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David Orr

The recently retired Cook County clerk, 74, on Eddie Vrdolyak, machine politics, and screaming at the TV

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

Politics is the art of managing conflict.

I don’t even like politics that much. I like social justice. I like helping people. What I despise is the misuse of power, the pettiness. I know politicians who’ll do something really bad or say a lie about you, and it’s “Oh, David, that’s just politics.”

I was raised in a Republican family. The first political rhyme I ever heard was “Whistle while you work. Stevenson’s a jerk. Eisenhower’s got more power. Whistle while you work.”

My favorite movie as a kid was Robin Hood. After that it became Spartacus. They were the little guy going up against power structures that wanted to harm people.

Like a lot of young people in the ’60s, I became somewhat radicalized by my study of history. I did a serious paper on Vietnam in graduate school, and it made me realize the enormous lies the American government was telling us.

I was teaching at Mundelein College when I ran for alderman in 1979. A student came to me and said, “Mr. Orr, I want to help with your campaign.” I said, “That’s great.” Then she came back a week later: “Mr. Orr, I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to help.” I said, “Oh, I understand. You’re probably really busy.” She said, “No, it’s worse than that. In fact, I’m going to have to work against you, because we’re a big Irish family, and it was made clear to my father that if any of us help you, he will lose his job.” She went away crying. That’s the arrogance of power.

The Eddie Vrdolyaks of this world, they had a mentality before they got into office: What’s in it for me? They loved helping individuals: “OK, I’ll fix your ticket. I’ll get your kid a job.” But that only helped a few. Structurally, it kept real reforms from happening.

We used to have these softball games, like the City Council versus the media or the state legislature. Vrdolyak was always the boss. We’re in a huddle before one, and Bernie Stone’s saying, “I want to pitch,” and Fred Roti’s saying, “I want to do this.” Finally, Vrdolyak says, “Shut up. If you don’t shut up, you’re not going to play at all.” Then he goes, “Let’s look at the lineup.” This was during the Council Wars, when I was aligned with the black aldermen. “OK, the only blacks playing are Frost and Orr” — boom, boom — and he keeps going. That was his sense of humor.

I had the longest one-on-one conversation with Harold Washington the day before he died. He said, “David, you and the other progressive leaders can’t sit back. You have got to be on the drumbeat, because I can’t do it all.” It was a speech that Obama could have given.

After I became Cook County clerk in 1991, it didn’t take long to convince people we weren’t going to follow the old ways. Early on, somebody died who worked in our office. I got a call from a very powerful politician, and we were reminiscing about this person — it was a good friend of his. And then he got to the point: “Now, Dave, that was my position, so I’ll be sending someone down to fill it.” I said, “Well, I’ll be glad to listen to ideas, but we don’t do it that way.” Never heard another word.

There are consequences for being a reformer. You’re not invited to things. You’re belittled and ridiculed. They leak stories that are not true.

I could tell you about lots of politicians who benefited from the machine. They got their goodies. Got their high-paying jobs. Got their pensions. They moved to the suburbs, and they voted for Trump.

Frankly, I feel sorry for my family and friends if they sit with me when we’re watching the news. I am a screamer. The injustice of it all drives me nuts.

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