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Obama's not-so sweet home, Chicago

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-11-03

Chicago, where Obama launched his career, is a notoriously difficult city for newcoming politicians to break into. Although he has come to be embraced by the city’s elite, it can cast a shadow on the presidential hopes of its most famous resident.


Read reporter Leela Jacinto's notebook from Chicago.


CHICAGO, USA -- It was back in 1991, at the age of 30, that Barack Obama finally made Chicago his home.


After three decades of criss-crossing the country - between Hawaii, New York, Chicago and Boston - following his childhood years in Indonesia, this son of a Kansas-born mother and Kenyan-born father settled in America's Windy City.


Perched on the southwestern tip of Lake Michigan in the Midwestern state of Illinois, Chicago has housed waves of migrants, from African-Americans fleeing the rural South, to Irish immigrants fleeing famine, as well as Polish, German, Greek communities, followed by Mexican, Chinese and South Asian immigrants - to name just a few.


In the 2000 census, nearly 3% of Chicago's 2 million-odd residents said they were multiracial, claiming ancestries from two or more races.


For an ambitious, biracial young man seeking to sink his roots, Chicago seemed like an ideal spot.


This metropolitan hub of America's mid-section is where Obama forged his personal and political identity. It's where he met his wife, Michelle, where they raised their two girls, and it's from Chicago's hard-bitten South Side area that Obama launched his stunning political career.


And by the looks of it, Chicago is proud to be the home of America's first mainstream black presidential candidate. Just days before the Nov. 4 polls, this statuesque city, famed for its immense, iconoclastic architecture, has been turned into a virtual Obama shrine. On the streets, cars bearing Obama '08 bumper-stickers navigate the traffic, whizzing past homes emblazoned with Obama-Biden garden signs and shoppers sporting a variety of Obama T-shirts.


If Chicago has been good to Obama, Obama, in his own way, has been good to Chicago.


In the course of his record-shattering 2008 presidential bid, the Democratic candidate has gradually shifted the nerve center of the Democratic National Committee operations from Washington to Chicago. His campaign headquarters are in the Loop, Chicago's downtown commercial district. And on Nov. 4, Chicago's most famous living resident will end his historic presidential campaign at Grant Park, the enormous lakeside park framed by Lake Michigan and the city's iconic skyline.


Welcome to the machine


But Chicago also has a seamy underside that has threatened to soil Obama's presidential bid.


In the US, it's simply called, "the Chicago machine." In this traditionally Democratic city, it refers to a corrupt system of political organization based on patronage and clientelism. The "machine" primarily refers to a corps of party workers who could be counted on to deliver the requisite votes for the particular strongman or "boss".


It is this unseemly side of Chicago politics that Obama's rival John McCain tried to exploit a few weeks ago when his campaign released a TV ad seeking to link Obama to the Chicago Democratic machine.


The 30-second ad accuses the Illinois senator of being "born of the corrupt Chicago machine" before raising questions about his links to four Chicago-area powerbrokers, including Tony Rezko, a convicted former fundraiser. "With friends like that," the ad concludes, "Obama is not ready to lead."


A tale of two Daleys


Chicago is not the only US city to have witnessed "machine politics". In the late 19th and early 20th century, most major US cities were under the sway of a political machine. But under the city's Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley – or "Daley Senior", as he is called - the Windy City took the political machine to new heights.


Described as "the last of the big city bosses," Daley Senior controlled the predominantly Democratic city from 1955 right up to his death in 1976.


Today, tighter electoral controls and the influence of the media have largely brought an end to machine politics. Political candidates, experts note, cannot just rely on party loyalties. They have to directly appeal to voters – via the media.


But while the age of the old machine is over, some Chicago political pundits believe the dirty old political system has merely donned a set of flashy new clothes. In this city, they call it, "pinstripe patronage".


"Currently, we have a new Daley mayor in Chicago," says Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois and a former city councillor, referring to current Mayor Richard M. Daley, the eldest son of Daley Senior.


Daley Junior – as the current mayor is called - has been reelected five times since 1989, putting him on track to break his father's record as the city's longest serving mayor.


But while admitting that the "new Daley" does not have recourse to the traditional machine, Simpson notes that Chicago's current mayor, "uses contributions from the global economy to hand out lucrative government contracts and other economic favours to corporations and big campaign contributors."


A tough political town


Chicagoans are well aware of their city's gritty reputation. The "City of Broad Shoulders" – as it is sometimes called – was, after all, home to Al Capone. It also inspired the Broadway musical, "Chicago," one of America's most biting satires on crime, corruption and the notion of "celebrity criminals".


What they don't buy, though, is that Obama is or has had anything to do with the machine.


"Obama was never part of the Democratic machine," says Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University and author of the book, "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago". "To cast him as a cog in the Democratic machine is to grossly misrepresent Obama's abilities."


Simpson notes that in the 2004 Senate primary for the Democratic nomination, Daley Junior did not support Obama. This, however, did not stop Obama from going on to win the primary as well as the Nov. 2004 general election, making him one of Illinois' two senators.


What's more, Simpson argues, Obama's political roots can be traced to the "Independents" – a group of city politicians, activists and intellectuals opposed to the Daley hegemony.


A leading Independent, who served two terms in the city administration, Simpson notes that Obama did not enjoy the support of the city's political establishment early in his career. But, he concedes, the old guard has come around to embracing the charismatic Senator from the South Side.


That, say most Chicagoans, is a testament to Obama's stunning rise in a city that has not traditionally been kind to political newcomers.


"Chicago is a very hard city for a politician to penetrate," says Klinenberg. "The fact that Obama - as someone who did not grow up in the area - was able to establish a career here, is nothing short of remarkable."

Date created : 2008-11-01