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Barack Obama: not your typical Chicago politician

CHICAGO—Watching Barack Obama launch his presidential campaign, you'd never know he's from Chicago.

He staged the dramatic kickoff downstate in Springfield, far from his adopted hometown. He barely mentioned Chicago. And he didn't share the stage—or the spotlight—with any of the well-known Democratic politicians from Chicago. Not Gov. Rod Blagojevich, not Mayor Richard M. Daley. Not the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

His seeming slight of Chicago shouldn't be a surprise. For while Obama is from Chicago, he's not of it. At least not its politics.

The first-term Democratic senator didn't come up through the rough ranks of Chicago politics. He got his start as a neighborhood organizer who fought City Hall. He was just a bystander to the 1983-87 reign of the city's only African-American mayor, Harold Washington. He made his first unsuccessful run for Congress against an established black congressman, Bobby Rush. And he ran for the U.S. Senate against an Irish-American Democrat with deep roots in Chicago's political machine and broad support from the party establishment.

"He's an enigma," said Denny Jacobs, a former Democratic state senator from East Moline who served with Obama in the state Legislature.

"He's not the mayor's guy. He's not the aldermen's guy. He's not the county board chairman's guy. He's nobody's guy. Usually you're somebody's guy. In Chicago, that's a way of life."

It's not that Obama is at odds with Chicago politics. He's endorsed Daley for re-election, for example.

But being free of debts to Chicago's political establishments —black or white—gives him more freedom to seek the White House without being implicated in City Hall patronage investigations or having close ties to a controversial figure such as Jackson.

"He's trying to show he's not just a Chicago politician. He's a politician for all the people," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from Will County, north of Chicago.

"Barack realizes you have to appeal to everybody. ... Jesse Jackson is not liked in a lot of places. He's praised in certain places, disliked in others."

A native of Hawaii, Obama came to Chicago as a community organizer in 1985—nine years after the legendary machine politician Richard J. Daley, the current mayor's father, had died and two years after Washington became mayor.

Young Obama worked with church and neighborhood groups on the South Side, fighting the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from housing and pushing the mayor's Office of Employment and Training to open a job-training center in a poor neighborhood.

Gradually known in the activist community, profiled in an alternative weekly newspaper, Obama was still far removed from the power centers of ward organizations or City Hall, where other young Chicago politicians sought their first steps up the ladder.

Eventually, he left to attend Harvard Law School, returning to Chicago to practice civil rights law and teach at the University of Chicago Law School.

That, too, set him apart in a city in which mayors and other politicians tend to get their degrees locally—both Daleys went to DePaul University's law school and Washington went to Northwestern's—and their real educations in ward politics.

While the University of Chicago is world renowned, with ties to 79 Nobel Prize winners and six currently on the faculty, it's hardly a hotbed of ward bosses.

Even the Hyde Park neighborhood around the university campus, where Obama lives, is something of an island: more diverse, liberal, reform-minded and intellectual than most of the city.

When Obama challenged U.S. Rep. Rush in a Democratic primary, Rush used Hyde Park against the newcomer.

"Rush said he was the real Chicagoan, that Hyde Park really isn't part of the city of Chicago, that this was a reform-oriented outsider and that they didn't need that kind of person," said Larry Bennett, a political scientist who teaches Chicago politics at DePaul.

"It is certainly different than most neighborhoods in Chicago," Bennett said.

"There is probably a smaller percentage of Bears fans in Hyde Park than any other neighborhood in the city," he added with a laugh, though Obama himself made a videotape pitch for the Bears during the NFL playoffs. "Intellectuals in Hyde Park follow sports like cricket or the other kind of football, or no sports at all."

If Hyde Park is intellectual and liberal, the politics of City Hall is back-scratching deals and non-ideological governing.

Daley, for example, recently vetoed a City Council proposal to force big retailers such as Wal-Mart to pay a living wage higher than the minimum wage, saying it would hurt jobs. Obama proposed a national living wage in his Springfield speech.

"It's a conservative Democratic Party here," said Cynthia Canary, the executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "They're not progressive Democrats. Pro-development, cautious fiscal approach, not activist on social issues."

They're also prone to federal ethics investigations. There's one now in City Hall.

"Had he come up through those ranks," Canary said, "I doubt he would be a standard-bearer on issues like ethics and accountability in government. His message would be different."


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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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