Wednesday, August 20, 2008



An ill-informed article in today’s (i.e., Wednesday, 8/20’s) Wall Street Journal arguing that Barack Obama “play(s) by Chicago rules” provided me the opportunity to write a letter to that esteemed paper regarding one of my favorite subjects: Chicago politics. The letter is reproduced below:


In his 8/20/08 screed lambasting Barack Obama as one who “played by Chicago rules,” David Freddoso writes: “In the 2006 election, reformers from both parties attempted to end the corruption in Chicago’s Cook County government. They probably would have succeeded, too, had Mr. Obama taken their side.” Mr. Freddoso then goes on to castigate Obama for endorsing neither independent Democrat Forrest Claypool nor Republican Tony Peraica in their respective races against two generations of the reliably Machine Stroger family.

By making that statement, Mr. Freddoso displays an utter lack of knowledge of Chicago politics. First, anyone who thinks that one election could “end the corruption in Chicago’s Cook County government” is incredibly naïve, ill-informed, or both. Corruption in Cook County government did not start with the late John Stroger; it is longstanding and endemic. Insiders are fond of saying things like “You think the city (Chicago) is corrupt? Hell, it’s Minnesota compared to the county (Cook)!” Whether the Strogers or nominal reformers Forest Claypool or Tony Peraica headed the County Board would have had little impact on the pervasive culture of corruption in Cook County, either because that corruption is so deeply rooted or because Mr. Claypool or Mr. Peraica, as do most Chicago “reformers,” would likely have grown comfortable, and corrupt, once he won the big prize. Remember Jane Byrne or Jim Dvorak? Mr. Freddoso probably doesn’t.

Second, whether Mr. Obama had “taken their (the reformers’) side” would have meant virtually nothing in the County race or in some general crusade for clean government in Chicago and Cook County. In Chicago, a U.S. Senator, even a rock star like Barack Obama, ranks far behind the mayor, the county finance committee chairman (even if he were not the Mayor’s brother), the county board president, and many aldermen and/or ward committeemen on the clout list. Sure, a Senate seat is considered important, largely because a good Senator can bring plenty of federal money for the local political machinery to distribute, but its holder has little or no impact on local elections. Obama’s endorsement of either Claypool or Peraica would have had negligible impact in liberal areas of the city and county that would have gone for Claypool anyway, zero or negative impact in White ethnic Machine wards, and only marginally more impact in Black wards dominated by powerful Machine committeeman and that would have gone for Stroger in any case.

There is indeed something to Mr. Freddoso’s overall argument that Mr. Obama is perfectly comfortable playing ball with the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization and its colorful, perhaps nefarious, denizens, though probably not as much as Mr. Freddoso would have one believe. More important, we are about to see many articles castigating Mr. Obama as some sort of Machine hack or pawn of Mayor Daley. If one is to make this only somewhat strained argument effectively, one should know something about how politics works in Chicago. Mr. Freddoso, if this article is any evidence, does not.

Mark Quinn
Naperville, IL

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