Posted on December 4, 2010 by chicagocloutThe Latest on the Chicago Mayoral Race with Jay Stone and Patrick McDonough Video
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A historical footnote celebrates a milestone
December 5, 2010
He was mayor of Chicago for one week only. Can you name him?
Probably not, which is why I went to meet him at his Loop office last week. The anniversary of his short reign seemed like a good moment to retrieve the history of a week that makes the current mayoral race look like an American Girl tea party.
“David Orr,” he said, extending a hand.
From Nov. 25 to Dec. 2, 1987, David Orr was Mayor Orr. A few polite old people still call him that. Some wonder why he’s not angling for the job again.
“For two weeks I’ve been hearing, ‘Damn it, David, why aren’t you running?'” he said. “‘You’re the only one with experience.”
He laughed, and except for the gray in his mustache and cowlick, he didn’t look too different from the guy in the old photos that crowd his walls.
Orr is 66, and on that morning last week, he was about to be sworn in for his sixth term as Cook County clerk. For 20 years, he’s overseen a lot of what makes Chicago tick — births, deaths, voting, taxes — and done it with a vehemence and social conscience not evoked by the word “clerk.”
“It has always been a mystery why he didn’t try to go higher,” says a politics watcher I know. “Way back when he was the alderman in the 49th, he was the great independent hope.”
On the day he became mayor, Orr had just finished checking out a problem liquor store in his Rogers Park ward. He got a message:
It’s Harold. Change out of those jeans. Get downtown.
Like Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, Orr got along with blacks and whites, bucked the old Chicago Machine and dreamed of making Chicago a fair city. Washington chose him as vice mayor.
“But I’d never thought, ‘What if he died?'” Orr said.
There Orr was, at a private swearing-in, his mother at his side; setting up operations in a City Hall parlor; being whisked off to meet Chicago’s corporate elite, who thought he might be mayor for a while.
It was a crash course in Chicago power.
By the end of the brawling week, however, Eugene Sawyer, an African-American chosen by the white Machine politicians, had the job.
Orr said he never aimed for it, then or later.
“Partly family,” he said, “partly my personality. It’s nice to be able to have a life, read my books.”
Orr doesn’t fit the steak-and-cigar stereotype of old Chicago politicians. He’s a former Mundelein College history professor. He owns a drum set.
Maybe he isn’t tough enough to be mayor?
“I don’t think Mayor Daley is tough,” he said. “If he was tough, he’d say ‘no’ to some of these people who wanted him to give away the store. Tough to me is saying ‘no’ to a lot. It’s easy to say ‘no’ to the poor, who’ve got no influence.”
Chicago is a more tolerant city than it was in Mayor Orr’s time. Downtown looks better. But Orr says the tolerance is born of political pragmatism. The poor have been pushed out, and the old Machine is just more sophisticated.
“It ticks me off these crooks are still running the city,” he said.
If he were mayor? He’d work for affordable housing, gay rights, energy conservation. He’d crack down on favoritism in contracting and hiring.
But his mayoral moment is over. He’ll have to settle for knowing that it has been immortalized as a question on “Jeopardy.”
“Once,” he said, “somebody got the answer right.”
Copyright © 2010, Chicago Tribune
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