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David Orr: a rebel in paradise

Manuel Galvan


"Mr. Goody Two-Shoes" was one of the nicer things that Cook County Clerk David Orr was called when he was a Chicago alderman. It was fired at him by the now-retired Alderman Anna Langford (16th) during a heated debate on an ethics ordinance that would regulate the Chicago City Council. The nastier things could fill a column, but couldn't be printed.

Trying to comprehend Orr's ratings without historical perspective would belie the verbal hatred heaped on him during his council days.

Orr's fourth floor county office still bears some trappings from Stanley Kusper, his more flamboyant and debonair predecessor. But the photos on a wall shelf that follow a political career from lakefront alderman to fill-in mayor to head of county elections are definitely Orr.

Even by his detractors, Orr was considered one of the hardest working members of the council. He authored a residential landlord and tenant ordinance, pushed a governmental ethics code and successfully lobbied for the city's human rights legislation and liquor license reforms. But, he was often described as "sanctimonious" and ridiculed for some of his ideas like the law that made Chicago a nuclear weapon-free zone. And he enraged political regulars weaned on "business as usual."

As vice mayor, Alderman Richard Mell (33rd) had free coffee every day for City Hall regulars and rolls on council days. When Orr became vice mayor, he got rid of the rolls, put cinnamon in the coffee and charged for it.

As interim mayor, presiding over the stormy council session that chose Eugene Sawyer as mayor after Harold Washington's death November 25, 1987, Orr refused to call on regulars. A frustrated Mell stood atop his desk and shouted, "Now will you recognize me?" Orr did not. He would later say he wanted to let Washington loyalists have their say because once opposition aldermen spoke, they would parliamentarily maneuver their way to victory, effectively silencing dissidents.

Under Sawyer, Orr's people pushed to get a photograph of their eight-day city leader in the fifth floor gallery of Chicago mayors. They succeeded, but the council dumped Qrr as vice mayor. For all his public humiliation, Orr kept that Cub Scout attitude of doing your best and now heads a powerful county office. "It's a reformer's dream," Orr said of the possibilities in making the office more responsible and responsive. "I'm like a rebel in paradise."

He was often described as 'sanctimonious' and ridiculed for some of his ideas . . . And he enraged political regulars weaned on 'business as usual'

Since being sworn in nine months ago, Orr has invested money, which was previously ignored, into interest bearing accounts. In the first quarter alone, the monies earned $140,000. He has also regularly published the Cook County Board proceedings, giving the public access to the commissioners' decisions for the first-time in eight years. And he has made the sale of tax delinquent property more competitive for community groups and first-time investors.

Orr's campaign promise of doing away with no-bid contracts has altered a bit, the result of bureaucratic and legal reality. But Orr has already done more innovative work than Kusper did in his nearly two decades in

62/August & September 1991/Illinois Issues


The problem Orr faces with eliminating no-bid contracts is that most of the nearly 200 contracts were bid before Kusper left office. Many contracts have been bid, but Orr admit she has been convinced that a few of them should become "RFP's rather than no-bid contracts." RFP means requests for proposals, which allow very technical specifications to be required by competing companies, instead of simply hiring the lowest bidder who might tell you a week before an election that the ballots won't be ready.

Orr's most complex reform challenge may be in preventing employee solicitations. True, the clerk's office no longer has the "How many tickets do you want for the fund raiser?" atmosphere it once did. But some employees still feel pressured. "We discourage employees from contributing but haven't forbidden them from coming to fundraisers," Orr says. If they want to come, someone has to pay for the food. Orr hopes that someday an employee can say, "I got a promotion and I didn't contribute." In the meantime, Orr held the first annual ClerkFest in June, a free picnic for employees with the food donated by friends.

Hardened veterans of Chicago politics tell me that Orr is a reformer, but quickly add, "Who cares about campaign promises. What's he going to run for next?" So I recently asked Orr:

"In 1995, will you be a) a congressman, b) Cook County Board president (the most anticipated campaign by political observers) or c) mayor of Chicago?" Orr chose "d) other."

"I'm flattered, "he said, smart enough not to rule anything out. "But I'm not thinking that far in advance. I'm probably going to be in this office."

There's a picture of Orr in his office as a Cub Scout. Next to it is a photograph of Washington and Orr laughing warmly on an early campaign trail. With his long hair, Orr looked very much like illusionist Doug Henning. When asked how a Cub Scout could grow into a long-haired reformer, Orr's answer perhaps best explains why his actions upset so many political regulars. "It was a natural progression, really. You grow with American ideals and then challenge those who think they are above living those ideals."

Manuel Galvan is manager of special rojects for the Chicago Tribune and served as City Hall correspondent for the newspaper during the Washington and Orr administrations.

August & September 1991/lllinois Issues /63

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