Blue State Blues: Obama's Council Wars, from Chicago to Washington

Blue State Blues: Obama's Council Wars, from Chicago to Washington


A “stranger in a strange land”–Blue State sensibility with Red State sense of policy and politics. We are pleased to announce Joel Pollak’s weekly column, “Blue State Blues.”

If you want to understand Barack Obama’s presidency, you have to dig into his political roots. 

You have to understand the organizing tactics of Saul Alinsky, the anti-colonialism of Edward Said, and the constitutional vision of Derrick Bell. 

Most of all, you have to know the story of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, whose election drew Obama to Chicago, and whose political battles Obama likely imagines he is re-living today.

Washington was elected in 1983, defeating the remnants of the Daley political machine, which was dominated by white ethnic blocs. Until Washington, blacks had to know their place in the Chicago Democratic Party. And the party bosses he had beaten were determined to claw back their power. 

They formed a 29-vote faction in the 50-alderman city council–enough to block anything the mayor did, yet not enough to overturn his veto.

For three years, Washington and the aldermen faced off in what came to be known as “Council Wars.” The mayor could not appoint key officials or pass his agenda, and his opponents could not enact their own. 

So Washington decided to make the most of his executive powers as mayor to circumvent the aldermen and reform the city over the objections of his opponents, whom Washington’s staff accused of “political terrorism.”

Consider that a young Barack Obama was watching the drama unfold from within the heart of Washington’s constituency, among the city’s black and Latino communities. 

“More than anything, I wanted Harold to succeed,” he would later write in Dreams from My Father, his first memoir, “…like my real father, the mayor and his achievements seemed to mark out what was possible; his gifts, his power, measured my own hopes.”

Washington did eventually prevail after some of the city wards were redrawn and his supporters triumphed in special aldermanic elections in 1986–including Luis Gutiérrez, now a veteran U.S. Representative. In his own recent memoir, Gutiérrez recalls how his tough election as alderman of the 26th ward finally handed effective control of the city to Washington, who would be the tie-breaking vote between the council’s 25-25 factions.

Gutiérrez also recreates some of Washington’s spirit:

“In almost three years of hand-to-hand combat with the [Alderman Ed] Vrdolyak crew, I don’t remember him giving in on a key point.” And: “Nobody enjoyed politics and campaigning quite like Harold.” And also: “Harold believed in the power of a speech–of standing with people and talking until you convinced them to be on your side.” 

The parallels to Obama seem striking in retrospect.

Once Washington had defeated the white Democratic machine, it was sunk forever. Obama recalled Washington’s successful re-election campaign in Dreams: “He reached out to some of the old-time Machine politicians…ready to make peace. The business community sent him their checks, resigned to his presence.” 

The fever had broken, to use a metaphor Obama favors when talking about today’s Republican opposition.

Obama also took another lesson from Washington about what not to do. In his eyes, the mayor squandered a chance for radical, transformative change. 

“At the margins, Harold could make city services more equitable,” Obama wrote. But “nothing seemed to change” for the city’s poorest. And Washington never lived up to his potential, dying of a heart attack early in his new term, leaving a huge political vacuum that was never filled.

The lessons of Harold Washington’s career still guide Obama, and many of the Chicago staff who accompanied him to the White House–including Valerie Jarrett, whose father-in-law Vernon documented the Council Wars for the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. Clarence Page once described Obama as “an eager student of Washington’s life,” and Obama acknowledged Washington’s “lasting impact” on him, though they never met.

In Obama’s mind, the standoff with a divided Congress probably seems little different from the battles Harold Washington fought with Vrdolyak. 

He may believe that the Tea Party is motivated by racism, as the old Chicago Democrat machine often was. And he constantly predicts that all it will take to defeat the opposition is one final, decisive win, one that shatters its will to fight and forces a new reconciliation–on his terms.

Regardless, he is determined not to waste the opportunity Washington once had. “He saw no reason to take any big risks, no reason to hurry. He said he’d be mayor for the next twenty years,” Obama wrote of Washington. 

Obama knew he had eight years, at most, which is why he put fundamental changes first, and took the massive risk of pushing Obamacare through Congress, even at the cost of the House majority.

Yet Obama missed three lessons from Washington. 

One: Washington actually cut government and improved its finances. Two: Washington understood that government had to handle basic duties before grand visions. And three: Obama’s opponents are not the bitter racist clingers of the Chicago Democratic machine, but rather the core of the middle class he purports to represent. 

By targeting them, he is undoing his own legacy.


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