Wednesday, June 23

Reflections from Don Rose, a legend in Chicago politics

Don Rose, who turns 90 on Monday, can log a few items next to his name.

Columnist, political strategist, progressive stalwart, anti-war radical, racial justice crusader, jazz aficionado, gourmet foodie, ultimate party host, Paris denizen.

And Chicago’s political and cultural polymath. Rose, born in 1930 in Rogers Park to Jewish parents, later moved to Hyde Park, then Lincoln Park. He has made history in his hometown.

Rose is my longtime friend, mentor and guide to the wild and wily ways of Chicago politics. I asked him for the reflections of a nonagenarian.

“Probably, my obituary will read that I managed Jane Byrne’s campaign,” Rose replied. He was the architect of Byrne’s election as Chicago’s first woman mayor, trouncing the Democratic Party Machine. It was a short-lived victory as Byrne flipped and joined forces with the party leaders she once dubbed the “evil cabal.”

“I think I’ve made some contributions to the betterment of the city and maybe a bit to the world,” Rose added. “But it’s a frustrating thing.”

For “a would-be revolutionary, it seems like every two steps forward is one step back.”

He added: “The biggest problem is still racism and the prevalence of institutional racism.”

Now, more than ever.

In Chicago, no one has fought as many fights for racial justice. His decades of battles are book-ended by a race riot and the election of the first Black female and openly LGBTQ mayor in Chicago history.

In 1953, the 23-year-old Hyde Parker jumped into a scorching effort to integrate the Trumbull Park Homes, an all-white public housing development on the far South Side.

The Chicago Housing Authority attempted to move 10 Black families in. White residents responded by rioting for days. “The neighborhood just blew up,” Rose recalled. “No one was killed, but there were bombings, harassment. The city had to have policemen escort the Black residents from their buses to their homes.”

Rose joined a band of well-meaning white liberals to circulate flyers that urged peace and brotherhood with their Black neighbors.

“And we had the naive idea that if we talked to people, and … write little pamphlets to deliver to people, to the white residents in that area, that we could calm things down,” he said.

Heh. “And as it turns out, we probably wound up being as despised as Black people there because we were ‘N-lovers.’ ”

Onward. In 1963, Rose helped organize the “Freedom Trains” and sent a Chicago contingent to the historic March on Washington. He later served as press secretary to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his Chicago drive for open housing.

But “my greatest personal triumph was defeating Edward Hanrahan in 1972.”

Hanrahan was the Cook County State’s Attorney who backed a police raid that led to the murder of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Rose managed the campaign of Hanrahan’s Republican opponent, Bernard Carey. In Cook County, then and now, defeating a Democratic incumbent is no trifling feat.

Onward, to manage and advise a long string of other campaigns, for Chicago mayors Harold Washington and Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon, Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

In April 2019, political strategist David Axelrod tweeted: “Don Rose, a legendary Chicago political strategist and provocateur whose activism dates to the ‘60s, was right in the thick of the @LightfootForChi campaign. Still stirring things up after all these years!”

Axelrod, another Chicago political operative, helped engineer the election of Barack Obama. He has called Rose a mentor.

There are other little things, like the time he coined the phrase “The Whole World is Watching,” chanted by Chicago demonstrators as they were beaten in the infamous police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

These days, Rose the revolutionary is penning a weekly political column, pontificating in Zoom appearances, cooking up his famed cassoulet, and enjoying a glass — or two, or three — of his favorite Burgundy.

How are you handling the menace of COVID-19 at 90?

“Actually, for a radical, I am extremely conservative on that matter. I go out as little as possible.”

He admits to “one pandemic violation. I have a lady I’m seeing.”


Laura Washington is a political analyst for ABC-7 Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @mediadervish

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