As David Orr was leaving his May 24 fund-raiser at Michael Jordan’s Restaurant, a young, somewhat paunchy man came up to him and said, “Mr. Orr, I’m a city policeman. I work here on my days off, and I want you to know that if you’ll run for mayor you’ll have 40,000 city employees behind you. I just wanted to tell you that. I hope you’ll run.” Orr shook the policeman’s hand, thanked him, and then he said, “I hear that all the time, every time I walk down the street, every time I get in a cab, every meeting I go to.”
Orr said, “It’s hard to know what to do.”
More than 500 people showed up at Michael Jordan’s. There were lots of progressives, lots of people from labor unions and community groups, some from universities, some elderly black women who dressed as if for a church social, a fair number of Asians–whom one doesn’t normally see at political functions. Missing were most of the “regular” politicians who normally attend each other’s fund-raisers.
Political opponents of David Duvall Orr like to call the Cook County clerk “Mr. Goody Two-Shoes,” and the media like to say he’s “squeaky clean.” One searches in vain for anecdotal evidence of cynicism, venality, dishonesty, greed, power grabbing, or stupidity. Or even ineffectiveness. As alderman from the 49th Ward, Orr led plenty of fights in the City Council, and unlike that earlier and much more eloquent reformer, Fifth Ward alderman Leon Despres, Orr won many of his.
When Orr says, as he does often, “You have to view government as community, where real power comes from the community, and you have to encourage the participation of communities in the process of governing,” the typical Chicago cynic is tempted to ask, “What is all this idealistic bullshit?” But then one is confronted with examples of Orr practicing what he preaches. He says, “I think people want basic fairness. I believe that you can build community support and win with it and then govern with it. Not the old political clout, but community clout. People are tired of hearing stories about how the machine got this or that soft job for their neighbors and how they only have to work half the time while their communities are in tatters. I’ve proved that you can win by building support in the community that is honest and reflects real grass-roots work.”
Searching for the catch, one doesn’t find it. Instead, one finds him serving as chairman of the Altgeld Institute, the progressive caucus of the Democratic Party of Illinois; as a board member of Illinois Public Action; and as vice president of the City Club of Chicago. One finds a man who can talk for hours on ways to make government serve the people, and who fortunately has a sense of humor. Take the button he had made that says “Another Goody Two Shoes for Orr.”
“People aren’t really indifferent,” Orr insists. “They just don’t know what to do. They need to be let into the political process. They want it.”
One has to love the limelight to stay in politics. Orr does. He probably called as many press conferences in his 11 years as alderman as most of the other aldermen combined. He always had something pertinent to say about the governing of the city, but it was clear he also liked standing in front of the cameras. He regularly pops up in the dailies’ letters columns explaining the actions he’s taken.
“David has remarkable communication skills,” says Neil Hartigan, the Democrats’ 1990 candidate for governor. “He can take a dull subject and make it relevant to the community. He’s low-key on the one hand, and on the other he knows how to communicate in a very effective way.” No doubt some of that skill was learned in the college classrooms where he taught for 11 years.
Orr has made more of the obscure office of county clerk than any clerk before him. His series of reform measures began with his first day in office, when he set out an ethics guide for his employees. Now he will decide by late summer whether to run for County Board president next year or wait another year and take on Mayor Daley.
Orr says, “One of the difficulties of being a politician, particularly now, is that if you’re progressive-minded people steal your language. The ruling elite always tries to steal the lingo of progressive politics. It’s hard to discuss these things because it sounds corny. I am not hungering for higher office, never have been. I believe very much in office. When people used to ask me in the City Council, ‘Do you love your job?’ I would say no. Do I love all this politicking, this corruption and dog-eat-dog crap that goes on in this town? Absolutely not. It hurts people and I don’t like that. Do I believe in change and trying to make a difference? Absolutely.
“Some people love the politicking. I don’t know what Dick Mell thinks in the long run, but he seems to love the day-to-day stuff. At least he gives that impression. This is where I differ. I want to be useful. I said this office could be improved immensely and it’s proven to be the case. I don’t care where you are, whether you’re the janitor or a computer specialist, you can find ways to make a difference.
“And so, as I look to the future, it’s quite simple. Where do I think I can do the most good? Not just for myself and my family, which is a large consideration, but in the larger picture. There’s no question that the County Board presidency is going to be vacant. Phelan is moving on. Obviously, it’s something I’ve thought seriously about and am forced to think about, because half the people in this building act as if it’s a fait accompli. That’s maybe an exaggeration, but there are a lot of people who, if they’re not already calling me president, they’re assuming that that’s where I should go. There are also people who want me to run for Congress when Yates retires. The big thing is that every day, everywhere I go, people are encouraging me to run for mayor.
“Now, I’m not being coy here, but the truth is, the president’s race is next year. The mayor’s is two years away. So the president’s race is becoming much more of a reality.
“I would really like to believe that one could keep doing a good job in one’s office, could focus on doing a good job instead of always talking about politics. One of my weaknesses has always been that we [he and his 49th Ward political allies] didn’t spend enough time on politics. We’re so busy trying to provide services that perhaps we’re not as politically shrewd as we might be. But I have this highly traditional belief that the public rewards good work, not necessarily shrewd politics. So I’m going to continue to make changes here. By sometime late summer I’ll have to make a decision about what I’m going to do.”
Asked which post he is inclining toward, he hedges at first. “I’d like to be let loose for two months in every office in the city, county, and state. There isn’t anyplace where you can’t make improvements. Which office you’re in doesn’t make a lot of difference. As county clerk, I’ve found ways to be involved with community groups and economic development. I’ve found ways to be involved with the city’s single biggest issue, which is race. So to me, any office is a good one to do what I want to do.
“Both the County Board president and the mayor’s job are important. I guess I would say that the city is crying out more for leadership. For the city, we are increasingly in a critical time when we have to start moving. Daley’s four years have not taken us anywhere. We are running in place, with a lot of finger pointing. It’s Richard the younger, which temper tantrum are we going to have this week? He hasn’t dealt with any of the critical issues. The city is more important, I’d say, because the city has such a tremendous impact on the county in terms of economic vitality. What’s important about the county is that it has two of your biggest issues that are actually city issues in most other places, the criminal justice system and the health care system. These are the two fastest-growing tax-guzzling areas of government. So in that sense the county is very critical. But where do I feel it’s most critical that we move forward fast? I’d have to say it is the city. So my decision about where I can do the most good is with the city.
“But you still have to be practical about it. I might think I could be president of the country, but that doesn’t mean I could. The question is, do I have any chance to win the mayoralty?
“I think Daley is vulnerable, but I don’t want to underestimate the power of the incumbent or of the old machine to be able to win.”
Jack Quigley, a political strategist who was Orr’s press secretary until Orr asked him to begin planning the next race, says, “Everyone wants him to run for mayor, but the problem is that there is a real temptation to run for the County Board presidency, which is so eminently doable.”
Orr’s office on the fourth floor of the County Building is bigger than the entire first floor of the house he grew up in, and it’s decorated with the usual photos–the ones of the politician as Cub Scout, the others with prominent friends and allies. During one of our interviews there, a call arrived from someone at County Hospital, someone urging him to run for County Board president.
“They are very concerned over there,” Orr said. “The health care system, along with the criminal justice system, is gravely in need of help. But the problems of the city are even more pressing–economic development, education, racial division.”
Orr is uniquely positioned to deal with racial division. No other politician, white or black, can claim such broad-based support. Recent newspaper polls show that in a race for County Board president he could repeat his 1990 victory, when he became clerk by the biggest margin of any candidate for countywide office. Orr received 63.4 percent of the vote in that race, including 67 percent of the black vote.
A serious consideration as Orr decides which race to enter is whether he can raise enough money to run successfully for mayor. Maverick that he is, Orr has never had access to the big money in town. “But that situation may have changed,” says political consultant Don Rose. “Since he won the clerk’s office so handily it looks like he’s a front-runner for president of the County Board, though running against Daley may still be something else. The real issue is that he would have the best shot anybody’s ever had against a Daley. David would get a tremendous amount of support from the black community based on history. He took Washington-like support in the clerk’s race.”
Orr entered the City Council in 1979 representing a ward full of apartment dwellers in a city in which three-quarters of the dwellings are in multiple-unit buildings. He introduced a tenants’ rights bill and fought for seven years to pass it. He introduced gay rights legislation and championed it for nine years before it passed. He struggled three years to impose an ethics code on city government, prompting then-alderman Anna Langford to mock him as Mr. Goody Two-Shoes. The ordinance, passed in 1987 with the backing of Mayor Washington, outlawed political gifts, limited what businessmen dealing with the city could contribute to political funds, and generally defined what was acceptable behavior for elected officials.
Orr didn’t have to fight alone. As cofounder of the Rogers Park Tenants Committee and his ward’s Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, he had their backing in the tenants’ rights fight. The gay rights bill was actively supported by the gay community and helped along by Alderman Bernie Hansen, whose 44th Ward has a large gay population. A large part of Orr’s success lies in his ability to build coalitions.
But there have been political fights that found Orr mostly alone. Years went by without allies before Orr, in 1989, finally succeeded in passing an ordinance that required aldermen to reveal how they spend their travel and contingency funds. This legislation contained a section prohibiting the city from paying rent to aldermen for office space. And in 1982, before homelessness had become a common concern, Orr sponsored legislation to provide shelters and soup kitchens. It didn’t pass. He fought for the reform of the Chicago Housing Authority when it was still in the tawdry grip of Charles Swibel, who ran the CHA for 20 years under the elder Mayor Daley and his successors.
Nationally, Orr publicly criticized Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1984, for not including a strong jobs program in the Democratic platform. And he was one of a handful of election officials invited to Washington last month for the president’s signing of the “Motor Voter” bill (which allows voter registration at driver’s license bureaus). “Clinton hugged my wife and kissed my staff,” he says happily. For the last couple of years, Orr had been almost alone among election officials around the country in supporting the bill. He recalls being in a room with about 800 of these officials, and everyone else opposed it. Last year he testified before Congress in favor of the bill. It was of no small importance that he represented the second most populous county in the country, a county that has been cited as a prime example of the powers that be limiting the vote.
There are moments when Orr’s idealism seems a little silly. The signs in City Hall and around the city declaring Chicago to be a nuclear-free zone are the result of an ordinance Orr pushed through the council, with the help of Bernie Hansen, in 1986. As someone close to him told me laughing, “I promise not to take up nuclear weapons on my block.”
In a city like Chicago, a politician can feel a little self-conscious about his background. So it is with Orr. When I ask his ethnicity he says “Guess.” “Oh, come on, David,” I say. “I’m a WASP,” he admits, smiling self-consciously.
For someone used to the Irish, Italian, Jewish, and black politicians of this city, Orr is a surprise. He’s soft-spoken and mild- mannered, and his face and hands are remarkably inexpressive for such a constant talker. In every encounter I’ve had with Orr, but especially in interviews, he goes on as if this were his last chance ever to tell you what he thinks; but the talk is always low-key, accompanied by little of the body language of most ethnics.
His body does say some things. There’s a nervous squirming in his chair, as if all this were too much for him, as if he were someone basically uncomfortable with public life. Yet Orr obviously loves the life. Michael Kreloff, his friend and political ally since the 70s, told me Orr thrives on politics. “We’ve spent hours and hours talking over the last nearly 20 years and all we’ve ever talked about is politics,” Kreloff says, which makes one wonder what Orr means when he says he and his friends haven’t paid enough attention to politics.
Orr explains that he and Kreloff talk about a kind of politics that isn’t commonly held to be politics in Chicago. “Politics also means community organizing, organizing services, getting people involved, the implications of doing this or that, who’s doing what and why. During my first seven years as alderman [before Harold Washington allies took control of the City Council], when we fought all kinds of battles in the ward and in the council, politics literally meant getting things done. I didn’t have a committee like the others did, with staff to do things. And I wasn’t the ward committeeman with that staff, which most aldermen are. All I had was my ward office people and volunteers. The other aldermen weren’t concerned with bringing change to their wards, but we were. I wasn’t only a member of the minority in terms of numbers but also in terms of ideas. I had a constant battle on my hands. We hardly ever talked about running for office or what it takes to do it, which is what most people mean by politics.”
Orr credits a Christian home life for his social conscience. He recalls saying to his Republican parents in the late 60s, when his participation in the civil rights and antiwar movements made them very nervous, “Don’t you realize that this is all the result of the Christian values you instilled in us?” Evidence of Orr’s ability to comprehend and identify with minorities is his strong support in the black and gay communities.
Orr’s introduction to electoral politics came when he worked in the historic 1967 campaign of Cleveland’s Carl Stokes, the first black elected mayor of a major American city. Washington’s first mayoral campaign, in 1977, was run out of Orr’s Rogers Park apartment.
Orr’s dedication to a core of progressive values has been aided by his rather unusual experience of being part of the regular political process while being supported by and held accountable to a strong progressive electoral base, such as Leon Despres once had and Larry Bloom inherited in the Fifth Ward and Marty Oberman had when he was first elected in the 43rd. There’s nothing like a bunch of idealists to keep you honest.
In the 49th Ward, and especially in Network 49, the political organization that grew out of Orr’s 1979 campaign, there has been, in Kreloff’s words, “a certain ideological bent, an openly progressive agenda.”
And over the years Orr built citywide coalitions that permitted him all the more courage of his convictions and a broader agenda. On the other hand, they held him accountable. No other Chicago progressive politician has built such a broad base of support, though Orr credits much of it to the seven days he served as interim mayor after the death of Washington, when he looked like a bright light in a dimly lit hall of mirrors. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says.
Orr’s parents come from a tiny town, Taylorville, in southern Illinois. Married in the early years of the Depression, which financially devastated their families, the couple moved first to Bloomington, Illinois, where Orr was born in 1944, the fifth of six children, and to the Chicago area a few years later.
The Orrs–four sisters (a fifth sister is retarded and has long been institutionalized), David, and his mother and father–lived in a basement in Lombard while Orr’s father and a few friends built the rest of the small three-bedroom house above them. Orr recalls fondly that the house was the first in the area. Not so fondly, he remembers “a whipping I got after I broke the only light in the basement playing ball. That taught me a lesson.”
He says, “I was lucky. Talk about stability. My mother just sold that house. It was great growing up there, with all the swamps, the pussy willows everywhere. My oldest friend moved in across the street a year later and we grew up together. I was so lucky. I had a very happy family though we never had much money. My dad was a salesman all his life. But there wasn’t much focus on material things. We weren’t at all well off by many standards, but the security was there in terms of love for your family.”
Orr worked from an early age. He delivered papers, and eventually went to Simpson College in Iowa on a newsboy scholarship. He was also a Fuller Brush salesman and a church janitor, and he held a variety of other jobs. To help pay for college, he worked summers in the factory of his father’s company, which manufactured refrigeration parts. “It was real tough work, real old-fashioned factory work.” He was the only child in his family to finish college.
He can’t recall exactly what got him into trouble throughout his school years, but he remembers that he was often in the principal’s office. “I was a serious student and I got good grades, though I had to work hard, it didn’t come easily. But I was always in trouble,” he says. “I don’t want to overstate this. I wasn’t a delinquent, I was just in all kinds of petty trouble. There was something in me. When I was a freshman I joined the wrestling team and I was pretty good, wrestled in the state tournament. At one point the coach wondered whether I had trouble at home because I got into so much trouble. Which wasn’t true, I had a great home. I was just a bit of a hell-raiser. But it was kind of innocent. Like the time I ended up in court for throwing snowballs at a cop car.”
Orr’s political impulse showed itself early. “Shortly after a visit to the principal’s office I got elected to the student council and was president for two years.” This despite the fact that he was a little kid with thick glasses over severely crossed eyes and was called “pop bottle eyes” and “four eyes.” Today, he says, he’s “basically blind in one eye.”
Orr traded in his glasses for contact lenses when he was 20, never having realized before that such things existed. “I really wish I’d had them before because it would have helped a lot with sports,” he says. They might have helped with women, too. He didn’t date much until he was 20.
Despite his heavy glasses, Orr spent all his extra time at sports. Here, too, he was a leader, he says. “I organized all the activities. We had some tough games.” Orr continued to play tough games of basketball and softball with a group of buddies until he hurt his knee a few years ago.
The key to his childhood, according to Orr, is that it was “totally innocent. I was raised in a western suburb. It wasn’t till I got to Cleveland when I was in graduate school at 22 years old in 1968 and the world was blowing apart that I had any strong realization about ethnicity. There I’d been in an all-white suburb and then in an all-white small college in Iowa. My first experience with anyone black was when I was 16 or 17 and flew to a tiny town, Wadley, Alabama, as the leader of our church youth group. Our minister was one of the finest people I’ve ever met, a true Christian. He had adopted this very poor town and I got to go there.
“Here I was in the late 50s or early 60s–a kid who played ball, knew nothing about politics, didn’t even think about it. My family were Republicans and I can remember Eisenhower on the television, but it was immaterial to me. When we got to Wadley, Alabama, I was really shocked. I’d never seen segregation and discrimination like that. I remember people saying such awful things, like how blacks smell bad and all that kind of stuff. Here were all these very poor whites talking like that about blacks. I’m sure I’d heard that kind of stuff before, but it hadn’t sunk in. This really shocked me. But I didn’t really understand anything about ethnicity until I got to Cleveland and lived on the edge of the ghetto and went to school in a really mixed environment and got involved in the civil rights movement.”
Orr’s memory of growing up is superficial. For instance, he can’t recall the purpose of that trip to Alabama. It had something to do with a school, but whether the school was black or white he doesn’t know. He was innocent, and those details weren’t as important as his next softball game. He was an active church member, but he can’t say if his family’s local church was one of the liberal congregations within the United Church of Christ. He supposes the minister was probably “out there marching,” but he wasn’t aware of it at the time.
When Orr graduated from Simpson in 1966, he took the exam to enter law school. He didn’t do well, and while he was waiting for a second chance one of his professors suggested he take advantage of a National Defense Education Act scholarship that would pay his basic expenses for graduate work in American studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
“I never really wanted to go to law school to study torts. It was sort of the thing to do. But since I loved history and I was basically going to study American history, literature, education, and politics, this sounded great to me and it was a great experience.”
Orr arrived in Cleveland in 1966, “the kid from the suburbs, and then rural Iowa, still fairly innocent.” Slowly, in the city, he became “radicalized.” He took part in civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, and when he wasn’t out on the streets protesting he was getting his feet wet in electoral politics. He was Stokes’s campaign coordinator for the depressed all-black area alongside which he lived.
“I was doing pretty well in school, but I remember one of my professors saying, ‘If you’d only spend more time in the classroom and not out there organizing for Stokes, you’d be better off.’ But I loved it all. I still looked like a kid but I got everyone I knew involved in the campaign.” After the election, Orr continued to do volunteer work for Stokes.
In ’68, having earned an MA, he began work on a doctorate. One day a fellow student–a nun who taught at a tiny, conservative women’s school in Cleveland, Notre Dame College–asked him if he would be willing to teach history there. “This is now 1968, I’m working toward a PhD. The world’s all going to hell. Kennedy’s been shot, King had just been shot, we’ve got this crazy war going on, we’ve got this injustice in terms of civil rights, and I’m studying urban problems. One of my professors’ offices had just been sacked. The world seemed totally out of sync and I’m sitting in these classrooms. Something is really wrong. Except that I thought I might get drafted, I had nothing to lose.
“[Whether or not to stay in grad school] was one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make. I’d been deferred and I knew if I stayed in graduate school I’d keep my deferment. If not, I’d be eligible for the draft. I was against the war. I just felt in my gut that it was wrong. And one of the best things I did in graduate school was an extensive paper on the history of our involvement in Vietnam in the 50s.
“I couldn’t tell you what I would have done if I’d been drafted. I toyed with a lot of things. I really didn’t want to go to Canada. I thought maybe I would go in but refuse to fight, but that wasn’t very attractive because I didn’t relish going to jail. Or that I would be a medic. But then I wasn’t drafted. I was teaching. And I came from a suburban area where there was probably a fairly big pool of draftees.”
Orr dropped out of graduate school–he never returned–and went to work at Notre Dame. Asked how he got along there, Orr says, “You don’t want to know. I got along fine with the students. Here I am, looking younger than some of the students, teaching American government and history. And I was faculty adviser to the political-affairs groups. As things got more wild out there, the sisters got more and more nervous. The college got more and more restrictive. They even had hours when the girls could shower. Remember, I’m a young guy in an all-female setting. I just can’t tell you. But one story I can tell you is about one sister who was a little off. One day she came up to me in the corridor and said, ‘I want to tell you the secret to your success here.’ I waited. And she said, ‘Ties.’ I later discovered that the one other man on campus wore a lot of turtlenecks and they thought he was the radical one. She was warning me.
“By the spring of that year, I was sitting in an inquisition with the head of the history department and other heads. They wanted to get rid of me, but I was a popular teacher. One of them said, ‘Mr. Orr, you do believe in loyalty, don’t you?’ And I said I believed in loyalty, but like Lincoln sometimes you have to challenge authority. ‘This is a democracy,’ I said, and one of them said, ‘But Mr. Orr, the church is not a democracy.’ For someone like me who is not a Catholic, this was pretty new.”
Orr left Notre Dame at the end of the school year. He’d spent the previous two summers with the Upward Bound program at Mundelein College (now a part of Loyola University) in Chicago, teaching American history to “young, angry black and Hispanic high-school-age girls. It was a wonderful teaching experience for me. You’re talking about an integrated group, struggling, some wonderful kids who had had a rough time who had talent that could be utilized. I took a group to Washington.
“Then in ’69, I heard there was an opening in the history department in the college. One of the key people in Upward Bound was head of the history department. They hired me right away.”
Orr would stay at Mundelein ten years. He found an apartment nearby in Rogers Park and began sinking roots into the neighborhood. “Mundelein,” he recalls, “was one of the most active schools. The year I went there I helped organize a weeks-long antiwar strike. It was mostly antiwar activities at Mundelein. For civil rights stuff I was just a soldier in the field, going to rallies and demonstrations mostly downtown.”
Orr’s activities weren’t confined to street politics. He was in an amateur performance of the rock musical Viet Rock in 1971 at Mill Run. “They needed a player and I don’t know whether it was because I was a professor or what, but they asked me. We performed one or two nights. I had one line.”
Orr also played the drums–poorly, he says–with a student band. “They’d advertise that ‘Sticks’ Orr would be on the drums. It was embarrassing. I really didn’t know what I was doing.” He was playing his father’s drums, which he’d found in the basement of the family home and moved to his apartment. Here was this youthful, popular professor with moderately long hair–he didn’t have a regular haircut until he ran for alderman–and a goatee. Orr’s musical ability was irrelevant.
Meanwhile, Orr had his eye on electoral politics. “I was a natural ally of the independent movement,” he says. “My first political experience in Chicago was working on the campaign of a young progressive named Peter Tomei in the 49th Ward who was running for delegate to the Constitutional Convention [in 1969]. He died early. That’s where I met Woody Bowman [former state representative, now chief financial officer for Cook County] and Mike Kreloff [now secretary to the Cook County Board]. They were much further ahead than I was. They were both thinking of running for office already. So from that moment on I was a card-carrying member of the independent movement.”
In ’71 Orr supported Richard Friedman, a liberal who ran for mayor as a Republican against Richard J. Daley. A year later he helped elect his district’s first independent state representative, Joe Lundy.
In ’75 Bowman ran for state representative and Kreloff for alderman. Orr was Kreloff’s campaign director. Opposed by the elderly Esther Saperstein, a state senator, Kreloff lost the Democratic primary by 415 votes.
The important thing about that campaign, Orr says, was that it helped him move from issue-oriented to electoral politics. “We kept asking ourselves, ‘Could you really run for office in Chicago and keep your integrity?’ I came out of that campaign believing that you could. I remember that some guy wanted to give Mike a lot of money because he hated the former alderman. Mike told him, ‘If you want to give money to us because of what we stand for, fine, but if it’s because you hate someone we don’t want your money.’ It sounds naive now, but there were all kinds of things like that that gave me faith that you could do it.
“And I remember Mike taking a stand on human rights and on choice when other people were saying horrible things. And we almost won. I’m not going to say the race was stolen, but it was a razor-thin margin that was determined by the nursing-home vote that the old machine people knew how to work better than we did. But for a few votes, Mike might have been alderman and history might have been different for me. I think I would have been happy as a college professor and Mike’s chief of staff.
“We had this wonderful group of activists in the area, mostly elderly Jews. I’ve worked, over the years, with the real grass roots. Not to put down precinct captains–there are a lot of great precinct captains. But these were really great people who, when they weren’t working in politics, they were helping with the schools and all kinds of community things.”
In 1979 Kreloff and Orr changed roles. “Over those four years, I began to think that maybe I could be a candidate, maybe I could win. I’d always thought that the two most honorable jobs were being a minister or a priest and a politician–a statesman. Since religion wasn’t my cup of tea, politics was it,” Orr says.
“There was a touchy situation between Mike and me for a while. He was interested in running again. We finally came to terms about it because it seemed that I just had the bug more than he did. If I can speak for Mike, I think he decided that I was just hungrier than he was, and he became my campaign chair.”
Kreloff says, “I think people were pretty concerned for a while that these two good friends would go against each other. I thought I was the stronger candidate. My name was much better known. I was a good fund-raiser. I probably did 20 percent better than people thought I would in that first race. But we would sit and talk about it, and finally I just sort of made up my mind. We had a fateful lunch in which I said I thought he was hungrier than I was. And that’s the most important thing, how much you need to do it. That’s what it takes to win. I wasn’t quite as single-minded. And so I chaired the campaign. We were lucky. He ran eight or nine points behind Jane Byrne in the ward. It was a tight win. I didn’t think we were going to do it.
“We’ve been lucky. We’re a very close-knit group. We’ve never had the feuds that other groups have. I’m very proud of what David’s done with his career. We can differ, but David and I will always be close friends.”
The election was a rough one. Loretta Lim, a Cook County Hospital nurse who would later become Orr’s wife, was working in the campaign; she was threatened over the phone and later beaten. (Kreloff would accuse a woman election judge of beating up Lim and four precinct captains of violating federal civil rights laws by threatening campaign workers. All were indicted, but the charges were later dropped.) Windows were broken. A Mundelein student who was enthusiastic about working for her teacher told Orr a couple of weeks after she’d promised her support, “I can’t work for you. Not only that but I have to work against you.” Her father worked for the city.
Orr was elected alderman by 700 votes.
Neil Hartigan, a machine loyalist, was the 49th Ward committeeman. Having read the election as a defeat for himself as well as for the Democratic Party in the ward, Hartigan resigned the committeeman post and later aligned himself with Orr in the ward. Hartigan was one of the handful of politicians present at Orr’s fund-raiser in May.
Hartigan told me, “We were once on opposite sides but for many years we have supported each other. We’re good friends. I like him. It’s been a good relationship. I’ve always found him bright and legitimate.” Asked if he had a sense of where Orr was going next, Hartigan said, “David is hard to measure. I don’t think he has a well-defined plan in his mind. One of the things about him is that his looks are deceiving. He looks so young that you think he has so much time. And then you realize he’s 48. ‘Course, Reagan changed the picture for us. You can go on forever now.”
Early on, 1979 looked like a banner year for antimachine politics. Jane Byrne challenged the machine on a reform ticket and won. So did six independent aldermen, forming the largest independent council bloc since 1955. But Byrne soon dropped her independent cohorts, including Don Rose, who had been her main campaign strategist, and cozied up to the bloc of aldermen and their allies that had taken over the machine after Daley’s death–Edward Vrdolyak, Edward Burke, Charles Swibel, and company.
Orr recalls the four years that followed as “difficult” ones for the independents, years of ridicule from the mayor and the council majority over their efforts to change the direction of city government. He remembers being played for a sap. “Early on,” Orr says, “Byrne pushed for a $200 million bond issue to build Presidential Towers in the West Loop. . . . Most of us felt that it was a use of scarce resources for what looked like housing for the wealthy when we were trying to get housing for the poor. We went along with Byrne because she promised that she would support a $200 million bond issue for neighborhood affordable housing. We were snookered. She dropped that cold after she got Presidential Towers.”
Orr says, “We were so outnumbered. They loved to beat us up, verbally that is. And they controlled all the committees, all the staff. We all got a lot done in our neighborhoods by working hard, but downtown was impossible, though we did get a lot of issues out on the table. It took some getting used to. I believe in politics to bring about social justice, but politics, particularly in Chicago, really sucks. It’s mean, dirty, and to a great extent it has no intellectual integrity. In my ward, I had more trouble than the others because Byrne put her deputy chief of staff, Michael Brady, in as [49th Ward] committeeman and he took all the jobs, contracts, and benefits. They wanted to make the 49th into the new 11th Ward [the Daley ward]. They used race in the most blatant way. In our ward, where we had serious problems of substandard housing, they used race against us when we were trying to get new housing. The irony was that we actually got as much done as we did. It’s hard enough to fight these issues just because the issues are so tough, but when you have to fight the old machine in addition–it was rough.”
Orr was one of the only two white aldermen to endorse Harold Washington against Byrne and Richie Daley in the ’83 primary. Washington won and so did Orr, reelected by a two-to-one margin. In the council he supported Washington 100 percent. He was one of the 21 aldermen who did battle with the Vrdolyak 29 in the four long years of Council Wars. “We had a special relationship, I think, beyond the normal ties he had with the others, that went back to ’77,” Orr says. In ’87, when both were reelected, Washington asked Orr to be his vice mayor. Six months later, Washington was dead and Orr found himself interim mayor for a week.
It was up to the council to name a mayor from among its membership until a special election could be held. The likelihood of the white aldermen supporting this independent who had battled them for eight years was about the same as that of the black aldermen sitting still for any white succeeding Washington. Instead of campaigning for the job, Orr tried to play the role of peacemaker. He couldn’t become mayor in 1987, but the image of integrity amid chaos he created during his seven days holding down the fort gave him a countywide reputation that made his race for clerk in 1990 a smashing success, a run for County Board president next year a probable victory, and a run for mayor in 1995 something to seriously consider.
“The real question David has to face in a possible run for mayor,” says Don Rose, “is whether a black of substance like Joe Gardner [commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and close associate of the late Harold Washington] should decide to run. Or even someone like [Eugene] Pincham, who has lost some standing but nevertheless could take a lot of votes that would make a victory for Orr difficult. Even a black candidate of less standing could get a nationalist vote, could split off maybe 20 percent. So that’s the real question. If there is a black candidate in the race, it would be folly for Orr to run.”
On May 2, Lu Palmer, the black activist radio personality who helped organize Washington’s ’83 campaign, called a “Dump Daley” meeting of about 1,000 African Americans to talk about finding a black mayoral candidate. Suggested candidates included Alderman Dorothy Tillman, former alderman Tim Evans, who ran unsuccessfully against Daley in the special election in 1989, Alderman John Steele, and Joe Gardner, who has already made it known that he’s considering a run. But considerable skepticism was expressed about the possibility of finding someone who could defeat Daley.
Cook County Board Commissioner Danny Davis, a former alderman who made a brief run for mayor in ’89, was at that meeting. He told me, “I believe there will be a black candidate in 1995. What I hear is that people are asking Ed Gardner [owner of Soft Sheen Products and a financial angel for Washington and other black candidates] to make a sacrifice to run for mayor.” Though Gardner was at the front of Washington’s campaign and has been a leading voice in black politics, he has never shown any inclination to run for office himself. The fact that he is being urged to indicates the splintered state of the political forces in the black community since Washington’s death.
Gardner told me that he had been approached. “But I told everyone who asked me that it’s not my cup of tea. There are plenty of good people to run and I wish them well.” Davis insists that even if Gardner refuses to run a viable candidate will emerge “because there is a desire on the part of many African Americans to field a candidate for mayor based on the premise that the largest ethnic group in Chicago is African American. There is also the fact that because of the particular needs of the African American community, a mayor becomes more than an elected official, he becomes a moral leader. That’s really the quest for a black mayor. The feeling is that this moral leadership could best come from an African American. This has no reflection on David Orr. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t the greatest respect for David. He has been my friend for as long as I can remember. But the moral leadership being sought in the African American community must come from the community itself.”
On the other hand, Davis isn’t at all sanguine about re-creating the extraordinary political mobilization in the black community that elected Washington. “That was the maiden voyage. You can never have a maiden voyage again,” he says.
Rose believes that Orr would do far better in a race against Daley than any black candidate. “While Daley has lost a lot of popularity in the white community, that would not translate into votes for a black candidate. The whites who are disenchanted with Daley will not race to support a black candidate. But Orr does have a base in the white community as well as in the black, which makes it a real possibility that he could win against Daley.”
Cheryl Aaron, a black activist with ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) who is cochair of People Organizing West Englewood Residents and who is planning to run for alderman in 1995, agrees with Rose. “I hope that a black candidate doesn’t run,” Aaron says. “I’m hoping David runs. He’s the only one who can bring everyone together. He has support in places he doesn’t even know about. It’s very widespread. He’s a better candidate than any of the blacks who are talking about running.”
Aaron believes that the black community would organize for Orr as it did for Washington. “I’m positive he could get the same groundswell that Harold got. Harold laid the foundation for David,” she says. “And he doesn’t have the drawback out there in the rest of the city that Harold had. He’s not black. We now have an interracial coalition that can put him in the mayor’s office.”
Orr refuses to discuss the issue. “It’s too early to be speculating about who will be in that race,” he says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.