09/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Twenty Years: From Washington in Chicago to Chicago in Washington

I moved here twenty years ago last January. Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, had just died a few months earlier, and Eugene Sawyer was the interim mayor. Washington stalwart David Orr had been interim mayor briefly before him. I never understood the process by which Sawyer became interim mayor, or mayor pro tem or whatever it's called when someone's your mayor but not really. There may have been a brief dust-up among the city's black politicos - Washington not having specified an heir apparent - but they and the rest of the coalition of various Washington constituencies - those disparate populations who had been unified by the deft politicking of Washington himself - pretty quickly decided that Timothy Evans would step into office.

And we all went to sleep one night thinking Timothy Evans was our mayor. That's how I remember it.

For the glowering conservative white pols, though, who rued having been in the position of splitting votes between Little Richie Daley and incumbent Jane Byrne, their first order of business was to placate everyone who still wanted a black mayor without actually giving them one they liked. So while everyone else was asleep, I think, or distracted by fireworks, the anti-Washingtonian politicians went under a railroad bridge or into a bathroom stall or a secret tree house and swore in Eugene Sawyer, with the understanding that a conservative white person would be replacing him soon. So Sawyer was not the interim mayor exactly, but rather the racially transitional mayor.

Maybe it wasn't as sneaky as all that. But watching Chicago politics over the past twenty years has done nothing to disabuse me of any possible misapprehension on my part.

Harold Washington was unique, the only force in Chicago politics who could unite the broad base of support needed to fight the conservative Democrats on the City Council, and Daley would never again have to share conservative votes with an incumbent. I don't even remember if Sawyer ran in the election that placed Little Richie in City Hall. I think Daley just set up shop one day and Sawyer arrived at the office and said, "Oh, is it that day already? All right, see ya."

Barack Obama's political savvy was informed by the Harold Washington era. I feel if you want to know what kind of politician Obama really is you could do worse than look to Harold as a blueprint. But realize, he's profited from experience. This November, almost exactly twenty-one years after Harold Washington's untimely death by fatness, the voters of these United States will, I hope, elect a slender black man to be President.

National politics is of course a different landscape from that of the city, and today's national politics differ more from Chicago style than they ever have. Personal religion, while it enters into voting patterns in Chicago, is not a hill one must take, as one must in Washington. In Chicago it's just assumed that if you're white you have some kind of white religion, like Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or atheist disguised as Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Or Jewish. And if you're black you've got some kind of black religion, like Baptist or Muslim or Nouveau-African or some kind of Coptic-Israelite-Masonic thing. Or Jewish. And that's that. Everyone's got a religion. It may or may not affect how you vote, but it's not something that has to be discussed.

Sadly, on the national scene everyone's got to do this tricky dance: avow faith in a deity, without saying who that deity is, while tacitly indicating it's Jesus. Commit to Christianity without somehow violating the secular ideal of democracy. One must represent all the people, without losing the identity of a church-going Christian. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't even bother trying to dance, therefore the media treated her like a Jew, that is to say, an atheist, that is to say, an elite secularist, all three types being conflated into one suspicious label in the effortless, instinctual non-thought process of mass media epistemology.

Obama's footwork, on the other hand, is pretty fancy. He's got religion covered as well as anyone can who doesn't simply avoid it. In addition to the skills of one who has lived through the Harold Washington era, Obama has hindsight, which his campaign displays by eschewing the sniveling style of the Gore and Kerry campaigns. And, who knows? Ron Paul or some other libertarian psycho may just split the anti-Obama vote with McCain.

So as we roll into this historic election, we in Chicago, who have adopted Obama as our hometown son, have a great deal of emotional and intellectual junk in the trunk, which might make our asses look like they're dragging. But the added ballast could give us enough momentum to keep our hopes going forward even after the fuel and even the fumes of idealism have been exhausted.

See, there's a rumor going around that once people get over the novelty of Obama, they'll stop wanting a black president, or a socially-minded president, or a non-idiot president, or a president who doesn't want to continue the policies of the current idiot president, or whatever the nay-sayers believe Obama's novelty represents. But you don't get where Obama is just by being a novelty. So here in the Hog Butcher we suspect the Obama camp has not yet begun making sausage. When those snouts and lips hit the grinder, that's when it's going to get interesting.

It's not that we're idealistic - we're realists. If by election time McCain isn't hickory smoked in natural casing, with BHA and BHT and sodium nitrite as preservatives, then Obama just wasn't the right guy. Whaddya gonna do? Shit happens.