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Burris and the old guard

Monday, Mar 16, 2009 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Laura Washington’s latest column is a must-read

It’s a heady time in African-American politics. Presidents, senators and congressmen are feeling the burn. The old political hands are nervous. The young turks are finding their sea legs. The 2010 Democratic primary races for the U.S. Senate and Cook County Board presidency may be petri dishes for a new strain of black political leadership.

Veteran political consultant Delmarie Cobb is a top adviser to Exhibit No. 1 of the old strain, Sen. Roland Burris. I visited her Bronzeville office last week during a pause in her winning battle to keep Burris in office.

“All of a sudden, we’re into this young thing, and anybody who’s been out here needs to be put out to pasture,” she vented. Cobb resents “that somebody would take this kind of knowledge and put it out to pasture.”

We’ve been hearing a lot of that sort of rhetoric lately. It resembles the beginning of the last major shift in Chicago’s black politics in the late 1960s. The New Yorker profile of Roland Burris doesn’t have much new stuff in it, but there are some historical nuggets which suit our purposes

Daley contracted much of his patronage operation to what was known as the “submachine,” a group of compliant black politicians, led by Congressman William Dawson. Even though Dawson made sure that blacks received a share of government jobs, [Jesse] Jackson and others in the nascent civil-rights movement noted that the submachine had no interest in challenging Daley on broader issues, like fair housing and school

So, the young Turks tried to push the old guard aside, and the old guard pushed back hard. Burris, who was allied with Jackson and ran Operation PUSH for about a year, ran for comptroller as an independent and was trounced in the 1976 primary. He defected to the old guard when he sought the party slating for comptroller two years later…

Alan Dobry, who was a veteran of Chicago reform politics, attended the state committee meeting in 1977. “Roland was trying to get put up for Illinois comptroller,” Dobry recalled. “When he got up and spoke to the central committee, the first thing they said to him was ‘You started out as Bill Cousins’s campaign manager, what about that?’ But Roland assured everyone that he wasn’t an independent like Bill Cousins anymore, and was now a faithful member of the machine. Then they asked where does his committeeman stand on this? Gene Sawyer got up and said, ‘Roland is not an independent; he is a faithful member of the Sixth Ward Democratic Party organization.’ ” (One of the first people Burris hired to his staff as a U.S. senator was Sawyer’s nephew.) […]

According to Bernard Stone, a longtime Chicago alderman, Burris is “a very personable guy, and he never had the reputation of having his hand out. He was always a go-along guy. When he’s run with Party backing, he’s won; when he ran against the Party, he lost. It’s as simple as that.”

So, even though he subsequently ran against Mayor Daley and has since portrayed himself as an independent, he’s really a descendant of the old guard, which eventually made peace with (or coopted, depending on your persepctive) black church leaders. Back to Washington’s column

Burris and Stroger are creatures of a sclerotic political machine, an operation that historically bred electoral success by ensuring an ethnic balance of go-along-get-along guys. The party has relied on a black candidate — “their” black candidate — to bring in the African-American vote. In 2010, that equation may not add up.

Washington’s column concludes with some observations about Sen. James Meeks’ encouragement of Chicago Urban League President and CEO Cheryle Jackson’s possible US Senate bid against Burris and others…

“That’s not Roland Burris’ seat. Anybody has the right to run,” Meeks says.

“The glass ceiling has to be lifted. At some point, we have to seriously consider qualified women,” he notes, adding, “It will give my daughters something to aspire to.”

That’s refreshing talk in black Chicago, which has been dominated by sexist, tired ward heelers and preachers for far too long.


* Related…

* Burris turns up on Blago list of potential fund-raisers


  1. - Macbeth - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 10:08 am:

    Toobin’s New Yorker profile of Burris is a must-read. It’s a very measured profile of someone who (appears, at least) to be an odd, peculiar, and ultimately ineffectual “leader.”

    The backstory on the tombstone thing sounds like vintage Burris. “I’m an estate planner. If I didn’t have my own estate in order, how could I expect to plan it for others?”

    Okay, um. Whatever.

  2. - Levois - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 10:10 am:

    Has Sen. Meeks already forgotten about Carol Moseley Braun. She was elected Senator over a decade before Cheryl Jackson will consider a run for Burris seat (the one held by Braun and Obama). I know this may not prove that the machine isn’t so sexist, but one did make it before and surely there will be others.

  3. - Concerned Voter - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 10:25 am:

    Burris turns up on Blago’s potential fundraiser list. Dates may not quite fit with what Roland has already said. Will he be back to file yet another amended statement for the Senate?

    What a joke!

  4. - VanillaMan - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 10:40 am:

    Our economy is finally shaking up our politics. The stress and anger found among citizens is causing a political earthquake. When you add corruption to this mix, then what we are witnessing shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. What is surprising however, is that the Quake is finally shaking Chicago. It should have happened a generation ago.

    The political party that can effectively organize the new generation of citizens can carry our communities into the 21st Century. Old will always be old, and new will always be better - even when the tenants of the new are traditionally based. New generations of liberals and conservatives will speak to today’s issues in today’s voices. Neither will serve up leftovers.

    It is high time Chicago gets it’s act together. Like the old Soviet Union, Chicago’s politics is obsolete and harmful to it’s citizens. Chicago’s success over the past 100 years has satisfied it’s citizens at the expense of evolutionary change necessary to keep the City relevant in our global economy. Chicago went from an “anything goes” and “get-’er-done” mentality a century ago, to a withering zombie banning fois gras and sucking up to tax handouts to stay alive.

    I just hope it is not too late. I hate dying cities, especially one I have loved all my life. Chicago has been in serious condition for years. It cannot educate it’s children. It cannot keep them safe. It cannot live with it’s biggest employers governments. The city where America built and provided goods and services throughout the United States, created catalog houses and mail-order deliveries, feed steaks to San Francisco bankers and sent Pullman cars to Miami, now fights to allow Wal-Mart to open a local store.

    Shake it up Baby! This is the time to be reborn!

  5. - phocion - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 10:43 am:

    I appreciate Rev. Meeks newfound acknowledgment at the low number of women who hold elective office. There are, however, many women (white, Asian, and African American) who would be excellent Senators. Duckworth, Schakowsky, Robin Kelly, Lisa Madigan all come to mind from the Democratic side. A good bullpen of female Republicans are out there, too.

  6. - Third Generation Chicago Native - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 10:47 am:

    Rich is right. Excellent column by Laura Washington.

    So Jesse Jackson Jr., congressman, wife Alderman, sister Senate? I don’t know if people want more of the Jackson family, Jesse Jr and now his questionable possible ties to the Senate seat under the Blagojevich, Sandi and not doing anything with the abandoned Steel Mills in her Ward. Does not look good for Cheryle. Too much competion, Alexi, the most liked Daley, Bill, Dan Hynes.

    The Alan Keyes move was the best thing the GOP did for the Democrats. They will have a hard time topping that move. They were actually thinking of Ditka, yes Oberweis would have been the best choice, but actually any home grown GOP would have been better than Keyes.

  7. - blackdem - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 11:04 am:

    Good article, although I am not sure that it will work that way in 2010. Since there seems to be a wanting of blacks to change our loyalty and change the “old guard”, will there be the same push to oust Daley and Madigan from whites???? Or is this something only WE should do??

  8. - Leroy - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 11:28 am:

    The old guard will be ousted when the new guard can prove they can hold on to power (i.e. dolling out money, funding campaigns, controlling patronage jobs, etc). Not before.

  9. - Thomas Westgard - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 11:30 am:

    Please don’t mistake concerns about age for concerns about corruption.

    I’m a voter. I’m also a white guy. I think I’m the young / new crowd that Delmarie Cobb is whining about.

    I’m happy to vote for black candidates, or candidates of any other race, for that matter. Gender is also a non-issue for me. Age isn’t much of an issue, though I do balance a sense of energy versus a sense of wisdom; a candidate has to have both.

    I draw the line at corruption, though. Apparently when Burris and John Stroger were coming up, it was considered normal to get government jobs for your friends. I can look back at history and find all kinds of bad crap people did in the past. I can’t vote for John Stroger any more than I can vote for Napoleon Bonaparte - being dead, they can’t steal my money.

    Todd Stroger is a daily threat of stealing my money, the honest services he is obligated by law to provide, and fails to provide. Burris is no better, cutting a deal with Blago says everything there is to say about him. There are plenty of black candidates - plenty of candidates overall - who don’t come with that dishonesty attribute. The sooner the entire black political structure realizes there’s a new lack of tolerance for that BS, the better off we’ll all be. Judging from her comments, Delmarie Cobb is apparently going down with the dinosaur thieves like Stroger and Burris. Fine with me. Keep moving, please.

  10. - wordslinger - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 11:39 am:

    The split that Laura Washington talks about has been out there for a long time. Recently, we’ve seen it with the Jacksons vs. the Shaws and the Jackson vs. the Beavers. Burris has certainly inflamed it by sneakily getting back into the game at the expense of up and comers.

    Remember in 1983, plenty of the Old Guard — Gene Sawyer, John Stroger, the Shaws come to mind — backed Jane Byrne over Harold Washington and Daley.

    After he won, Harold Washington’s universal support in the black community commanded obedience from black officials and papered over the split for a while. But after his death, Burke, Mell and Ronan bust it wide open again by engineering remnants of the old Vrodlyak 29 to support Sawyer in the City Council vote for mayor over Tim Evans.

    The “movement” never recovered from that, and Daley has brilliantly kept it dormant by either welcoming back some of the old guard to the fold (Stroger), pushing them aside with better gigs (Tim Evans) or co-opting them (ministers with $1 lots and other city favors).

  11. - Ghost - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 12:16 pm:

    I wonder if Michelle Obama and Barack will inspire a new generation of minority men and women to enter into politics. ALong the same lines, maybe we will see more Quigley type effects in other political areas. There is definetly a need and room for more minority women to enter into politics. More Sandi Jackson’s

  12. - 47th Ward - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 12:18 pm:

    The 1983 mayoral race was a bit before my time, Word, but I believe John Stroger backed Daley over Byrne and Washington.

    An interesting side bar to your story would be identifying all of the ward committeemen and who they backed in that landmark election. My guess is that Mayor Daley has paid back every supporter and punished every opponent from the 1983 election. Some, like the late Ted Lechowicz, took time to punish. But I think all of the white ethnic committeemen that went with Byrne ended up politically dead soon after Daley ascended to the throne in 83.

    Daley in large part bypassed the African American political establishment and went directly to favored ministers and other local community leaders. Over time, he appointed a new group of Aldermen and women from the predominantly AA wards. The Daley’s and their allies took a twenty-year view of changing political landscapes. Patience and organization solve lots of problems.

  13. - 47th Ward - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 12:19 pm:

    Oops, I meant Daley’s ascension in 1989…

  14. - Macbeth - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 12:26 pm:

    BTW — a question: does anyone know of a good history of the Chicago “machine?”

    I’ve read Royko’s “Boss” — and I’ve got the oral history collection (”We Don’t Want Nobody Sent”) — but I’m wondering if a single volume “Machine” history exists? (I know there are many good Chicago histories — but I’d like a recommendation on one that concentrates solely on city and county politics.)


  15. - Rich Miller - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 12:28 pm:

    ===does anyone know of a good history of the Chicago “machine?===

    As with most things, you should read more than one book. Chicago Politics Ward by Ward is dated, but still a good primer, for instance. But there are tons of other books that you should read as well.

  16. - wordslinger - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 12:44 pm:

    47, I think you’re right about Stroger, because he was tight with Dunne, who definitely backed Daley in the primary. I was going from memory and couldn’t find anything with a quick google.

    As far as punishing the white ethnic committeeman who backed Byrne, I know the ultimate survivor, Ed Burke, is still thriving, and he certainly was with Byrne. I can’t recall what MJM did, but of course, he had his own power base regardless.

  17. - Phineas J. Whoopee - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 12:52 pm:

    I wonder if Meeks is contiplating a run for Governor if the AG and Gov-LT start to rip it up. Could he trying to bring out a huge African American and progressive vote in the primary.

    I think I am channeling Russ Stewart today so I am going to take a pill and cease blogging.

  18. - bugs - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 1:28 pm:

    Herbert Asbury’s “Gem of the Prairie” is a good background book on the corruption the city started from-gives an understanding that the names have changed-tactics improved-same greed

  19. - Rich Miller - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 1:30 pm:

    Agreed. Great book. They’ve reissued it as “Gangs of Chicago,” in order to capitalize on the success of the “Gangs of NY” film. I bought it at an Amman, Jordan bookstore years ago, believe it or not. Fascinating read.

  20. - wordslinger - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 1:35 pm:

    Never heard of “Gem on the Prairie.” Thanks, I’m on it.

    For the 800 pound gorilla in the room, I recommend Gus Russo’s and Bill Roemer’s books on The Outfit, as well as Cooley’s book, “When Corruption was King.” Lot of contemporary names in that one.

  21. - 47th Ward - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 1:41 pm:

    Cooley’s book is a great primer. Good tip Word.

  22. - Macbeth - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 2:18 pm:

    Many thanks for the book recommendations.

  23. - Macbeth - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 2:51 pm:

    BTW — I decided to go for ‘American Pharoh’ (Daley bio) and ‘The Outfit’ (A.P. for my Kindle, T.O. as a book.)


  24. - Some Guy - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 3:23 pm:

    Favorite Chicago political books (aside from those already mentioned):

    “Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers” by Milton Rakove (the same guy who did the “We Don’t Want Noboby Nobody Sent” oral history). Fascinating stuff, I especially got a kick out of the depicitions of the GOP in the machine words.

    “Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race.” by Gary Rivlin. This was a fascinating account of Chicago during the Harold Washington years. Begins with his annoucement that he won’t run for mayor unless 50,000 new voters are registered and takes it through the vote for Sawyer. All kinds of info on the various splits and groups within Chicago’s black political community.

  25. - Shore - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 3:50 pm:

    As a politics junkie and a Republican about the only good thing I can say about the rise of the democrats here is the fact that our politics are in the national spotlight and therefore getting a lot more coverage like this new yorker piece.

    As for this cobb woman, not once have I heard her, or frankly very many other people related to burris tout his competence and how good a senator he will be. Democrats keep touting the cosmetics of their people-he played hoops with the president, he’s the right race, she’s the right last name. Not much in there about what kind of leader they will be. That to me explains a lot about them.

  26. - Ghost - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 3:51 pm:

    No fans of the muckrakers here I see…. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

  27. - deliberatedeb - Monday, Mar 16, 09 @ 10:04 pm:

    Actually many people in Chicago thought less of the column than most of your readers. While it would be exciting to have both running at the same time, Ald. Preckwinkle doesn’t exactly fit the Young Turks image. 2010 will be a change election fueled by the Obama election, the economy and continuing revelations about political corruption. Whether young blacks will or should cast out all the old (whatever that means) pols is dependent on too many variable like the qualifications of each in any given race. But then that should hold true for the old white leadership also, shouldn’t it?

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