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Ticket guest writer: The Obama and Ayers that Chicago knows

October 13, 2008 |  6:22 am

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

CHICAGO -- Turn on the TV news when John McCain is picking up undecided voters by invoking Barack Obama's relationship with unrepentant American terrorist William Ayers and, invariably, some liberal talking head will sniff in disgust and say Ayers is no big deal where Obama comes from.

Unfortunately, that's true. Ayers is a terrorist. But this is Chicago.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his close political ally Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago

Obama and Ayers are neighbors, and they worked together on school issues with the same foundation. Obama's political coming-out party was held in Ayers' living room when Obama was running for his first political office.

And the boss of Chicago is Mayor Richard Daley. Mayor Shortshanks has thrown his protective embrace around both men. These are facts.

But the reason Ayers is not a big deal in Chicago has to do with the Chicago Way, and the left fork of that road that has been bought and paid for by the Daley machine, subsidized by taxpayers who foot the bill for public relations contracts from City Hall.

The new Daley machine is much more sophisticated than his father's. And the stereotype of knuckle-draggers and wiseguys -- they're....

...still around, and there are jobs on the city payroll for those who work the precincts.

Yet what's often ignored is that their university-educated cousins get city contracts to spin the news and shape the symbolism and tell out-of-town reporters that Ayers is no big deal.

They won't bite the hand that feeds them. For an examination of the Daley spin machine -- and its cost to taxpayers -- please see Tribune reporter Dan Mihalopoulos' story in the Sunday editions.

One friend of Obama and Ayers is former '60s radical Marilyn Katz, now an Obama fund-raiser, strategist and public relations maven. She's often a go-to quote for reporters to knock down the Ayers-Obama story.

"What Bill Ayers and [former Black Panther, now U.S. Rep.] Bobby Rush ... did 40 years ago has nothing to do with [the presidential campaign]," Katz was quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun-Times in April. "[Ayers] has a national reputation. He lectures at Harvard [University] and Vassar [College]."

What that story and many other pro-Obama articles gloss over is that during the violent protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention here, Katz was the security chief for the radical Students for a Democratic Society.

She once advocated throwing studded nails in front of police cars, back in the SDS days when the group was alleged to have thrown cellophane bags full of human excrement at cops and cans of urine and golf balls impaled with nails.

How things change.

Under this Daley, her firm, MK Communications, has many city deals, and one involves public relations for the Chicago Police Department's community policing program. From nails to contracts, the Chicago Way. Apparently, irony was not a '60s thing.

60s radical, Weather Underground founder and friend of Barack Obama William Ayers poses for a story in Chicago Magazine

Now, as Daley prepares to lay off more than 1,000 city workers, he's given Katz and other public relations firms five-year contracts that could pay them as much as $5 million each for consulting, advertising and promotion.

Getting in good with Daley hasn't been bad for business. She also lists as her clients Daley's Chicago Housing Authority, Daley's City Colleges, Daley's city Law Department, and Daley's departments of Aviation, Environment, Housing, Human Services, Planning and Development, Public Health, Public Works, Streets and Sanitation, Intergovernmental Affairs, Special Events -- the list goes on.

Clearly, if she wasn't a good soldier for Shortshanks, her list of clients would be quite small. Katz is often aggravating, but she's also funny and smart, so I called her to submit my theory: That by buying off the political left -- through PR contracts to Katz, through his own support for Ayers -- Daley maintains control over message and symbolism.

"I don't see it that way," said Katz. "As kids, our issues were schools, the environment, housing -- and these things are the same things that the mayor cares about. So we have this in common. The agendas that drove us pulled us together. It's about respect for each other's point of view, not what we did when we were 19."

On Ayers and Obama, Katz still insists it isn't a story.

"Bill and I were in different parts of SDS. We disagreed on tactics. Bill has spent his entire life contributing to the betterment of society. That's all I can say about Bill," she said.

Happily, I beg to differ. Ayers is a terrorist -- the narcissistic son of privilege and clout -- whose father, Thomas, was the boss of Commonwealth Edison and a friend of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley (the current mayor's father).

As a leader of the ultra-violent Weather Underground, Ayers admitted to helping bomb the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon in the 1970s. He should have been sent to prison. Instead, Chicago political clout allowed him and his wife, fellow radical Bernardine Dohrn, to magically join the payrolls of universities here.

Obama says he was 8 years old when the bombs went off. But he was a grown man when he sought Ayers' political blessing, and when they worked on the same education projects.

"They're friends. So what?" Mayor Daley said in August.

He's the boss and the master spinner. So it must not be a story.

--John Kass

Kass' column was published in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 12.

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Photo credits: Associated Press (Obama and Mayor Richard J. Daley); (William Ayers).