Barack Obama, Council Wars, and Today’s Politics

I find it truly remarkable that President Obama should be surprised at the circumstances he has faced during his term of office. It is a movie he has seen before.

On April 29, 1983, just a few years before a newly-minted Harvard Law graduate graduate of Columbia University arrived in Chicago to take a job as a community organizer at a church-based not-for-profit, Harold Washington became mayor of Chicago, the first non-white to do so. He immediately faced strident, angry opposition from a faction of the Chicago City Council known as the “Vrdolyak 29”. The group was lead by Ed Vrdolyak, Ed Burke, and parks superintendent Ed Kelly and supported by mayor-to-be Richie Daley, Congressman Dan Rostenkowsky, and William Lipinsky (father of now-Congressman Dan Lipinsky).

Anything President Obama has endured from the Republican House majority pales in comparison with what Harold Washington experienced in what has been termed the Council Wars. It consisted not only of opposition but invective, racial slurs, and law suits.

Twenty-nine is a majority of the Chicago City Council but not enough to override a mayoral veto. Gridlock took hold.

I think it is a natural part of the DNA of any politician to think that the problems of his predecessors could never happen to him, that he is far better than that, but the parallels are just too close to ignore and I can only see a failure to learn from the experiences of others as a basic miscalculation.

Harold Washington died in office in 1987, was succeeded by Eugene Sawyer who served out the balance of Washington’s term and we haven’t had a black mayor since. Chicago’s changing demographics may make it difficult for any other black candidate although I think that Chicago Teacher’s Union president Karen Lewis has a good chance if she actually runs.

6 comments… add one
  • ... Link

    Factual error: Obama came to Chicago before he went to Harvard Law. He just had the BA from Columbia, I’m fairly certain.

  • CStanley Link

    “Failure to learn” implies that he wished for a different outcome.

    I had never heard of the Council Wars, but learning that backstory actually makes me think that Obama, with his Chicago based political team, knew exactly what to expect and how to play up all opposition as though it was race based. It has always seemed to me that this was part of his political strategy (blaming all failures, and gridlock, on the opposition) but this background explains how they knew it could work.

  • Yeah, you’re right. Will correct.

  • If by “working” you mean “not working”, you’re right. In terms of actual accomplishments I don’t see how the White House’s strategy in dealing with the Congress could be said to be working.

  • CStanley Link

    It worked to keep Obama’s favor ability rating high enough to get re-elected.

  • CStanley Link

    Put a different way, I’m agreeing with your view that Obama’s strategy is purely political. On that basis, “working” has little to do with the governance or the well being of the nation.

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