Cook County Clerk David Orr has retired after seven terms — 28 years — in the driver’s seat of vital records and elections upkeep. Orr held that position longer than any other county clerk and, before that, was 49th Ward alderman during the 1980s. He even served a short stint as mayor of Chicago after Harold Washington’s untimely death in 1987.
Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia recently spoke with Orr, 74, about his decades in local politics, his humbling eight days as the city’s boss, his work to support LGBTQ rights and his plans for the future. Click play above to listen. Here some edited highlights from their conversation:
On gaining awareness in the 1960s and jumping into politics:
I was pretty naive and, in that era, I was going to high school in Lombard, I felt very isolated but I was not politically active. In college, the era of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War radicalized me in the sense of understanding government. When I came to Chicago I just jumped into the scene as a political volunteer.
And then in 1979, I was a candidate — my hair got a little shorter, I dressed up a little more — and we squeaked out a victory. I don’t know where [the flame] came from but I think it was a sense of justice. Robin Hood was my favorite movie — the old one. I just hate the way the big shots take it out on the little folks. I guess I saw that the more I studied history and the Vietnam War. I was very upset about the lying and the waste of lives and followed the Civil Rights Movement.
My first campaign was actually in 1967 in Cleveland when I was a graduate student and I worked for Carl Stokes, who became the first big-city black mayor other than the one in Newark, New Jersey at the same time. So I think it’s the sense of history and the sense that some people need help and others are not giving it to them.
Being an independent during the era of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the “Chicago Machine”:
Old Man Daley was still in control. He had an entire rubber stamp City Council and, as mayor, Daley could basically tell the president of the United States what to do since he ignored most of the rules.
The machine means you use the instruments of government… and all the patronage for jobs, contracts and favoritism, and very rough, tumble politics. I saw the victims of that machine — particularly African-Americans and those left out of the system. The machine was worse than it is today but there are still a few remnants of it.
Of course it was hard. You’re not invited to things, you had to worry about your people being beaten up. Our windows were broken and stuff like that, but otherwise you had this big uphill battle. It was nothing like what African-Americans faced or the burgeoning gay community. But you were the odd person out. At least in Rogers Park and Edgewater where I was, we were pretty strong, we were pretty popular, and the old machine was pretty weak.
There were only about five, but the independent aldermen accomplished so much. People need to understand that. When there’s a voice, you may not pass things under your name, but your nose can smell corruption and misdeeds very easily.
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This month marks 30 years since the passing of Mayor Harold Washington. Mayor Washington helped to #change the political culture in Chicago and focused on rebuilding our communities. Harold was not only a great #friend but a huge #influence on my #life. Today’s #tbt is one of my favorite photos with my old friend. #twill
On Harold Washington, who died in office on Nov. 25, 1987:
I think about [him] every Thanksgiving. It’s hard because I really believe this was an extraordinary individual.
He was talented. He was tough. He believed in a different Chicago than we were used to with this old machine. We were worried that [his death] would be the end of the movement.
Being interim mayor when Washington suffered a fatal heart attack:
Even before his death was announced, aldermen were meeting and scheming and so forth. First of all, it wasn’t realistic to think they were going to pick me. Most people don’t understand how Chicago is unique. In most places, the vice mayor becomes mayor until the next election. In Chicago, it’s only until the City Council picks a replacement, and I was not beloved by the ruling elite. So my strategy was—and what I thought was most important to show the proper respect for Harold—was I wasn’t going to talk politics while Harold’s body wasn’t even in the ground.
Orr’s biggest accomplishments as clerk:
Currently, our democracy is under great threat. And to save it…you need a lot of things that I wasn’t able to do [as clerk]. But by having all these things we passed—early voting, voting by mail—we’ve made Illinois, frankly, much more sympathetic to voting and registration.
I wanted to prove that you could be in politics and run an efficient administration. That, I think, is the most important issue in this country—or one of many—that if people give up on the public sector. All these things we’ve done over the years [in the clerk’s office] when people come to me and say, “Oh, your office is so efficient”…that to me is really what the ballgame is.
Most people don’t know we stopped the midnight pay raises back in 1994. In the county and in the city, people would get elected, and then the day before they were sworn in, they gave themselves raises. I felt that was offensive, and I was shocked because we somehow passed that in Springfield, and to this day municipalities and counties cannot pass a pay raise unless it’s at least six months before an election.
Serving the LGBTQ community, advocating for gay rights, being inducted into the Chicago LGBTQ Hall of Fame
[The fight for the Gay Rights Ordinance] wasn’t popular in our neighborhood. But here’s where politics becomes important. People kept saying to the LGBTQ community, “Don’t call a vote because if you do, you’ll lose and it’ll never come back.” So, finally in 1987, I said this is b.s., and we’ve got to call a vote. Well, they did and we lost.
But six months later it passed overwhelmingly. It’s an important lesson for activists and organizers who want legitimate social change: you need to force accountability.
All the things leading up to the right for people to marry and the domestic registry were steps. I had a wonderful chief of staff, Brandon Neese, and really good people. And we had these relationships with activists that really helped.
I’m also proud of the way in which it was implemented. People have prejudices, sometimes subtle. But when it came to [marriage equality], and when people started coming in to get married, you’d have a heterosexual couple here and right next to them a gay couple. It was fascinating because people adapted. And that’s such an important lesson, particularly if you look at all the discrimination in our society to see how relatively quickly people move beyond that enormous prejudice and hatred of, let’s say, 1975.
Exit Interview: Cook County Clerk David Orr (WTTW 11/27/18)