'Chicago-Style Politics at Its Worst'? Fact-Checking Romney's Jab at Obama

Politics as usual in the The Windy City these days is transparent, efficient, innovative, and defying its ugly caricature.


As if he just exited a cave in Utah or New Hampshire, Mitt Romney has ripped President Obama for "Chicago-style politics at its worst" after Obama filled an important regulatory position that Senate Republicans had filibustered.

"Chicago-style politics." It's part of the growing Romney lexicon of facile pejoratives, whose best example is his rather craven use of the word "entitlement" as something dastardly and insufficiently redolent of the private sector.

But what does it mean exactly?

Rahm Emanuel, the new mayor, announced the very same day that he'll close libraries on Mondays in what reflects frustration with an allegedly obstructionist AFSCME, the major public-employees union. A Republican should like that.

Ditto his taking on the teachers union and steamrolling a dramatic increase in the length of the school day in the public schools. There are private-public partnerships galore and even an ongoing competition between private contractors and city workers on who can collect household recycling the cheapest and most efficiently (the private guys are supposedly winning so far).

It's even brought Emanuel praise from a conservative darling, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Yup, Chicago-style politics.

And Mr. Romney, the former management consultant extraordinaire, might turn orgasmic over the new empirical bent Emanuel has brought to the nation's third-biggest city. He's got a chief technology officer (via IBM) and a chief data officer who are harnessing technology and trying to bring efficiency and transparency to a long-calcified government -- and all for the ultimate goal of economic development.

Go to a city website and find well more than 200 "data sets," including calls to 311, breakdowns of crimes, vendors banned from city business, the rodent-baiting requests of individuals and businesses, processing time for building permits and the removal of fallen trees.

You want more? There are response rates to graffiti-removal requests and how long it takes to install a new 96-gallon plastic garbage can at single-family homes. Can't find your car where you left it last night? Well, maybe you can now discover quickly online whether it's stuck in a city pound on the city's new wasmycartowed.com.

As for the actual politics, Romney plays to a the moth-eaten image of a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar town with the packinghouse squeals of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in the background. A sophisticated fellow like Stuart Stevens, one of his chief strategists, surely knows better, given the worldly fellow he is -- even if his client does not.

Even I, a snooty native New Yorker, must concede that Chicago is a cosmopolitan place these days whose economy is deemed in some academic studies as the fifth most globally important, after only New York, London, Singapore, and Tokyo. Hell, the former Sears Tower and Standard Oil Building, which remain two of the world's tallest, are now named after mega-insurance brokers, Willis and Aon. It's all very slick and white-collar.

There's world-class theater, probably the most dazzling new public space in the nation (Millennium Park), and a booming dining sector that's a mecca for young chefs, with some critics claiming a high-tech haute-cuisine bastion called Alinea is America's best restaurant.

Yes, yes, there is criminal skullduggery. But how many times must one point to Justice Department surveys on municipal corruption that show Illinois lapped by a bunch of other states, including New Jersey, with Florida far in the lead?

Is it a tough brand of politics? For sure, especially given a balkanized Illinois universe with many sophisticated players and competing centers of power. There may be no more savvy and potent player in any state legislature than Michael Madigan, a Chicago state representative who is the Illinois House Speaker. John Boehner and Harry Reid only wish they were half as effective as the Machiavellian Madigan, the state's most powerful politician.

Yet lost in the broadside against Obama's "Chicago-style politics" is this fact: even if you buy into the Fox News caricature of slimy government and practitioners, Obama was never a product of the system. There was a mutual suspicion between the old political power elite and the upstart black politician with the Harvard Law degree.

His rise in the state legislature and to the U.S. Senate came very much despite that old style personified by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and, to a far lesser extent, his son, Richard M. Daley, who reigned for 22 years before stepping aside this year. The old and dying machine didn't pull many strings for the seemingly effete fellow who cared about politically unrewarding issues like the death penalty.

In the Illinois context, Obama stands not in the tradition of George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, the successive governors who were convicted of crimes, nor of the many Chicago aldermen who wound up wearing prison jumpsuits. He's more akin to the more cerebral and estimable likes of former U.S. Senators Paul Douglas, Adlai Stevenson III, and Paul Simon, whom the old machine hacks didn't much care for.

And he's had some bright Chicago-trained practitioners around him, like David Axelrod, Emanuel and, now, Chief of Staff William Daley. But his own relationship to the caricatured "Chicago style of politics" is really more one of cultural tensions between old and new.

It's sort of like the cultural clash between a transplanted New York City physician played by Rob Morrow and the people of fictional Cicely, Alaska in the wonderful, long-gone "Northern Exposure."

Come to think of it, it was brainy Stuart Stevens, an old friend from my Washington days, who wrote an important early script for the show. As I said, the Romney camp should know better.