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Making Obama

Obama 2: Chicago Politics Ain’t Beanbag

On the campaign trail, former President Barack Obama would talk about his roots in Chicago’s rough-and-tumble politics, saying he was tough because of those experiences.

When Obama first came to Chicago to work as a community organizer, the city had recently elected its first African-American mayor — Harold Washington.

In episode two of Making Obama, hear the story of the fall of Chicago’s “machine” politics, the rise of Mayor Washington, and what a young Obama learned from watching it all play out.

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This podcast, from the producers of Making Oprah, tells the story of one man’s meteoric rise to become the United States’ first African-American president.

Rep. Harold Washington, last minute campaigning at the Daley Plaza in Chicago on Monday, Feb. 21. 1983. Washington opposed by incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and State's Attorney Richard M. Daley for the Democratic nomination in the Chicago mayoral race. (AP Photo/John Swart)

Former President Barack Obama on the election of Mayor Washington

Obama: When Harold [Washington] got elected in 1983, I had just gotten out of college. And so, I was in New York. I was trying to figure out how I could make a difference in the world. Full of idealism, inspired by the civil rights movement, but there was no movement around at the time. And so, Harold’s election was big news.

There was a sense, not just that one of America’s largest cities had elected an African-American mayor, but to me more importantly and more interestingly, that it has been a grassroots movement that had swept him into office.

Political strategist David Axelrod on the political environment in Chicago when Obama first arrived

Axelrod: Barack Obama came to Chicago at a time of real turmoil. Harold Washington had been elected the Mayor of Chicago the year before he came.

I think he was influenced by his studies of the civil rights movement. And so he came here to pursue what he concluded was his identity.

Harold [Washington] obviously had broken down a barrier that many thought wouldn’t fall here in the city. And so that’s the environment in which Barack Obama arrived in Chicago.

Political operator Al Kindle on the power of the African-American coalition

Kindle: One of the reasons why the African-Americans in Chicago are, perhaps, the best organizers in the country for the Democratic party is because we became the machine and we learned the machine better than the machine.

When you get through fighting the devil, you understand how to win. You can’t send an angel to go win in Chicago politics.  

Marilyn Katz, who led Mayor Washington’s press team, on similarities between Washington and Obama supporters

Katz: Not only African-Americans, but white folks began to come out and support him. It’s funny, those badges, the Harold Washington badges, the blue and white, became a sign of such great pride, of such great identification that, very much like Barack [Obama], it spoke volumes about who you were, what your aspirations were, and what people thought was possible.

Obama on his interest in the Harold Washington administration

Obama: I was keeping my eye on it and, in fact, I wrote to Harold Washington’s office, postmarked whatever. And understandably didn’t get a response because I didn’t really know who to write to, thinking that it would be fun to work for him.

When I started looking for jobs in community organizing, one of the things that appealed to me about the offer I got from Developing Communities Project — the group that was on the South Side but I ultimately worked for — was the fact that it was in Chicago. I thought that it was a city that was grappling with a lot of the urban issues I was interested in, a mayor that was trying to do some interesting things.

Full list of people heard in this episode:

  • Former President Barack Obama
  • David Axelrod, political strategist
  • Alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward
  • Cook County Board Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia
  • Jacky Grimshaw, community activist
  • Ray Hanania, journalist
  • Marilyn Katz, press consultant to Mayor Washington
  • Al Kindle, political operator  
  • Judson Miner, civil rights lawyer
  • Laura Washington, journalist

These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity by Bea Aldrich.

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