Clout, in the parlance of local politics, means using political influence to evade rules that must be followed by ordinary people.
Barack Obama used to have a lot of clout in this town. When he wanted to build his presidential center in historic, Frederick Law Olmsted–designed Jackson Park, the city told him to go right ahead, despite the objections of neighbors, park advocates, and historic preservationists.
Community organizers also worried the Obama Center would raise property values in Woodlawn, displacing longtime residents. They demanded that the Obama Foundation sign a community benefits agreement (CBA), which would require the city to freeze property taxes within a 2-mile radius of the Obama Center and ensure “a significant guaranteed set-aside of new housing for low-income housing in the area surrounding” the Center.
That was exactly the kind of campaign Obama himself would have led when he was a rabble-rousing young organizer on the South Side. But now that he’s a developer, he wants no part of it. During a video conference meeting at McCormick Place in September 2017, community organizer Jeanette Taylor directly asked Obama why he wouldn’t sign a CBA.
“I was a community organizer,” he responded. “I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that,’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”
The local alderman, Leslie Hairston (5th Ward), initially took Obama’s side against a CBA. So did Mayor Rahm Emanuel. With opposition from a former president, a sitting mayor, and an alderman, the campaign for a community benefits agreement seemed hopeless.
Then, organizers took a page from Obama’s own career playbook and went into politics themselves. Earlier this year, Jeanette Taylor ran for alderman of the 20th Ward, just west of the proposed Center. Taylor, who worried that the Obama Center’s cachet would drive up neighborhood rents — she had been paying $1,000 a month for the Woodlawn apartment she shared with her mother and two children — had been infuriated by the ex-president’s answer.
“He’s got a lot of nerve saying that,” Taylor said. “He’s forgotten who he is. He forgot the community got him where he is.”
Meanwhile, in the 5th Ward, Hairston was challenged by activist William Calloway, who was instrumental in forcing the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting tape. Calloway ran on a pro-CBA platform.
Taylor won the 20th, while Calloway lost the 5th in a runoff — but by only 151 votes. Additionally, in February, a non-binding referendum on a CBA held in precincts surrounding the Center passed with nearly 90 percent of the vote. In the mayoral runoff, both Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle campaigned in favor of a CBA.
Hairston got the message. This summer, she and newly-elected Ald. Taylor introduced an ordinance for a CBA that would, among other things, require 30 percent affordable housing in new developments within two miles of the center.
There’s still plenty of local pride in Obama, but politically, he’s not as influential here as he used to be. He can’t be: His former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is no longer mayor, replaced by a successor who says she doesn’t owe him anything. Obama himself has settled in Washington, D.C. and for the most part only visits Chicago on presidential center business. Chicago was his stepping stone to the presidency; at this point, no one expects him to move back here.
Obama last got seriously involved in a local campaign in 2016, when he recorded a radio ad for now-lieutenant governor Juliana Stratton in her state house race against Ken Dunkin. Obama did appear at a rally for the Democratic ticket at the UIC Pavilion in fall 2018, but he made no endorsements in this year’s municipal elections, unlike in years past, when he made it clear he supported Emanuel.
Beyond that, Obama’s stand against a CBA shows that he’s out of touch with local politics. Fear of gentrification and displacement was a huge issue in this year’s elections and contributed to the seating of six democratic socialist aldermen, including Taylor.
As the city and the Democratic Party both move to the left, Obama is increasingly looking like a transitional figure between the corporate New Democrats represented by the Clintons and the socialistic policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Obamacare, which was an attempt to fuse private insurance with government-run health care, will inevitably be replaced by a Medicare for All-type system.
In June, Obama beat a federal lawsuit to stop him from building his Center in Jackson Park. But he and the Obama Foundation didn’t have much time to celebrate: This month, he’s facing a report from the city’s Department of Planning and Development claiming the project will have an “adverse effect” on the park and Midway Plaisance.
A year ago, the mayor and the city council would have ignored that report. No longer — Obama doesn’t have that kind of clout anymore.