Who “sent” Obama?

Special Global Labor Repost. Originally Posted April 22, 2008. Updated October 13, 2008 with additional information on Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

See June 19, 2008 post: That “guy who lives in my neighborhood” for more detail on Ayers-Obama relationship.

Updated May 24, 2008: former Sidley managing partner tells Chicago Tribune he hired Bernardine Dohrn as favor to Bill Ayers’ father Thomas Ayers.

Updated May 18, 2008 with information from Nell Minow, daughter of Obama mentor Newton Minow and sister of Obama’s Harvard professor, Martha Minow.

Updated May 3, 2008: Ken Rolling, first Executive Director of the Annenberg Challenge, had been a program officer of the Woods Fund; Republican activist claims Ayers is “advisor” to Barack Obama.


In Chicago politics a key question has always been, who “sent” you?  The classic phrase is “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent”  – from an anecdote of Abner Mikva’s, the former White House Counsel (Pres. Clinton) and now retired federal judge.  (And someone I campaigned for while in high school when he ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress in the early 70s.)  As a young student, Mikva wanted to help out the his local Democratic Party machine on the south side of Chicago.  In 1948, he walked into the local committeeman’s office to volunteer for Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas and was immediately asked: “Who sent you?”  Mikva replied, “nobody sent me.”  And the retort came back from the cigar chomping pol: “Well, we don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

So it is reasonable to ask, who “sent” Barack Obama?  In other words, how can his meteoric rise to political prominence be explained?  And, of course, in an answer to that question might lie a better understanding of his essential world view.  When I started looking at this question a few weeks ago I quickly grew more concerned about the kinds of people that seem to have been very important in Obama’s ascendancy in Chicago area politics.  It is the connection of some of these people to authoritarian politics that has me particularly concerned.  And a key concern of this blog has been the rise of authoritarian tendencies in the global labor movement.

The people linked to Senator Obama grew to political maturity in the extreme wings of the late 60s student and antiwar movements.  They adopted some of the worst forms of sectarian and authoritarian politics.  They helped undermine the emergence of a healthy relationship between students and others in American society who were becoming interested in alternative views of social, political and economic organization. In fact, at the time, some far more constructive activists had a hard time comprehending groups like the Weather Underground.  Their tactics were so damaging that some on the left thought that government or right wing elements helped create them.  There is some evidence, in fact, that that was true (for example, the Cointelpro effort of the federal government.)

Today, however, many of these individuals continue to hold political views that hardened in that period.  Many of them have joined up with other wings of the late 60s and 70s movements, in particular the pro-China maoists elements of that era and are now playing a role in the labor movement and elsewhere.  And yet this question of Obama’s links to people from this milieu has not been thoroughly explored by any of the many thousands of journalists, bloggers and political operatives looking so closely at Obama.

The most recent effort was by Jonathan Kaufman in the Wall Street Journal who argued that a critical connection for Obama was his links to some in the wealthy and prominent Jewish community in Chicago. This article contains some important insights and is well worth reading. But, I think Kaufman gets it wrong.

So, who did “send” Obama?

The Chicago School Wars and the Ayers Family

The key I think are his ties not to well connected uber lawyer Newton Minow, as Kaufman suggests, but more likely to the family of (in)famous former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers – not just Bill Ayers, but also Bill’s father Tom Ayers and his brother John as well.  Obama was a community organizer from about 1985 to 1988, when he left Chicago for Harvard Law School. During that time a critical issue in Chicago politics was the ongoing crisis in the public schools. A movement was underway from two angles: below in black, latino and other communities for more local control of schools and from above by business interests who wanted to cut costs.

(For a fascinating account and analysis see Dorothy Shipps, The Invisible Hand: Big Business and Chicago School Reform, Teachers College Record, Vol. 99, #1, Fall 1997, pp. 73-116 or her later excellent book on the subject: School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000 (Kansas 2006.))

A 1987 teachers’ strike brought those two sides together to push for a reform act passed by the Illinois legislature in 1988 that created “Local School Councils” (LSC) to be elected by residents in a particular school area.   According to Shipps, the strike “enrag[ed] parents and provid[ed] the catalyst for a coalition between community groups and Chicago United [the business lobby] that was forged in the ensuing year.” (The full story of this complicated process is provided by Shipps in her book.)

The LSC’s were to be made up by a majority of parents and have the power to hire and fire principals thus creating a new power center in the school system against what both reform groups viewed as the bureaucratic and expensive school board, on the one hand, and, on the other, the teachers union.  In my view these types of councils are reminiscent of the manipulative “community” bodies set up in regimes like those of Hugo Chavez and the Sandinistas – used to control genuine democratic movements such as trade unions.  Dorothy Shipps argues, as I will suggest below, that there is an alternative approach that is genuinely democratic and possibly more effective in improving outcomes for students.

Active in the local control from below, on the “community” side of this effort, was Bill Ayers who had returned to Chicago in 1987 as an assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois’ Chicago Circle campus, after surfacing from the underground and earning his Ph.D. at Columbia. Another ally in this battle at the same time was Barack Obama’s Developing Communities Project (DCP), as Obama notes briefly in his Dreams From My Father.  (See also, “Meeting on School Reform Halted,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 19, 1988 at 3; and “Black Parents” A letter to the Chi. Trib. on Aug. 23, 1988 from a DCP member defending the 1988 local control reform bill)

The DCP had its origins in the “radical” movement started by Saul Alinsky. (It should be remembered Alinsky’s world view was one that is and was often in tension with many in the trade union movement – for example, Alinksy was an almost uncritical admirer and biographer of trade union bureaucrat par excellence John L. Lewis.  For one independent approach that urges re-examination of the Alinsky view of unions today in light of rise to power of SEIU’s Andy Stern, see Staughton Lynd, Commentary: Another World is Possible, Working America, March 2008).

Ayers, Neo-Stalinism and the New Long March

Ayers, of course, had long held what the left once knew, broadly, as “maoist” or “neo-stalinist” politics – a view of the world that was opposed to Russian style bureaucratic communism from above, instead advocates of this approach supported sending revolutionary cadre to “swim among the masses like fish in the sea” or attempting to establish guerilla foco as romantically theorized by Regis Debray and carried out with disastrous results by Che Guevara.

Today one of the approaches used by these types is the “long march” through the (presumably “bourgeois”) institutions.  (See this discussion of it by “Progressives for Obama” supporter, Fidelista and former SDS leader Carl Davidson.)  Of course, the “long march” referred to is that taken by Mao and the Red Army in 1934.  Now, Davidson et. al apply the concept to the tactics of the “left” inside various “reform movements” such as the anti-war movement. Davidson was one of the organizers of the 2002 anti war rally at which Obama first spoke out against the war.

Here is how Ayers in 2006 described his approach to “electoral politics” in an interview with the left wing Chicago magazine, In These Times:

“ITT: [A]ren’t progressives putting high hopes in November? Even leading Republicans admit that the Dems are likely to recapture at least one house of Congress.

“So what? That’s not the point, Ayers says. Electoral politics is a tool to connect causes, like gay rights, disability rights, voting rights, human rights. ‘That’s how you use electoral politics. Not as an end in itself, but as an organizing mechanism. Our deepest belief, I think, is that we need to connect all these good projects and build the movement. …we should always be positioning ourselves, thinking, okay, if I’m involved in this next election, how am I positioned to help contribute to building a movement, raising consciousness, making the connections, and that’s a real tricky business.'”

Bill Ayers appears to be attempting to lead a similar “long march” in the education world.  Ayers is a vigorous advocate of local control along with a related concept called “small schools,” most likely because he believes it gives him the potential to build a political base from which to operate.  He has discussed these ideas in speeches and writings on his blog.  As he said in a speech he gave in front of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in late 2006: “Teaching invites transformations, it urges revolutions small and large. La educacion es revolucion!”

Bill raised money to start the Small Schools Workshop in the early 90s and eventually hired another former maoist from the 60s (and actually someone who was a bitter opponent of Ayers as SDS disintegrated) named Mike Klonsky first as research director and then to head it up. Klonsky was a PhD student at UIC studying under Ayers. Obama would approved grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Workshop from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

[Bill’s brother John later got in on the small schools approach also, raising money in part from the Annenberg Challenge program started by Bill and chaired by Obama (see School Leadership in Times of Urban Reform edited by Bizar and Barr).]

A leading figure in the Chicago business groups that were lobbying from above for cost cutting and “efficiency” in the Chicago schools in the 1980’s was Bill Ayers’ father, Thomas Ayers. Tom Ayers, of course, was a very prominent Chicago business man, a retired head of Commonwealth Edison, a lifelong liberal, and a supporter of open housing campaigns (in which my parents participated when I grew up in Chicago in the 60s) as well as Martin Luther King.  According to Dorothy Shipps, Tom Ayers co-authored a report of a joint public-private task force on school reform and was later briefly head of the Chicago School Board, appointed by Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, but was opposed successfully by black community activists and quickly stepped down.

When the 1988 Reform Act was passed a group called Leadership for Quality Education (LQE) was formed, according to Shipps, by the elite business lobby that was in part behind the new reforms, to train the newly elected local school council members. Some 6000 LSC members were elected. And they became a huge thorn in the side of school administration in Chicago as well as the Chicago Teachers Union.

In fact the anti-union aspect of the 1988 Reform Act triggered support for the reforms from the Heritage Foundation and opposition from major Chicago black organizations like Operation PUSH. In many ways the 1988 Reform Act presaged and opened the door to other forms of attempting to restructure school systems including vouchers, charter schools and small schools, all of which have dire implications for teachers.  Thus, Blacks viewed the reform as a manipulation on distressed parents in the wake of the strike by white elites intent on reining in the Teachers Union and the large school administration, both institutions where Chicago blacks had, finally, after many decades of exclusion, found secure middle class careers.

Interestingly, one LSC member was John Ayers, son of Tom and brother of Bill.  In 1993, John was made head of the LQE – which, by then, according to Shipps, was caught in the middle of the battle emerging to re-centralize control of the schools in the hands of the mayor.

From Harvard Law to Sidley and Austin

In the fall of 1988, however, Obama left the city to go off to law school. My best guess, though, is that it was in that 86-88 time frame that Obama likely met up with the Ayers family. I will explain why I believe that in a minute. Interestingly, after his first year in law school Obama returned in the summer of 1989 to work as a summer associate at the prestigious Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin. This in and of itself is a bit unusual.  Very few top tier law students work for big law firms during their first summer.  The big law firms discourage it because if you work for them in the first summer you are likely to work for a second firm the following year and then the firms have to compete to get you.

So, why or how did Obama – at that point not yet the prominent first black president of the Harvard Law Review (that would happen the following year) – end up at Sidley?

Sidley had been long time outside counsel to Commonwealth Edison. The senior Sidley partner who was Comm Ed’s key outside counsel, Howard Trienens, was a member of the board of trustees of Northwestern alongside Tom Ayers (and Sidley partner Newton Minow, too).   It turns out, Bernardine Dohrn worked at Sidley also. She was hired there in the late 80s, because of the intervention of her father-in-law Tom Ayers, even though she was (and is) not a member of any state bar.

Dohrn was not admitted in either NY or Illinois because of her past jail time for refusing to testify about robberies allegedly carried out with her assistance including possibly the murderous 1981 Brinks robbery in which her former Weather Underground (now recast as the “Revolutionary Armed Task Force”) “comrades,” including Kathy Boudin (biological mother of Chesa Boudin, who was raised by Ayers and Dohrn) participated.  Boudin was finally paroled after serving 22 years of a plea bargained single 20-to-life sentence for her role in the robbery where a guard was shot and killed and two police officers were killed.  The father of Chesa Boudin, David Gilbert, was sentenced to 75-to-life, with no chance of parole, after a trial in which he refused to participate. Chesa is the co-author of a recent apologia for the regime of Venezuelan “left” strong man, Hugo Chavez.

Trienens recently explained his unusual decision to hire Dohrn, who had never practice law and had graduated from law school (before going on her bombing spree) 17 years before in 1967) to The Chicago Tribune saying, “[W]e sometimes hire friends.”

I can only speculate, but it is possible that Tom Ayers also introduced Obama to Sidley. That might have happened if Obama had met up with Bill and Tom and John Ayers prior to attending law school when Obama’s DCP group was one of the only black Chicago organizations supporting the reform act passed in 1988.  Or it might have been Dohrn who introduced Obama to the law firm.  Dohrn’s  CV indicates that she left Sidley sometime in 1988 for public interest work prior to starting a position at Northwestern (again, hired there by some accounts because of the influence of Tom Ayers and his Sidley counsel Howard Trienens). Obama and Dohrn would likely not have been at the firm at the same time, although if Obama and Dohrn met before Obama left to attend Harvard Law School, she might have discussed the firm with him and introduced him to lawyers there.

My best guess, though, is that it would have been Tom Ayers who introduced Obama to Sidley and that would have helped him get the attention of someone like Newton Minow.  And that would have come in very handy later in Obama’s career as Kaufman suggests.

(Recently I heard from Nell Minow, daughter of Newton Minow, who tells me her sister Martha, a Harvard law professor, had Obama as a student at HLS and that she called her father to tell him about Obama. While Nell contends on the basis of this anecdote that her family met and supported Obama before he met Bill Ayers, she was unable to provide me any evidence of when in fact Obama met Ayers, either Bill or Tom.)

In any case the summer of 1989 was eventful for Obama as he did meet his future wife, Michelle, there, already a lawyer and working as a Sidley associate. Michelle was Obama’s first supervisor or mentor there.  Obama went back to Harvard in the fall of 1989 where, of course, he became president of the law review in the spring of 1990. After graduation in 1991 he went back to Chicago to run a voter registration campaign (which would turn out to be an important step in his career).

The Annenberg Challenge and the new Chicago School Reform Battle

Then Obama joined a tiny, little known (outside Chicago, at least) public interest law firm called Davis Miner Barnhill. The partner who hired him was Judson Miner. Miner was a well known left wing lawyer in Chicago who had been counsel to the progressive black mayor in the 80s, Harold Washington. But Miner possibly also had ties to the Ayers family. He was law school classmates with Bernardine Dohrn at the University of Chicago (both Class of 1967). He formed a lawyers group against the war after graduation and organized a left wing alternative to the local Chicago bar association.

Then, in late 1994 or early 1995, Obama made what I think was probably the key move in his early career. He was named Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), a $50 million grant program to funnel money into reform efforts at Chicago schools. It turns out that the architect of the Annenberg Challenge was Bill Ayers, who convened the working group that designed the grant proposal, he sheparded it to success and had responsibility for appointing its board members, including Obama.

According to CAC records, Ayers would help write the by-laws of the CAC, had authority alongside of Barack Obama to sign checks on behalf of the CAC, served as its interim director until the hiring of a permanent executive directors, attended board meetings during the first year of the CAC, chaired the Collaborative of the CAC – the operational arm of the CAC, was part of the effort to hire the CAC executive director, and made a presentation to the board about the search for the executive director when the responsible board member (Patricia Graham) was absent. This undermines the claims by some such as Graham that Ayers had little or no serious role in the CAC.

The central purpose of the CAC was to defend the controversial and troubled local schools council effort that had been put in place back in 1988. The first Executive Director of the Challenge was Ken Rolling, who came there from the much discussed Woods Fund (where he had been a program officer).  The Woods Fund had provided grants to Obama’s DCP in the late 80’s and Rolling was a part of the school reform effort in which both Bill Ayers and Obama participated. Obama joined the board of the Woods Fund in 1993 in 1999 he would be joined on the board by Bill Ayers.

The Woods Fund may have had links to the Ayers family as well. The money for the Woods Fund came from the Woods family which owned Sahara Coal, a large Illinois coal mining operation that supplied coal to public utilities.  Tom Ayers, of course, headed up a major public utility in Chicago.

A report authored by Dorothy Shipps on the first three years of the Annenberg Challenge program, when Obama was its Board chair, concluded:  “The Challenge sought to build on the momentum of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act which had radically decentralized governance of the Chicago Public Schools.”

While many school principals had been fired by the LSC’s, kids were still doing poorly in schools and there was chaos of a sorts in the system.  (See Shipps, Invisible Hand, for a summary of the problems.)  Interestingly, Shipps concludes that the local control movement in Chicago, though backed by radicals like Ayers, gave “business the clearest voice in systemwide reform.”  She argues that a district level democracy effort such as an “Education Assembly” is required rather than the parochial local control approach:

“A large districtwide elected group intended to serve as a legislative body, such an assembly would have both the staff and structure of one.  This alternative vision of democracy rests on citizenship and stewardship even as it builds on the private interests and knowledge of concerned parents and neighbors.  As an example of a different form of democratic governance, it serves to remind ordinary Chicagoans that they now have no systemwide forum through which to debate broad issues of equity, standards, and accountability.”

This represents a very different vision than that of Ayers Family & co. (not to mention of the charter school business group approach now in vogue). In fact, in retrospect the Ayers/Ayers (business from above, local activism from below) joint campaign against both the Chicago School District bureaucracy and the Teachers Union is reminiscent of the kinds of alliances one finds in neo-stalinist regimes like that of Cuba, China or Sandinista-run Nicaragua. In the Chinese Cultural Revolution, for example, Mao appealed to local activists to attack the party bureaucracy.  These authoritarian movements often try to build their power against democratic institutions like unions. Well-intentioned liberals even from the business community are often willing to support such efforts because they view the traditional labor movement as even more of a threat than the neo-stalinist authoritarians like Castro, Chavez or Ortega. While many on the left try to portray such movements as a new form of democracy, they are anything but.

One educational policy analyst called the early 90s Chicago school system “dysfunctional.” The former business allies of Bill Ayers and the local control advocates broke away from their support of the LSC’s in favor of recentralization of power in the hands of Chicago’s new Mayor Daley.  According to Shipps,

“for six years, LQE [led by John Ayers until he later joined up with the charter school movement] remained a strong advocate of the 1988 reform.  But in 1993  Club [ Commercial Club of Chicago ] members decided the LQE’s support for community organizing and voter turnout campaigns was not producing better schools, resurfacing their initial skepticism about political decentralization as a reform strategy.  Moreover, they determined that the role of outside agitator might suit community groups, but was ill suited to corporate leadership.  It was creating a rift between Club leaders and the central administrators whom they hoped to influence.  Club leaders  were increasingly convinced that central office accountability was a necessary component of results.  As the fundamental divisions between the business view of administrative decentralization and the political version held by community activists reemerged, activists felt betrayed.  They protested the ‘pull-back’ loudly, but succeeded only in becoming less central actors in future reform efforts.”

Now the business groups backed re-centralization through a 1995 bill that gutted the power of the LSC’s.

But the Annenberg Challenge money came through anyway due to the efforts of Bill Ayers, among others. It had to be matched 2 to 1 by corporate and foundation money (in fact, they raised an additional $60 mn from the private sector alone by 1999), so the Board Chairmanship would have allowed Obama to be in touch with the powerful money interests in Chicago, including possibly the Pritzker Family and others that Kaufman mentions in his story. Penny Pritzker would join the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund which received its startup funding from the Annenberg Challenge as the Challenge wound down in 2001 – the Challenge, in effect, handed the baton of support for school reform to the CPEF.  Penny Pritzker is now a key Obama campaign insider in charge of fund raising.

Thus, we have one possible answer to the question: Who “sent” Obama? It was the Ayers family, including Tom, John, Bill and Bernardine Dohrn.

It is highly unlikely that a 30-something second year lawyer would have been plucked from relative obscurity out of a left wing law firm to head up something as visible and important in Chicago as the Annenberg Challenge by Bill Ayers if Ayers had not already known Obama very well. One possibility is that Obama proved himself to the Ayers’s in the battle for local school control when he was at the DCP in the 80s.

One guess as to why Obama does not play up his educational experience more thoroughly now – it certainly could be of use to him one would think in beefing up his “I have the experience to be President” argument – is that it would lead to a renewed discussion of the Ayers connection, which is clearly toxic for Obama.

And it turns out the impact of the Annenberg Challenge on actual students in Chicago schools is considered mixed at best, although Bill Ayers deemed it a success on political grounds. Indeed the 1995 and 1999 legislative attempts to recentralize power over the schools in the hands of the mayor did not quite succeed in wresting control completely away from the LSC’s, instead it helped, in the words of Alexander Russo, “keep the flame alive for decentralized, community-based school reform – even as the system was moving in a very different direction.”

This likely explains why Obama tried a kind of head fake when asked about Ayers by George Stephanopoulos in the TV debate with Clinton prior to the Pennsylvania primary. Obama said Ayers was a “professor of english.” Yet, Obama chaired the Annenberg Challenge for three years and served on its board for another three years, working closely with Ayers on grants to Chicago schools.  And he did not know that Ayers was a professor of education? That strains credulity.

Perhaps this would be of just historical interest if it could be firmly established that Bill Ayers no longer has any role in the Obama campaign.  But that is not something we know for sure yet. In a recent television interview with Greta Van Susteren (granted, it was on Fox), John Murtagh, a Republican town council member from Yonkers, New York, said that Ayers is currently an “advisor” to Obama.  Murtagh has a particular and understandable sensitivity to the Ayers-Obama connection besides his Republican politics: his father was a New York Supreme Court (in NY the Supreme Court is a trial court) judge who presided over a trial of the “Black Panther 21” in 1970-71.

Murtagh was 9 years old at the time. During the trial Murtagh’s home was fire bombed and Murtagh claims the Weather Underground was responsible for that bombing along with several others in “solidarity” with the Panthers.  He charges, specifically, that Bill Ayers’ wife Bernardine Dohrn later took credit (apparently on behalf of the entire WU group) for the bombing.  Accounts sympathetic to the Panthers confirm the role of the Weather Underground.  (See David Barber, “Leading the Vanguard: White New Leftists School the Panthers on Black Revolution” in In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement, edited by Jama Lazerow and Yohuru Williams (Duke 2006).) The Panther 21 were acquitted of the bombing-related charges made against them, after a lengthy trial.

The New Authoritarian Milieu

Certainly Ayers’ politics remain unapologetically authoritarian.  He recently traveled to Venezuela – only the most recent of several such trips – and delivered a speech in front of Hugo Chavez in which he spoke of education as the “motor force of revolution” and his interest in “overcom[ing] the failings of capitalist education” and said he thought Chavez was creating “something truly new and deeply humane.” He closed his speech by mouthing typical slogans of the authoritarian left: “Viva Mission Sucre! Viva Presidente Chavez! Viva La Revolucion Bolivariana! Hasta La Victoria Siempre!”

As it turns out, there are other ex-SDS types around the Obama campaign as well, including Marilyn Katz, a public relations professional, who was head of security for the SDS during the disaster in the streets of Chicago in 1968. She is close (politically) to Carl Davidson, a former vice president of SDS and longtime Fidelista, who is webmaster for a group called Progressives for Obama, that is headlined by other former 60s radicals like Tom Hayden and the maoist Bill Fletcher.  Davidson and Katz were key organizers of the 2002 anti-war demonstration where Obama made public his opposition to the Iraq war that has been so critical to his successful presidential campaign.  Davidson apparently moved into the maoist movements of the 70s after the disintegration of SDS.

Now that we have some idea of who “sent” Obama, the left and labor movement deserve to know more about how the exhausted ideas of the authoritarian side of 60’s politics may still be influencing the thinking of a potential U.S. president.  Maybe Andy Stern’s endorsement of Obama makes more sense, now.

In any case, imho, if either Hillary or Obama wins they will keep our troops in Iraq for at least three years and possibly longer….makes you want to run into the arms of Ralph!