Who is Obama's Alderwoman in Chicago? Toni Preckwinkle of the 4th Ward. She Helped Jump Start His Political Career.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Well, I think that he learned over time to be a better speaker than he was when he started out -- to focus more on his delivery. I think -- and it's been said by others, probably better than me -- that he learned a lesson in the Congressional [primary] race that he lost in 2000 -- not just lost, but got beaten pretty badly. ... I think he learned over time to focus more on, as I said, delivery and presence, and to be a good speaker. I wouldn't say that's the way he started out.
-- Chicago Alderwoman Toni Preckwinkle
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A few comments about our interview with Barack Obama's Alderwoman in Chicago, Toni Preckwinkle.
1) It was conducted before Senator Clinton conceded and the outcome of the primary campaign was still causing a great deal of friction among advocates of the two final candidates.
2) In full disclosure, we've known Toni Preckwinkle for a number of years on a professional level and have worked on advocacy efforts (not political campaigns) together. We have the deepest respect for her rare devotion to serving her constituents, while not seeking personal glory or financial gain.
3) Since we conducted this interview, The New Yorker has just run a long piece on Barack Obama's political career in Chicago and Springfield. It begins where it says that Obama's venture into the political world began: in Toni Preckwinkle's 4th Ward office. From our first-hand knowledge of Chicago politics, The New Yorker article is about 80% accurate, but indulges a bit too much in a cynical perspective toward Obama. Okay, he's ambitious. That's hardly an uncommon characteristic in politics. Furthermore, The New Yorker piece was in an edition with an inexcusable highly controversial cover brutally caricaturizing the Obamas, something so beyond the pale that it makes you wonder if it was done with the intention of provoking controversy to get PR. The New Yorker has pretty solid political coverage (as compared to The New York Times, which leans heavily toward the status quo), but that detestable cover really taints the article.
4) As expressed in The New Yorker article, Preckwinkle -- who is as earnest a politician as one will find, and indeed loves working to improve her ward (and trust us, lives with her husband and children on a budget; if you tried to bribe her, she would probably whack you with a ruler) -- was key to Obama's rise in the political world of Hyde Park and what is geographically the mid-South Side of Chicago. Preckwinkle has strong independent Democratic political connections, which is what you need to win in the Hyde Park area (home to the University of Chicago and sort of a unique liberal, intellectual, and integrated outpost, although her ward extends into much poorer and more distressed neighborhoods). But once Obama was creamed in his primary loss to Congressman Rush in 2000 (see interview), some in Hyde Park, including Preckwinkle, believe that Obama started going after funders "uptown" that he would need for a U.S. Senate race and many of those who nurtured his independent political rise felt a bit abandoned. Nonetheless, Preckwinkle is an Illinois Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention. She fully supports him, but as we've seen with some of the recent Obama statements, she's the canary in the mine who teaches us that we can back a candidate but also be prepared to experience disappointments along the way.
5) The New Yorker article discusses the anecdote that has emerged before and is true. A popular State Senator, Alice Palmer, anointed Obama -- with the help of Preckwinkle's backing -- to succeed her as she sought a Congressional seat. But she lost the primary (as Obama would not too many years later), then changed her mind wanted to retain her State Senate seat after all. Obama said "nothing-doing-I'm-up-and-rolling" and had his Hyde Park campaign veterans challenge Palmer's last-minute campaign petitions, successfully. Palmer never forgave Obama for not standing down after her primary loss and was last seen campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Indiana.
6) Two notable points that The New Yorker doesn't cover. Obama almost lost his U.S. Senate primary, but the campaign of the lead candidate (a self-financed trader named Blair Hull) imploded after it emerged that his second wife had accused him of physically pushing her around, and suddenly Obama's numbers shot up. (There is wide speculation that David Axelrod pushed the story to the press.) The trader had cultivated many black politicians, so Obama -- who didn't have a lot of "street cred"-- was not fairing as well as he had hoped. But when the trader's campaign collapsed at the last minute as the domestic violence allegations dominated news coverage, Obama picked up the remaining black vote and a good chunk of the suburban vote (along with some support downstate), and won the primary. Then he had the good fortune that the Republican candidate -- another wealthy trader named Jack Ryan, this one of the moderate GOP kind, handsome and doing social service by teaching in a city school; in short, about the only kind of Republican who can win statewide in blue state Illinois -- got caught in a bizarre sex scandal involving his former wife, a Hollywood actress. This resulted in that candidate's late withdrawal from the race. Since no reputable Republican in Illinois wanted to go on a Kamakaze mission against Obama so far into the campaign, the Illinois GOP imported the politically and personally bizarre Alan Keyes, and Illinois elected its second black senator in a decade (Carol Moseley Braun had preceded him). Obama's election to the Senate positioned him to give the keynote at the 2004 convention -- and thus history was made.
BuzzFlash: In the 4th Ward, you have a distinguished, well-known constituent, Senator Barack Obama. How long have you known Senator Barack Obama?
Alderman Preckwinkle: Well, I guess I came to know him in the early Nineties, when he was doing voter registration activity, Project Vote, in and around the 1992 election.
BuzzFlash: There's so much scrutiny. Did you watch the ABC debate in Pennsylvania?
Alderman Preckwinkle: No, I had a meeting.
BuzzFlash: You may have heard that the first 52 minutes were about all this gaffe stuff, and bittergate, and Bill Ayers, and Hillary Clinton's Bosniagate. Nothing about the economy until after 52 minutes. In short, nothing of substance, but more of sensationalism.
Alderman Preckwinkle: Diversion.
BuzzFlash: Senator Obama called them distractions. Do you feel that he is real in the sense that these distractions in the press, and, of course, from the right wing and Senator Clinton's campaign, to a great degree, have tried to tarnish him with his association with Reverend Wright, tarnish him with the fact that Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn threw a fund raiser for him. How in any way does this reflect upon his character, as you know him?
Alderman Preckwinkle: Not at all. I mean, but you have to remember that part of the reason that the campaign between the two of them has - I don't know if you'd call it sunk to this level, is that there's really not very much difference between them. If you look at the broad political spectrum, and you have people like Mike Huckabee on the Republican side, and, well, somebody like like Dennis Kucinich, on the Democratic side -- if you look at that gulf, left to right, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are pretty close together. Somewhere near the middle. And because I think the differences between them, especially if you look at the continuum between Huckabee and Kucinich, the differences between them are pretty modest So it's easy for the campaign to fall into these kind of distractions and non-issues really. Because they really are pretty close politically in terms of their commitment to healthcare, to education, to the kind of traditional Democratic agenda.
I'm saying it goes to personalities, in a way, because substance -- there isn't that. If you think of it in broad terms, I don't think there's that much difference between them.
BuzzFlash: Now, I knew him much less. But I recall doing a news conference with you on prohibiting payday loans, to try to end them in Illinois. And Senator Obama came. My interaction with him was that he was very up to speed on what the issues at hand were, that he was a good, solid advocate. He was there when you needed him. But even at that news conference, he was kind of off to the side. And I went to the 2004 convention -- I went there covering it for BuzzFlash as a journalist. And when he spoke, I was kind of like: Whoa. There suddenly was a dimension to Senator Obama I had not seen before. Do you feel that at all? This speaking dimension was something I had not seen before.
Alderman Preckwinkle: Well, I think that he learned over time to be a better speaker than he was when he started out -- to focus more on his delivery. I think -- and it's been said by others, probably better than me -- that he learned a lesson in the Congressional [primary] race that he lost in 2000 -- not just lost, but got beaten pretty badly.
BuzzFlash: That was when he was running in the primary against Bobby Rush.
Alderman Preckwinkle: Against sitting Congressman Bobby Rush. No, I think he learned over time to focus more on, as I said, delivery and presence, and to be a good speaker. I wouldn't say that's the way he started out.
BuzzFlash: When some people accuse us of being, you know, Obama maniacs, and this and that, I sort of feel like: well, look, I kind of knew him when. And this is all new to me -- the charismatic Obama. You know, he always seemed a hard worker, and had a very progressive record and so forth. But the speaking style, in terms of the way that it absolutely mesmerizes people with a new dimension -- I had not been familiar with him until the 2004 convention.
Alderman Preckwinkle: Well, I think it's the argument then that you can cultivate charisma, as opposed to being born with it, necessarily. I think that's probably true. That's something he's paid more attention to over time, and had a good result.
BuzzFlash: Now, you've worked with him when he was a state senator, in terms of Illinois issues and district issues. And he certainly talks a lot about his being a community organizer. You mentioned it earlier. You know, what was your impression of him as a state senator, in terms of interaction with constituents in his district?
Alderman Preckwinkle: Well, he was lucky. In his entire term, he never had a tough race in his state senate role. He had a tough race when he took on Congressman Rush and got beaten, as I said, pretty badly. So in a lot of ways, you can sort of take the temperature of an elected official in those really tough campaigns, and he didn't have any until the campaign against Congressman Rush in the primary. So I think his political maturity, if you want to call it that, came as a result of that tough race of 2000, which he lost.
BuzzFlash: But what about representing his district? Was he close to the constituents? Was he reflecting their needs and so forth?
Alderman Preckwinkle: I think so. We tend to have -- and this is in the 13th District -- pretty progressive representation. He was in that tradition. I can't say that there was anything special about his relationship with his constituents, given the fact that he had these distinguished predecessors, and was just a person kind of in line with that tradition.
BuzzFlash: In terms of Barack Obama being your constituent, can you describe your ward a little? Because your ward kind of straddles two different classes in a lot of ways.
Alderman Preckwinkle: Well, he's only recently been a constituent. For most of his political life, he lived in the 5th Ward, which is further south, in Hyde Park. As a result of his book sales and his election to the Senate, he moved to a mansion in South Kenwood, which is a community that is at the very south end of my ward. My ward consists of university communities, Hyde Park and South Kenwood, and then communities that have struggled with, over time, disinvestment, fires, drug activity, gang activity, and have only in the last couple decades really begun to revitalize. And those communities include North Kenwood [and other neighborhoods that are in economic need].
Senator Obama lives at 51st and Greenwood, just a block away from me. He lives, however, in South Kenwood, which is full of mansions. And I live in Hyde Park, which is full of apartments and condos.
BuzzFlash: And 51st Street is the dividing line between Hyde Park and South Kenwood. But your district then just ends a couple blocks south of you?
Alderman Preckwinkle: 55th Street, yes.
BuzzFlash: Now let me ask you a couple more questions. I've been through Hyde Park. We actually went and did a video. If you go on YouTube, and put in "Obama" and "barber," you'll find we went to his barber shop and talked to Zariff, who has been his barber for thirteen years. And, still, Senator Obama pays $20 a haircut. I didn't sense any excitement in the community that the next President of the United States may be living in the neighborhood. Do you sense any of that?
Alderman Preckwinkle: Oh, I don't want to accuse my constituents of being blasé. But, you know, he's somebody who's been in politics in the neighborhood for a long time. And for some people, it was a very exciting moment. For other people, it's just sort of what's happening.
BuzzFlash: What difference, if any, do you think it would it make to the community if the house he lives in as a result of his book earnings -- and we should mention Michele Obama formerly worked at the University of Chicago Hospitals --
Alderman Preckwinkle: His wife worked at the University for many years. And then, at about the same time he got elected to the Senate, she became Vice President of the University of Chicago Hospitals.
BuzzFlash: And community relations.
Alderman Preckwinkle: Right.
BuzzFlash: What difference would it make if that house at the corner of 51st and Greenwood suddenly became the home of the President of the United States?
Alderman Preckwinkle: Well, he already has Secret Service protection, which is an inconvenience to his neighbors. I think it would be more Secret Service folks around if he were elected. But it also means that he wouldn't be there very much. He would live in Washington, in the White House.
BuzzFlash: I heard someone on the radio the other day who said he was a Hyde Park resident -- on a progressive talk show. And she beeped one of the Secret Service vehicles, and they stopped her and took down her license plate. And she said she was just going to pick up her kid at the playground.
Alderman Preckwinkle: It could only be described as a mixed blessing.
BuzzFlash: A mixed blessing. Certainly does bring more security to the neighborhood in some ways.
Alderman Preckwinkle: No, it just brings security to his house, him and his family, which is great. But it doesn't do anything for anybody else. You talk to the Secret Service and they take down your license plate number. I wouldn't suggest that they provide any security to anybody else.
BuzzFlash: I've got to ask the most important Chicago ward constituent question. He hasn't asked for any extra garbage cans, or anything like that?
Alderman Preckwinkle: No.
BuzzFlash: So, from your perspective -- given what you said in terms of how similar his philosophy, in some ways, is, and his politics, are to Senator Clinton. These charges that somehow he's a radical and that other people's comments reflect upon him -- you've obviously discounted that.
Alderman Preckwinkle: I think it's ridiculous. As I said, if you look at the political spectrum broadly, they're both pretty close. I got in trouble at an event at the University of Chicago, in which I said I was a delegate for Obama, and I'm committed to him at the convention. If Hillary Clinton is chosen by the convention, I'll support her enthusiastically. I mean, I'm a Democrat. And as I said, if you look at this in sort of a broad political spectrum, they're very close together. I think it's sort of nutty to think that there's a great chasm between them. And that's not defending Barack against charges that he's some kind of radical. That's just looking at what he says.
BuzzFlash: Finally, do you feel that there is some sense of pride in the community?
Alderman Preckwinkle: Oh, I think there's a great deal of pride in the African-American community across the country, and surely in his home neighborhood, there's a great deal of pride on the part of everybody that we have a South Sider who's in the thick of things for the presidency, and has a good chance of winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency itself.
BuzzFlash: Well, I have to say just one more thing. As someone who works for us - our information technology director - goes to the same barbershop. And that's how we ended up filming and talking with his barber. And, you know, I can only say that from my own limited personal knowledge - current personal knowledge - that I was kind of astonished, with all these accusations, particularly this last week, of elitism and so forth. That this is a guy who walks to his barbershop, and he's been with the same barber for thirteen years, and still pays $20 for the same haircut. And that just sort of took me aback. He just walks down 51st. The barbershop is just about, I think, three blocks away from his house. It's a neighborhood place.
Alderman Preckwinkle: It's just off of 51st and Blackstone. But you're right, it's about four or five blocks from his house, so he's not getting $400 haircuts.
BuzzFlash: Again, the image that some people are trying to portray of him is that he would be a person that somehow he's at a distance from his community. But it seems that he's still a part of his community. We interviewed his barber of thirteen years, and he's just the most regular guy you can imagine. He says, oh, Senator Obama talks about sports like anyone else. And he hasn't abandoned this neighborhood barber for some expensive salon or anything. That's just where he gets his hair cut, and he's going to keep getting his hair cut there. Anything else you want to say about Senator Obama?
Alderman Preckwinkle: Well, considering where he started, I think it's been an amazing ride for him to be now front runner for the Democratic nomination for president. And I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
BuzzFlash: Toni Preckwinkle, Alderwoman of the 4th Ward, thank you so much.
Alderman Preckwinkle: You're welcome.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
BuzzFlash Afternote: It was indeed a long journey from Barack Obama's visit to Toni Preckwinkle to seek help in running for the Illinois State Senate to being on the verge of being the next president of the United States. Dare we say, "Only in America."
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Homepage for Alderwoman Toni Preckwinkle
BuzzFlash's Video Visit to Barack Obama's Barbershop
BuzzFlash's Video Visit to Barack Obama's Neighborhood
Making It: How Chicago shaped Obama (The New Yorker)
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Watch for BuzzFlash visits Obama's Springfield, coming as a video report shortly.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW