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Marilyn Katz

Marilyn Katz meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board to update on the CHA annual report, completion of the CHA Plan For Transformation and on Lathrop and Cabrini.

Rich Hein

Marilyn Katz was a behind-the-scenes force in Chicago politics for decades

Marilyn Katz, a behind-the-scenes force in Chicago politics and activism for decades, died Thursday. She was 78.

Long before she became a strategist and consultant who worked with politicians who held sway in City Hall, Springfield and Washington, Ms. Katz was a young radical. At 23, while serving as director of security for Students for a Democratic Society, she was in the mix of antiwar protesters and baton-carrying police outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that devolved into chaos.

Ms. Katz — who counted slain Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton as a friend and recently has been urging that his legacy be taught in schools — felt that she, too, should have been included in what became known as the “Chicago 8” after protesters were hit with federal charges in connection with the convention chaos.

Earlier, she marched in 1966 in Marquette Park with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to protest housing segregation. The marchers faced angry crowds who threw bottles, firecrackers and rocks.

Ms. Katz later worked on the press team for Harold Washington’s successful mayoral campaign in 1983.

“A very small group of older, white men made all decisions in town, and Harold blew that apart,” she said in an interview on WGN Radio in 2017.

Ms. Katz and was active as a political consultant and strategist in numerous campaigns since helping Washington get elected, including Barack Obama’s successful presidential runs.

“There’s a hole in the city,” said Valerie Jarrett, who worked with her on the Washington campaign and is now chief executive officer of the Obama Foundation. “She was an example of how to be to an active and engaged citizen. That’s her legacy. And she was an indefatigable force of nature who knew no boundaries. She could call day or night and say, ‘I have a suggestion,’ but it was really a demand. And everyone took her call.”

In 2002, she helped convince Obama, then an Illinois state senator, to speak out against the United States going to war in Iraq. He did so at a downtown demonstration she organized.

Ms. Katz started a public relations firm in the 1980s called MK Communications that was contracted to work on a wide range of policy matters, including public housing, for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

His successor Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “relationship with her was like anyone else in politics — you ignored her at your own peril,” said Steve Koch, a friend who was deputy mayor under Emanuel.

“She had a good name, and, if she was behind a cause, it was like a certificate of authenticity,” said Tom Murphy, who worked with her to get Washington elected.

Mayor Brandon Johnsonsaid in a social media post: “From marching with MLK in Marquette Park to her work for Mayor Harold Washington, Marilyn was at the epicenter of Chicago politics for generations.”

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham and a longtime social activist, said he knew Ms. Katz as someone he could count on for advice and perspective.

“I trusted her intelligence but also her consistency for issues of social justice,” Pfleger said. “There’s a lot of what I like to call ‘pop-up activists’ — out there for a minute, then you don’t her from them again. But she has been consistent over the years in the struggle for equality.”

“She always a step ahead of everyone in the way she thought,” said Don Rose, a friend and political strategist.

Ms. Katz also served for many years as on the board of J Street, a pro-Israel advocacy group whose leaders praised her, saying: “No one who crossed paths with her could ever forget her; no one who ever heard her share an opinion or make an argument could ever fail to be impressed by her passion, persuasiveness and moral clarity.”

Ms. Katz was known for getting things done, friends said.

Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said in a Facebook post that she was was always “in the room. Which room? Every room. Marilyn was a progressive with a deep and diverse Rolodex. She had street cred with deep roots in activism. She always found her lane and I couldn’t always keep up.”

Marilyn Katz speaking to crowd

Marilyn Katz, during her time with Students for a Democratic Society, speaking to a crowd at an SDS rally outside Lake View High School.

Jack Lenahan

Jarrett said: “She had an extraordinary ability to galvanize and organize people who may have had opposing interests. She made them stay in a room until they found shared interests.”

Ms. Katz, who for years lived in Lincoln Park, is survived by her husband Scott Chambers and children Grady Chambers and Halley Chambers.

“She touched thousands of lives,” her daughter said.

Services are private. A public memorial is being planned.

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