david orr Cook County Clerk

David Orr Talks About Lessons Learned Over His Political Career

David Orr has an impressive background. For the past 28 years, he has been the Cook County Clerk. Before this stint, he served 11 years as the 49th Ward Alderman in Rogers Park.

One of the highlights of his career came after the devasting loss of Mayor Harold Washington when Orr became Mayor of Chicago for a week.

We had the honor of hearing him speak at the Red Line Tap for First Monday sharing some of the lessons learned over the past 45 years in office. Here are a few highlights.

Five Lessons from 45 years in Chicago politics

Lesson #1: Get them to vote

“When politicians vote, it goes on public record.” Otherwise, they can back off any promises they made in private.

As Orr said, “Most politicians are followers.” They do not want to be held accountable for their actions, so they have the flexibility to form ranks with their peers.

Trying to beat your own path can be difficult. However, a politician does not have the luxury of being cowardly in today’s society. When you get them on record, you can follow up with those who did not vote in favor of the action you championed. Then you can urge them to vote for this issue at a later time. One bad vote does not mean you lost. It is a battle on the road to a greater war.

Chicago city council

Lesson #2: Organize

The second lesson Orr talked about was to how to organize your political campaigns against the Chicago machine.

david orr alderman

“The campaign we ran in ’79 for Alderman was equivalent to a Senate campaign organization. This type of campaign is how you fight the machine because they have so much influence.” He talked further about how you need to be “efficient” to win.

Orr explained how the machine worked for “political purposes.” For example, if you worked in the water department then there is an unwritten code that you help with the campaign and vote for the party slate. Or if you want a contract you need to “pay up.”

Those who did not play ball often lost out financially. The machine also got somewhat dirty as he reminisced about how many windows were broken and cars’ ticketed to scare away support.

You need to create the movement from the ground up to beat this type of system.

The same holds true once elected. You govern in the minority by organizing. It becomes “part of your job to get the job done without others.”

Good council members use organizing tools. For council members, this means focusing on the top three things for your district:

  • Services
  • Special projects
  • Policy

The recent victory in O’Hare airport is another excellent example of how organizing and modern technology beat the system. Thousands of sub-contractors working at the airport did not reap the benefits of an increased minimum wage hike.

The airport told the city that it was not us, but their subcontractors who paid below the city’s minimum wage. Subcontractors are not affected by the original plan. However, because of protests against the airport, thousands of workers were able to negotiate a better salary.

Rainbow Strike

Lesson #3: Need to stop running against each other

Often multiple progressive candidates run against each other and then lose. “We need one person to win, and that is difficult in a plurality. Runoffs are dangerous because the voice of the progressives gets diluted. Then the standing politician usually wins in a direct one on one race.”

Sitting council members love it when multiple progressive candidates run. They let the other candidates cut into each other’s base. Usually, they are in the top two for the runoff election and have a tremendous advantage running against the remaining challenger.

Lesson #4: Time change things

“In the 1980’s it was the war on poverty that dominated the news. Now it is a war on the poor, immigrants, and democracy” This is part of the shift that makes people frustrated and ultimately disenfranchised with democracy.

Harold Washington, David Orr
The true culprit is the organization. “They know voters are not dumb, which is why a large increase in voters would bring in great leaders who would not stand for what many of the card-carrying politicians do with their power. We are losing the battle against money and voter suppression. They are smart and know what they are doing. Power means you want to win. Bad power means you will do anything to win.

For example, in Florida, they do not let felons vote. In fact, some southern states don’t allow felons ever vote again. Often small changes like this have outsized disruptions on the minority and progressive vote.

That is why as times change, we need to work on new ways to get out the vote.  We need candidates we believe in and connect with like my friend Marie Hadden.” Note: Not sure if Mr. Orr endorses Marie.

It is also a reason why it is hard for third-party candidates to win. “They play tricks like requiring more petitions than other parties that make it hard for third-party candidates to win.”

Lesson #5: Speak Out

The final point is often the hardest for most people especially politicians to follow. “Most politicians believe they are smarter than us because they are hard to beat. If you are going to change things you have to go after them.” You cannot let bad things happen. You need to speak up and stay on them.

Every council member has supporters, but people need someone to do the right thing. When things are wrong and we do nothing, they win.

For example, the Republican party went extreme right wing to please the likes of people such as the Koch brothers who had the money & power to buy over politicians who fell in line with their views. The politicians wanted someone to fund their campaigns. Then if they lost the election towing the party line, they would have to settle for a large salary from a Washington lobbyist firm. Either way, they win, as long as they play ball.

“We need to watch each other’s egos because leaders don’t want to give up anything.” Locally Mr. Orr discussed how “difficult it was for people to step up for assessors office. So many progressives are hiding out because power has tentacles.” However, we only achieve something by speaking up; running for office.

Wrapped Up In Your Own Grief
Final Thoughts

I hoped we conveyed the power of Mr. Orr’s experience. It was inspiring to hear how to fight the machine from someone who spent his career doing it successfully. Let us know in the comments which lessons you thought has the most power to change Chicago for the better.

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