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What is it about Obama?

Maybe it's his message of inclusion, his smarts or his million-dollar smile. Whatever it is, people seem smitten.

December 24, 2006|Terry McDermott | Times Staff Writer

Chicago politics, viewed from afar, often seems a monolithic thing. The words most closely associated with it -- "the machine" -- imply an implacable, unbreakable force. On the ground, nearly the opposite is true.

Far from being a monolith, the machine has many parts.

Anyone seeking to navigate and survive it, much less prosper, must master a set of equations that includes fine gradations of locale and clan. There are, for starters, the South Side and the Near North Side, the Loop, the South Loop, the West Loop, West Town, Irving Park, Portage Park, Hyde Park, this Catholic parish or that, the Poles, the Czechs, the Jacksons, the Bridgeport Irish (who are not to be confused with the Lace Curtain Irish, or with anyone else, for that matter).

You'll encounter a hundred fiefdoms without ever leaving Cook County, beyond which lie still more divisions -- the collar counties around the city, and, of course, downstate, which seems to include everything that isn't Chicago, from the northwest suburbs to the sundown towns (as in, if you were black, you'd better be out of town before the sun set) of Little Egypt, which are closer in almost every way to Alabama than Chicago.

It is a place, in other words, of great divisions and, maybe because of that, uncommonly well-suited to have initiated U.S. Sen. Barack Obama into politics.

Obama-mania has exploded across the country this fall, propelled by a wave of adulation that greeted the publication of his second book, "The Audacity of Hope," and by shrewd manipulation of the opportunity that attention afforded. He has popped up everywhere from the cover of Men's Vogue to "Monday Night Football." He has been urged to run for president by everybody from Oprah Winfrey to a shockingly large number of ideologically opposed political commentators.

For the moment, Obama has demurred. A decision, he says, is forthcoming in the new year. Hardly anybody who knows him doubts that he wants to run. But he has two young children, and whether he enters the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination will largely be a family matter, friends say.

Outsider in a big city

Obama arrived in Chicago in 1991, unbidden, with a fresh Harvard Law degree, big ambitions and virtually no reason to think they would ever be fulfilled. In a place of fervid group loyalties, he was a nearly complete outsider, having spent just three of his prior 30 years in the city, a member of no group but his own.

Five years later, he was elected to the state Senate, where he served until winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. What he had instead of a loyal base was a million-dollar smile, an optimistic message of inclusion, and a willingness to work with anyone willing to put a shoulder to the wheel of his choosing, no matter their ideological stance.

Chicago politics tends toward polarization. Depolarization is Obama's stock in trade.

Just a generation ago, Harold Washington was campaigning to become the first black mayor of Chicago, and he and Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale attended Sunday Mass at St. Pascal's, a predominantly white Roman Catholic parish in Northwest Chicago. They were spit on, cursed and lucky to leave unharmed.

In the 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, Obama carried every precinct but one in St. Pascal's Portage Park neighborhood. Talk to people who live there now and you could easily get the impression that Obama grew up one block over.

Why?

"Barack is wildly less threatening than Harold Washington," said Judson Miner, who hired Obama into his small Chicago civil rights law firm in 1991. "Even the North Shore ladies love him."

Go west to DuPage County, one of the most Republican in the nation, and you'll find a GOP county chairman, state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, who relishes the opportunity to accompany Obama whenever he comes to town. "My constituency is enamored of him," Dillard said. That Obama registered approval ratings in DuPage above 60% in this fall's campaign season is an obvious reason to get next to him -- but Dillard has been on the Obama bandwagon for years.

He, along with many others, was skeptical when Obama arrived in Springfield, the state capital. There was suspicion that Obama, with his fancy degrees and a job teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, was an elitist. It turned out he was a more or less regular guy who played pickup basketball and poker.

Obama developed a reputation as a very conservative poker player. He threw in many more hands than he played, said another state Senate colleague, Larry Walsh, a farmer from Will County. "I told him once, 'If you were a little more liberal in your poker-playing and a little more conservative in your politics, we'd get along a lot better.' "

Obama was somebody you could sit and have a beer with, Walsh said -- even if Obama, who frequently quit buying but not smoking cigarettes, perpetually bummed them.

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