The Obama-Daley Connection
by James L. Merriner
Barack Obama knew that Mayor Richard M. Daley and his brother Bill, a national Democratic Party powerhouse, were against him when he ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in 2004. The Daleys were backing a fellow Southwest Side politician, Daniel W. Hynes. So Obama wrote Bill Daley a letter. "You're with Hynes, I understand that," he said, as Bill Daley recalls it today. "I just hope that after the primary you can help me if I was to win this thing."
Of course, Obama did win the primary and went on to enjoy solid support from the Daleys in his successful campaign for the November election. Since then, the Daleys have been early and vocal supporters of Obama's presidential campaign. That personal note "was a very smart thing to do," Bill Daley says. "I think he did that with a lot of people."
Obama's ties to the mayor go back to his student days at Harvard Law School. In the summer of 1991, Valerie Jarrett, who today is a friend of the Obamas and an adviser to the campaign, was deputy chief of staff for Mayor Daley. She recruited Michelle Robinson as a city planning official, making a point of ensuring that the move also had the approval of Michelle's fiancé, Barack Obama.
But Obama and the mayor were never personally or politically close. As an aspiring politician touched by Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s, Obama "had his eye on the mayor's office," as the Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell puts it in his 2007 book, Obama. Eventually, Obama decided to go to the state senate, not city hall. In 2000, Mayor Daley stayed out of the race when Obama tried—and failed badly—in a bid to move up to Congress. By 2003, looking to a run for the U.S. Senate, Obama had hired David Axelrod, Daley's political adviser and now the chief strategist for Obama's presidential campaign.
Some of Obama's reformist supporters fumed when he accepted the mayor's backing in the 2004 campaign, taking it as a sign that he had betrayed his principles simply to win the seat. Bill Daley scoffs, "Are you not supposed to get the support of people you don't agree with 100 percent of the time?" In fact, Obama was never an outright Daley foe. "I don't recall him being a thorn in the Daley side even before the 2004 election," says Jay Stewart, head of the Better Government Association, a watchdog group. "But he was always a good [legislative] vote for ethics issues, good-government issues."
As a freshman U.S. senator, Obama hesitated to endorse Daley for reelection, citing Hired Truck and other scandals of public corruption that "give me huge pause," as he put it in August 2005. In January 2007, however, one month before the city general elections, Obama warmly endorsed Daley's bid for a sixth term. The next month, Obama formally declared his candidacy for president, having won the avid support of the Daley camp.
Some commentators—notably John Kass of the Chicago Tribune and Steve Rhodes of the online Beachwood Reporter—have sharply faulted Obama for failing to denounce corruption in the Daley administration. As Kass put it in a recent column, "Even Chicago's great national reform presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, won't dare criticize the corruption at City Hall."
Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant who has worked for candidates of both parties, argues that expecting any such criticism is unrealistic. "Every so-called independent Democrat who ever went to Springfield or Washington erased local corruption from his or her mind," he says, citing the possible exception of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (2nd), who might yet run for mayor. "Independent Democrats drop the corruption and related Machine issues because they come to believe they have different battles to fight, either in Springfield or D.C.—let's say health care or the environment—and they don't want to have to fight the Daley organization anew in every subsequent reelection bid. So they come to détente."