race agitator to president in six years is truly an inspiring example for all African-Americans.

Posted by: h-man at July 14, 2008 10:46 AM

Had an interesting conversation Friday on the lakefront with a retired black truck driver who lives in Hyde Park. We gingerly got around to politics. He commented that he had very mixed feelings because he was proud a black man had a good chance to be elected President. But he was also highly suspicious of Mr. Obama because he was backed by a bunch of "rich white people from the neighborhood, if you'll pardon the expression." I told him we didn't disagree that much - in Chicago it's always about who sent you and I didn't care for them, either. He just sort of shrugged when I asked him who he was voting for.

Posted by: Rick T. at July 14, 2008 11:56 AM

That is interesting. If by November Barack [redacted] Obama (pbuh) is generally seen as being little more than a front for "rich white people", he's going to have problems getting that 110% turnout in places like St.Louis and Philadelphia he's gonna need to win states like Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 14, 2008 12:11 PM

Come on, Raoul, you know he'll get that 110% as usual. It's not as if that sort of turnout depends on masses of actual voters, you know.

Posted by: PapayaSF at July 14, 2008 4:23 PM

The turnout does depend on the machine people in those places agreeing to deliver, PapayaSF. That's why Jackson isn't so pleased - Sen. Obama is poaching on his turf.

Posted by: Mikey at July 14, 2008 10:26 PM
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