People with Passion: author and activist Don Gordon


Interview September 13, 2010

Don Gordon, in yellow vest, speaking at a community meeting in October 2005.

Don Gordon, Rogers Park political activist.

We are seated in the Gordon family backyard in Rogers Park, the home where Don Gordon, and his family, has lived for 30 years. After spending the first 25 of those years as a community activist – among other projects, he was heavily involved in the fight against the expansion of the Evanston-Rogers Park lakefront – Gordon decided to oppose incumbent Joe Moore for Alderman of the 49th ward in the 2007 election. He lost a close race, distinguishing himself from his two fellow challengers and forcing a run-off with Moore.

He then took a job at Northwestern as a political science professor, where, in March, he took part in a professor-led panel discussion with former governor Rod Blagojevich. This month, he releases his first book, a guide to political engagement titled “Piss ‘Em All Off.”

Everybody tries to establish his legacy as being something specific. Some detail. Maybe it was Millennium Park. Whatever you want to pick. Northernly Island. Getting rid of Meigs. I think that was actually a great thing…

Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But Daley’s legacy was much broader. Regardless of everything that happened underneath the hood, his legacy was that when we went in to 1989, this was “Beirut by the Lake.” Hands down. No question about it. This city was going down the same path as Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, all the rust belt cities. And Daley turned the city around. The image of the city – it’s a much more subjective thing. It’s not like you can say, “Well, he put up wrought iron fences.” The overall image of the city, how people reacted to the city of Chicago – from an economic standpoint things started to get better – but it’s just the overall image of the city. Chicago today certainly could not be called Beirut By the Lake. It is very much one of the world-class international cities. Nobody in this city would have thought in 1989 that in another decade or so, Chicago would be called a world-class city, an international city.

But I’ve heard and read the exact same response to the first Daley. That Chicago was on its way down and that Daley revitalized it –

Oh, no no no. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In 1955, when Daley took the reins, there was nothing wrong with the state of the city, other than the fact that we had a mayor, Kennelly, that was basically a placeholder. Kennelly ended up in office because Kelly outlived his time. Not to mention the fact that his mentor, Nash, had died a few years before that, so his meal ticket was gone. And Jacob Arvey, who had taken over the reins, (speaking for Arvey about Kennelly), “This guy’s not good for the party.” Because it’s the party that’s important in the 1940s and 50s.

They needed somebody to give the party a better image. So they went and got this clean-cut, wealthy businessman by the name of Kennelly. He was a figurehead. But there was no doubt at that time that, you know, “We’re gonna put him in there so the image of the party can be cleaned up, until we can get it together again.” It’s sort of like the magician’s act. “Look over here for a while, while we continue to work in the back, smoky rooms.”

Mayor Richard J. Daley.

While that was happening, of course, Daley – first Daley – was continuing to build his expertise about county and city government. By the time 1955 came around, he had a lock on it. But it was politics that was up, that was going through a sort of a turnover at the time. The city, for the most part, was another urban city. The 1960s hadn’t hit yet. This is what really started to change things. In the 1950s, we’re still in the Eisenhower era. The city’s not an international city by any means, but it was okay. It wasn’t real well managed. There were things that needed to be done. Kelly built the machine, but by no means did he perfect the machine. That’s what Daley did.

What I’m saying though is, and maybe I got the timing a little wrong, but the big urban renewal projects that Daley undertook in the 60s, and things like the Picasso and the highways and the Sears – what I’ve read is that it helped transform Chicago and help it stay away from becoming Pittsburgh, Detroit. Would you agree with that?

That I would agree with. And it wasn’t as if Daley was doing it because he foresaw that the urban city was going down hill. It’s just that this is what Daley was all about. He was, first and foremost, a CEO. He described himself as that. The first Mayor Daley described himself as a CEO, a businessman. “Good politics is good government, and good government is good politics,” right? He didn’t coin that phrase, but he made it popular.

Daley was all about managing the city, and making good government. In other words, government that was responsible to the people, and doing what any good manager would do, which is, you know, build big projects. The legacy we have is the Burnham legacy. “Make no small plans.” And Daley went by that dictum. Make no small plans. And he made no small plans. He wanted to establish his legacy, but he wasn’t doing it because he saw that the city was going downhill. He did it because that was him. That was Daley.

They knew how to run the government. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should forgive them for everything else, because this dictum of “good government is good politics,” the idea behind that: “As long as we provide the people with good services, and the city is well-managed, then it doesn’t matter how we get there. It doesn’t matter what kind of politics we practice in the back room, as long as we get there,” right? Good government is good politics. They ran the city well. The old man definitely did, because he had much more power than Junior has…

The CEO passed away and there was nobody to take over for him. That’s what happened. All of a sudden you had a company without a head. You had all of these upper managers and middle managers scrambling around saying “What do we do? What do we do?” I think that’s the best metaphor to describe it, because that’s exactly the way the old man saw himself, and the kid saw himself. The CEO of the city. He wasn’t grooming anybody, and that was probably the biggest downfall as a manager. Because any good CEO will be grooming somebody so that when he or she leaves, they’ve got somebody to take over, if they’re thinking about the lifeblood of the company first.

There was this sense – I mean, obviously not realistic – but there was this sense that he would just keep going on. The old man didn’t have a sense that he was going to drop dead just before Christmas. And maybe if he’d stayed in another term, got closer to 80-years-old and started to look and say, “Hey, you know, maybe it is about time,” then I think he would have started to give some thought to it. But he never did prior to that. That was a downfall.

They were good managers. Of course, that’s been brought up as being questionable regarding Junior, because when you look at the state of the city today, and the deficits that we’re running – but part of that certainly has to be attributed to the way the economy’s tanked in the past three years. That changed everything. Nobody was planning for an utter collapse of the economy. Daley wasn’t different than anybody else in that regard.

But you don’t think that there was enough going against him with the economy, Blagojevich, the TIFs – whatever you want to say – that would have possibly led to him being defeated?

Oh, absolutely not. You know the old worn out phrase: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” There’s nobody there that would have been able to run against him that could have even given him a run for his money. Even made it close.

Daley in '73. (Chicago Tribune photo by George Quinn)

Again I’ll draw the metaphor of a company, and I think Apple is a really good example for this. You have a company where the CEO leaves. Steve Jobs leaves Apple, right? And the company starts to go into a tailspin. He left at a time when Apple wasn’t the big rising star anymore. And it wasn’t until he came back and injected his personality into the company again – his personality. Not his intelligence, but his personality into it, and people gravitated toward him because he was this sort of superstar CEO – that the company actually started to recover.

Regardless of what you think of Daley, everybody was very comfortable with him being the mayor and knowing how to get things done. I think it was Jerry Roper who said, “The great thing about Chicago is that it’s one stop shopping. Just go over there to the fifth floor. What do you want done?” You don’t have to go through a whole line of bureaucracy. Just go to the fifth floor, knock on the door, and you’ll get done what you need done.

I think this is the end of the long-term mayoralship. The comparison to Cy Young, and baseball – nobody’s going to have 500-plus victories any more, and not because the pitchers aren’t capable of it. The game’s changed. They don’t pitch complete games anymore.

They don’t make 40 starts a year.

Right. That’s right. And what we’re seeing in politics is that change of landscape. We’re not going to see a mayor in office for 21 years anymore. First of all, there is no Richard the Third in the waiting. Yes, he does have a son, but I don’t think anybody expects that he’s on a path to run for mayor. Now, I may be wrong. Maybe all of a sudden he’ll come home from Iraq and say, “Hey, I think I want to be mayor,” and next term, he’ll run.

But it was much more of a given with Richie. He was on his dad’s knee, and he said, “Dad” – for all practical purposes – “when you’re done, I’m in.” I think everybody sort of understood that. It was talked about back in ’79 when he was running against Lady Jane.

That doesn’t exist today. And even if it did, I don’t know if even Chicagoans would have the appetite to elect a third Daley. Because of that, I think we’re going to see a lot more citizen involvement, citizen engagement. Power bases are going to come up in a lot of different areas. Whether it be Hispanic, African-American, the gay community – I think they’re all going to have these little power bases. You’re not going to have that invincible figure anymore.

Nobody’s going to cower at – and I’ll use Joe[1] as an example, because Joe’s a very formidable figure to run against. He’s a good politician. But if Joe were to run and win, nobody would cower against him four years from now. Even if Rahm Emanuel came in from – is it from heaven that he comes in from? To save us all – even if Rahm ran and won, nobody would cower at running against him. Most people were intimidated about the idea of running against Richie. Even in ’91! Even after he was only in office for two years! It was like Caesar. It’s almost a sacred thing in this city. It was like, “Yeah, well, it’s Daley. We don’t run against Daley.” You don’t do that.

That’s just not going to exist anymore. You know, never say never, but I don’t see that happening in any of our lifetimes again. Who knows, 100 years from now, but I think we’ve got a long time if that should ever happen again.

Richard the First, there was no civic engagement. You were a citizen of the city of Chicago under Old Man Daley, and you appreciated the fact that he held the city together and built things, but you never expected to have any positive input. You would hope that your alderman might get you a job with the city, you know, get you a favor. It was always favors that were being done. Favors came down from City Hall. Favors came down, not city services. And it’s an important distinction. That’s how people saw it.

American Pharaoh, by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor
But people got favors. And enough people got favors that it worked. Under the kid, it wasn’t favors anymore. Regardless of how we talk about this, it wasn’t favors. He really, if nothing else, tried to create the image that the city needs to provide services for its people. Whether it’s from down town, or it’s from the ward offices – wherever it is, “We need to be responsive to the citizens.” People started to realize, “Hey, there is an opportunity if we organize and provide input, that we can get some things done.” Civic engagement, in terms of organizing. That would never, ever have happened under Old Man Daley. He was the Pharaoh. Whatever he said, went. But the kid, he opened himself up to that.


I truly believe that the reason that happened was because of what happened between Richard the First and Richard the Second. And what happened was Harold Washington. Harold was the one who changed that dialogue. In terms of being a politician, he wasn’t any cleaner than Old Man Daley. He came up in the same ranks, and he learned his politics the same way Old Man Daley did.

But he opened up City Hall and said, “You know what? This is a city for everybody.” He was there long enough – the one whole term and then the first year of the second term – to change that dialogue, to actually get people excited. It was like opening up the barn door.

I think the kid was smart enough to understand, “Alright, I understand how my old man did things, but I can’t do things that way today, because Harold opened the barn door.” (Laughs.) “I’ve got to learn how to develop coalitions.” I don’t even think Old Man Daley understood what the word “coalition” meant. He didn’t need to. The kid needed to understand coalitions. He needed to understand how to bring people together. And he did that really well.

Mayor Harold Washington.

But it wasn’t him. He didn’t do it because, “Oh, gee, I think this is a really great idea.” He did it because that was now the new social landscape. And it was because of Harold. Harold changed that. There are a lot of things Harold did that were just like old politics. But one good thing he did was he changed the way we perceived ourselves as citizens of the city of Chicago.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody all of a sudden is becoming civically engaged. But it creates a social milieu that allows people to be able to do that.

Because of the way the old man ran the city, and because of how closed-off politically this city was to its citizens, I think many of us in the late 60s were motivated by that challenge of, in effect, “breaking the glass ceiling.” We were motivated by that. It drove a lot of us to the point where, “You know what? We gotta do something about this. This is just simply wrong. This is not the way you treat people. This is not the way you treat citizens. This is supposed to be a democracy. It’s obviously not.”

I think that’s probably where the title of the chapter came from, which eventually made it to the title of the book, but to “piss ‘em all off,” because that’s what we were about then. Yeah, let’s piss ‘em off. So what? We don’t care what the precinct captain thinks. Let’s piss ‘em off.

In Chicago, in the late 60s and early 70s, we were focused on bringing independent candidates into the fore. I was in Singer’s ward at the time, Bill Singer, who in ’75 threw his hat into the ring and committed sui – (laughs) well, committed political suicide by throwing his hat into the ring and running against Old Man Daley, just to show everybody that, “You just can’t run against a Daley,” alderman or not. But between him, and Oberman who came a little bit later, Simpson at the time – this is where our efforts were focused. How do we promote independent alderman and get them into the city council, so that Leon Despres isn’t so lonely? That was where our main focus was in the early 70s.

Gordon at Northwestern University in early 2010, listening to Nortwestern alum Rod Blagojevich. (photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune)

Because of the age I was at, first late teens and then early 20s, I was also going through personal changes and trying to figure out, “Well, what do I want to be when I grow up?” ’75 I got married… mid to late 70s, I basically pulled out. I was still engaged in the sense of paying attention to what was happening nationally and locally, but not from the perspective of being actively engaged. We got into Rogers Park, spent a couple years here, kids were born, and then I said, “Okay, it’s time again.” Early to mid 80s, started getting involved in what was going on in Rogers Park.

I personally gravitated here because of the politics of the community. You knew that if you wanted to get involved, this is where to be. Even back in the late 70s, early 80s, this is the place to be. That helped my blossoming and getting involved as a community activist.

By the time [my children] got into their early to mid 20s, that’s when I started thinking, “Yeah, okay. We’re okay now. They’re starting to go off on their own. We’re here for advice,” but now started thinking about what I really wanted to do twenty years ago.

If I had been behind the alderman, the directions I would have moved in would have been either looking at another office that could have had impact locally, or working within the ward with the alderman. As a chief of staff or whatever, working in that regard. You don’t have to run for office to have a major impact. It’s maybe nice for the ego, but it’s not necessary in order to have a major impact. And there’s other things I may have considered too. The lakefront’s always been a major issue of mine, so it would have been going down that path and maybe creating an organization for the lakefront.

I was motivated to run because I felt that the ward was really suffering with the lack of leadership, and somebody needed to do something about this, if not to get elected, at least to get the person who was in office to start paying attention, which is, in the end, what happened.

Piss 'Em All Off, by Don Gordon

I use this quote in the book from Jefferson, and I’ll end up butchering it here, but in paraphrasing, he said in his letter to Edward Carrington, “If citizens don’t pay attention to what’s going on in their government, then we risk all of us as their elected representatives becoming wolves.” And all you gotta do right now is take a look at what is going on in California in some of those small towns and what they’re paying their city manager and a couple of the people who are in their city government. You know, half million dollars here, three quarters of a million dollars here. Citizens saying “Oh my god. We’re astonished. This is terrible.” And it’s like, “Why is this a surprise?” It’s a small town, it’s a small government, and you don’t know as a citizen what you’re paying your city manager? These are people who are complaining about their taxes, and then all of a sudden it all came out.

This is what happens. The elected officials become wolves. That’s a perfect, current example of what can happen when citizens become disengaged and they stop paying attention. “We take off with the cookie jar.” And that’s what they did.

Jack M Silverstein is a freelance writer covering music, culture, and sports in Chicago. His first book, “Our President,” is available at Say hey at twitter/readjack or facebook/readjack.

Don Gordon talks politics with Rod Blagojevich at Northwestern in March 2010 (courtesy of the Daily Northwestern)

Piss ‘Em All Off is now available on Amazon! Order your copy today!

[1] Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward, and Gordon’s opposition in the 2007 election.


2 Replies to “People with Passion: author and activist Don Gordon”

  1. Don Gordon sounds like an interesting man. I learned a bit more about him, his past and his passion in the last quarter of the interview. I would have preferred more Don and less Chicago political history. But maybe this was a good thing for your readers who don’t know alot about Chicago history. Anyway, I’m waiting for People With Passion, Don Gordon, part 2 which gets into why he feels so strongly about citizen participation in politics– how did he get this way?– was there a defining moment in his young adulthood and what’s pushing him now. He didn’t fizzle out like many other “political radicals” I knew in the Sixties. Correction: Steve Jobs was forced out by the Apple Board lead by the former CEO of Coca Cola (I forgot his name). But the truth remained the same– when Jobs left, the power & creativity of the person left too. Just like Daley 1.

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