Obama brings the Chicago crowd to do his business in D.C.

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 16, 2008 

CHICAGO — A generation ago, it was a big deal when the late Mayor Richard J. Daley got invited to sleep in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom after delivering Illinois and the 1960 presidential election to fellow Democrat John F. Kennedy.

It was a striking sign that an Irish Catholic from the South Side of Chicago had really arrived, not just as a big city political boss but also as a national political player.

That was then. This is now:

Come January, an African-American from the South Side is heading to the White House, not as a guest but as president. And he's taking a slew of Chicago Democrats with him.

Among them:

_ Rahm Emanuel, a Congressman from the North Side who will be White House Chief of Staff;

_ Valerie Jarrett, a City Hall veteran who will be a senior counselor in the White House;

_ David Axelrod, a political consultant to Obama and other Chicago Democrats, expected to be named to a top White House job;

_ Bill Daley, a son of the late mayor and brother of the current mayor, who also could be asked to come along.

Meanwhile, Chicago native John Podesta co-chairs Obama's transition team.

Other presidents have brought teams of hometown loyalists with them before. George W. Bush brought his Texans. Ronald Reagan had his Californians. Jimmy Carter took a team of Georgians.

But no president since Kennedy in 1960 has brought such a big city team, and none has ever come from Chicago.

It's a city of bare-knuckled politics, one where corruption and fraud once were so rampant that:

_ An alderman infamously boasted, "Chicago ain't ready for reform;"

_ People said the Election Day slogan should be "Vote early and vote often;"

_ A writer once said the city motto translated from Latin should not be "City in a garden," but rather, "Where's Mine?"

Some of that lives on, of course.

Dan Rostenkowski, a high-flying, wheeling-dealing North Side Congressman, was charged with corruption in the 1990s and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of mail fraud.

The man who ended up with his seat two years alter, Rod Blagojevich, went on to become a reform-minded governor. He adamantly denies wrongdoing, but he's been mentioned as the beneficiary of campaign cash sought by convicted Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

But the dead haven't voted in Chicago in decades. When Mickey Mouse was registered to vote this year, it was in Florida, not Illinois.

And none of the corruption scandals has touched the Chicagoans on Obama's team.

Opponents worked hard to tar Obama with the taint of graft, noting his past association with Rezko, for example. Radio talker Rush Limbaugh called Obama and Emanuel "Chicago thugs."

But Obama was never implicated in Rezko's schemes. And the only thing Emanuel's been accused of is an abrasive personality.

"When people think of Chicago politics, they think of questionable practices," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa, "even if the reputation may not be fully accurate any more."

Still, there are Chicago ways that even the most pristine of politicians embrace.

For one, Obama and his aides know city life firsthand, as residents and as politicians. When he gets to the page of the federal budget on mass transit, for example, Obama will be the rare president who's ridden the "el" train.

And, they all come from a city of ethnic, almost tribal politics where successful politicians learn to either defeat their rivals, or cut deals to get things done.

"When you talk about, you're talking about ethnic politics," said Goldford. "If there's a white working class anywhere, it's in Chicago."

"It's a brand of politics that's very practical compared to theoretical. A Chicago Democrat is different from a San Francisco Democrat,"" said Illinois state Sen. John Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago.

"Obama and Emanuel, at the end of the day, they want to pass a bill. They want to accomplish things. If they have to roll over a few folks or make a few compromises that others might not want, they'll do it."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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