REPOST: Chicago’s "Citizen of the Year"? Obama, Ayers and Daley

In light of the controversy surrounding the Swift Boat book by Jeremy Corsi, The Obama Nation, I thought it made sense to repost this blog comment on the Ayers-Daley relationship and its implications for the Obama campaign.


One of the interesting defenses some in the Obama camp raise when confronted with the evidence that  a young Barack Obama worked closely with Bill Ayers on education policy projects like the Annenberg Challenge is that Chicago’s Mayor Daley, son of the first Mayor Daley, also worked with Bill Ayers.  It’s true, in fact, that a number of former SDS or Weather Underground types have found their way into projects on this or that associated with the city of Chicago, including PR maven, Obama backer, anti-war activist and part of SDS “security” in 1968, Marilyn Katz.  

And Bill Ayers, too.  In fact, after Ayers secured that 50 million dollar grant from the Annenberg Challenge to promote local control of Chicago schools (and where the board of directors was headed up by a recent law school graduate named Barack Obama), Ayers was named Chicago’s “Citizen of the Year” and shook hands with Daley at the awards ceremony. 
But what does that mean?  Does it mean that Daley endorses the approach of Ayers to education policy?  Not necessarily.  It does seem that it means that Daley is willing to forgive and forget certain things, like the violent activities of Ayers & Co.  That is a step many others are not willing to make.  Why would Daley?  That is an important question to explore.
The current Mayor Daley learned his politics at the feet of the master of modern urban politics, his father Richard the First, who controlled the city with an iron fist during my entire life in the city, from 1955 (when I was born and Daley was elected) until his death (and my departure for permanent residency, well, anywhere else!) in 1976.  
Daley the First learned the art of leadership from the types he grew up around which included a mixture of Irish pols, big business tycoons and, of course, the mob.  And my blog readers with a sense of film history will recall the classic line from The Godfather: “keep your friends close, your enemies closer.”  
And sure enough, while Ayers was jubilant about receiving the Annenberg money, and Obama thought his long awaited political career was about to be launched, behind the scenes Daley was hard at work at an effort to gut the 1988 reform bill that had put power in the Chicago public schools in the hands of local school councils. Soon after Ayers won the Annenberg grant a new 1995 law would recentralize control over Chicago schools in the hands of the mayor himself. Ayers should have thought twice about accepting that handshake!
Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.

Now, of course, Bill Ayers was never a threat of any kind to Richard Daley the First or Second, even when he and his future spouse, Bernardine Dohrn were engaged in their idiotic and destructive “Days of Rage” in 1969.  
But Bill Ayers father, Tom, was a threat to both Daleys – because Tom Ayers represented the more enlightened suburban and big business element of the Democratic Party.  In other words, Ayers Senior had a political base, in his business colleagues and in the growing suburbs. And neither Daley the Father or the Son has ever really trusted those “limousine liberals” from the leafy green suburbs that surround the city (where I admit I, too, grew up after a few early unconscious years in the city itself). It was Tom Ayers who pushed hard for open housing in the city and for a rapproachement with Martin Luther King.
Of course, Tom Ayers was never going to run for mayor himself and clearly that was not possible for his son Bill.  But what about the young charismatic Barack Obama? As I have suggested in earlier posts here it is possible that Tom Ayers served as a mentor to the young Obama as far back as the time Obama spent as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago not far from Tom Ayers’ home in Hyde Park. Obama biographer David Mendell writes that Obama “had returned to Chicago from Harvard Law with an eye on the mayor’s office after witnessing Harold Washington’s historic tenure at city hall.” 
My speculation – and, of course, since the Obama campaign won’t discuss these issues in any depth it remains speculation – is that Obama was seriously considering picking up the reins of the late immensely popular first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, whose second term was cut tragically short when Washington had a heart attack in his office. It would have been far more realistic for Obama to consider a mayoral bid than a presidential bid, even while a state senator and, possibly, even while a US senator.  After all, the mayor of Chicago remains an immensely powerful and important position. And given the high failure rate of US Senators in presidential bids, from there he might have launched a gubernatorial bid and then a presidential bid.
An interesting conclusion follows from this bit of speculation:  some interesting bits begin to fall together.  Associating with the likes of Bill Ayers, Marilyn Katz, Jeremiah Wright, etc., does not make a lot of sense for someone thinking about a presidential bid. Even if one can explain away the associations, as Obama has had difficulty doing, it can easily taint a presidential candidate in a process that is brutally competitive.  But in the context of a potential mayoral bid those associations make a lot more sense: they tie you to two critical bases in Chicago politics: Hyde Park liberals (and therefore a link to Lake Shore and North Shore liberals and others with the money needed to challenge the incumbent) and, of course, the black community.  
This is why it also would have made sense, then, for Obama in 1991 to return to Chicago after graduating from Harvard Law School to, first, join Sidley and Austin as a summer associate, and then to head up Project Vote! This year long effort helped get Carol Moseley Braun elected to the US Senate in 1992 by energizing black voters in the Chicago area.  Obama’s leadership of the effort made a distinct impression on Daley and Chicago insiders, like power broker John Schmidt.  Many thought the effort was reminiscent of the energy that Harold Washington had been able to galvanize in Chicago’s black community.  As one account of the effort put it:
“Some of Daley’s closest advisers are similarly impressed. ‘In its technical demands, a voter-registration drive is not unlike a mini-political campaign,” says John Schmidt, chairman of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and a fundraiser for Project Vote! ‘Barack ran this superbly. I have no doubt he could run an equally good political campaign if that’s what he decided to do next.'” 
And of course at about this time Obama joined Judson Miner’s tiny little known law firm after rising to the most prominent position an American law student can achieve (and I would not say this if I did not mean it – since I was an officer of the Yale Law Journal!) – president of the Harvard Law Review. Judson Miner had been counsel to Harold Washington in the mid-80s and, along with the Ayers family, was an ideal connection for the young Obama to make on his way to City Hall.  Once in the mayoral office there would, of course, be time to slough off those early ties to radicals like Ayers and Wright.
Instead, Obama’s political life took a different turn and he ended up the most unlikely presidential candidate – just a few years out of the state senate with a thin national record but striking a chord with millions as the war and the economy takes its toll on the Republicans.  And now there has not been time to allow those early associations to dissolve.  Instead, they are proving to be an albatross around the candidate’s neck.
Oh, and what about Daley?  He likely remained wary of Obama and the Hyde Park liberals, particularly when he saw the impact they had on the school reform battles in the 80s and 90s.  No harm then in embracing the Hyde Park activists for this little project or that.  Keep ’em close so you can see what they are up to. Daley fils learned the lessons well.