The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Election day: Back to the future

November 4, 2008 |  1:22 pm

VotedMaybe it was the retro feel of the ancient elementary school where I went to vote this morning, maybe it was seeing my wife take our 10-year-old into the voting booth and letting him punch the tab next to Barack Obama's name, but I had a massive attack of nostalgia wandering around Broxton Elementary's auditorium, thinking about the first time I voted as a teenager in Chicago. It was the 1970s and the city was still ruled by Richard J. Daley, father of the current longtime mayor, and known to all as Hizzoner, or just Da Mare.

The Chicago of today that helped propel Obama to the brink of the presidency is a very different place -- gentrified, yuppified, full of white-collar professionals, with trendy coffee bars on practically every corner. Back then, Chicago was still a working-class town with a political machine that delivered votes the old fashioned way. As the old maxim held, in Chicago you voted early and often. On election day, the winos would stumble into the polling place, pull the Democratic lever and get a bottle of muscatel. The blacks on the South Side voted Democratic and came home with a chicken. The white lower-income families voted Democratic, safe in the knowledge that Daley would make sure none of those loyal African American voters ever moved into their neighborhood.

In Chicago, politics mattered. As a snot-nosed college kid, I was always voting for some reform candidate, supporting the local alderman who bucked Daley's machine. But Da Mare had a very instructive way of reminding voters of the price of disloyalty. In November, not long after election day, Chicago would invariably have its first big snowstorm. And if you lived in a district represented by a maverick alderman, you could tell exactly where his district began and the machine's district ended, because that's where the snow plows would stop. Da Mare's streets were squeaky clean, your street was 8 inches deep with snow. It was a better lesson than anything I learned in Political Science 101.   

I live today on the Westside of Los Angeles, which is just as loyal a Democratic stronghold as Chicago was then -- and is now. When I go jogging around Santa Monica, I see Obama signs in front of a house on every block, Obama bumper stickers on hundreds of cars. Some things never change. I remember as a kid, driving out to the West Side of Chicago, seeing endless blocks of row houses, each one with a placard in the front window, saying "Re-Elect Mayor Daley." He was elected six times in all, but since I'm going all nostalgic today, I thought I'd let you read an excerpt from "Boss," the late Mike Royko's classic Daley biography that offers a memorable account of Daley's political rule of the Second City.

Perhaps the best chapter details Daley's 1963 reelection campaign, when he was challenged by a local crusader named Ben Adamowski who'd been investigating various scandals in the Daley administration. If Obama wins tonight, he will be propelled to victory, in part, by an enormous turnout in the African American community. Forty-five years ago it was Daley who rode the coattails of the black vote. But as Royko makes clear, we live in a different world today. The black vote in Chicago 45 years ago served a machine politician who epitomized the triumph of the status quo. Today the black vote goes to a candidate who has made change the fundamental cause of his campaign.

UPDATE: Talk about a small Chicago world: When reporters staked out Obama's local polling place--the Beluah Shoesmith Elementary School--waiting for the candidate to arrive, guess who showed up to vote? Bill Ayers!

But as I was saying, oh boy, there was nothing like a political campaign with Daley at the top of the ticket. How did the Daley machine triumph on election day? Keep reading:

Royko picks up the story with this account of what happened when a neighborhood merchant, the owner of a small restaurant, put up a big Ben Adamowski sign in his front window:

The day it went up the precinct captain came around and said, "How come the sign, Harry?" "Ben's a friend of mine," the restaurant owner said. "Ben's a nice guy, Harry, but that's a pretty big sign. I'd appreciate it if you'd take it down." "No, it's staying up."

The next day the captain came back. "Look, I'm the precinct captain. Is there anything wrong, any problem, anything I can help you with?" Harry said no. "Then why don't you take it down. You know how this looks in my job." Harry wouldn't budge. The sign stayed up. On the third day, the city building inspectors came. The plumbing improvements alone cost Harry $2,100.

When the polls closed on election night, Democratic headquarters had an uncharacteristic tension. The early precinct returns weren't good. The home-owner neighborhoods were going for Adamowski. In Adamowski's headquarters, the atmosphere was one of excitement, almost jubilation. Adamowski posed for a picture and said, "I think you just photographed the next mayor of Chicago." That was at about eight o'clock. By nine he was stony-faced and the Democratic headquarters was relaxing. The votes from the wards [in the black neighborhoods of Chicago] had come in. Daley was in.

Later, when they sat down and went over the figures closely, they found an interesting pattern. Adamowski had received 51% of the vote cast by white persons. But the enormous black vote had given Daley his victory. The people who were trapped in the ghetto slums and the nightmarish public housing projects [where Obama later worked as a community organizer], the people who had the worst school systems and were most often degraded by the Police Department, the people who received the fewest campaign promises and who were ignored as part of the campaign trail, had given Daley his third term. They had done it quietly, asking for nothing in return. Exactly what they got.