Barack Obama’s decision last week to shift vital Democratic National Committee political operations from Washington to his hometown makes it all but official: Chicago is the new capital of the Democratic Party.
Home to Obama, his 33,000 square foot Michigan Avenue campaign headquarters, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, and one of the nation’s most influential Democratic mayors, Richard M. Daley, Chicago once again seems to be at the center of the political universe.
“The Second City won’t be the second city anymore when Obama wins,” said former Chicago Congressman Marty Russo. “Remember, Chicago has played some significant roles in the past but obviously this would be the biggest role it has ever played, having a president of the United States from Chicago.”
With 25 national party conventions under its belt, Chicago has long been a prominent player in presidential politics. From its controversial role in delivering votes to John F. Kennedy in 1960 to the violence-marred 1968 Democratic National Convention to Bill Clinton’s 1996 renomination at the United Center, the Chicago dateline has been one of great consequence in presidential elections.
Yet in recent years the nation’s third-largest city has taken a backseat to New York, Los Angeles, John Kerry’s Boston, Al Gore’s Nashville and even Bill Clinton’s Little Rock, Arkansas, as a locus of national Democratic clout.
It’s been more than a decade since the Democrats last convened in Chicago and more than a half-century since a Democratic nominee had extensive Chicagoland connections. The last Chicago-based presidential candidate, longshot Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun in 2004, dropped out of the race just days before the Iowa caucuses.
This year, however, Democrats had two candidates with Chicago roots—Obama, who represented a South Side state Senate district as recently as four years ago, and Chicago-born Hillary Clinton, who grew up in suburban Park Ridge.
Obama frequently boasts of his background in Chicago politics, often alluding to the city’s smashmouth politics to make the point that he is tough enough to withstand the rough-and-tumble of a national campaign.
His inner circle is loaded with Chicago-based talent, including chief strategist David Axelrod, a one-time political reporter at The Chicago Tribune; Axelrod’s business partner David Plouffe, who serves as Obama’s campaign manager; and Valerie Jarrett, a family confidant who once served as Daley's deputy chief of staff. Other key Obama advisers include University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee and national finance chairman Penny Pritzker, the heiress from one of Chicago’s wealthiest families.
Obama recently added another Chicagoan with deep local political ties, former Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, to his general election team.
“There is a sort of notion that Obama is naïve and inexperienced, but he is surrounded by professionals who have grown up in a world of hard-edged, pragmatic, informal Chicago politics,” said Jim Grossman, a Chicago-based historian who co-edited The Encyclopedia of Chicago. “It’s part of a process where local political culture has deeply influenced national politics at very crucial turning points.”
Mayor Daley, whose brother William served as Gore’s campaign chairman in 2000, couldn’t be more pleased with Obama’s role in returning Chicago to center stage.
“There is an energy that he is bringing the spotlight back to a large urban area like ours, and I think it brings faith back that cities are important,” he said. “People in the city are very, very proud of the historical approach [Obama] is making as a candidate.”