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David Orr reflects on four decades of politics
by Matt Simonette

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Outgoing Cook County Clerk David Orr, whose last day on the job will be Nov. 30, admitted that he couldn't help but be bittersweet about stepping down from the office he's worked in since 1990.

"I think it's time, with nearly 40 years in public office," Orr said. "It's a little emotional at times—you think of all the stuff you're going to miss, but it's good for me. It's a great time [for others] to be in public office, if you're progressive-minded. Forgetting the Trumpism, there is a 'wave' out there, it wasn't just in this last election. … People are understanding that we've got to fight this racism. We've got to start dealing more honestly with this inequality."

Orr announced in mid-2017 that his current term would be his last; he said at the time he was reluctant to undergo potential primary challenges as well as another four-year term should he have won. Prior to becoming county clerk, he'd been the longtime alderman of the city's 49th Ward, which is primarily made up of the Rogers Park neighborhood. He was inducted as a friend of the LGBT community into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame—now the LGBT Hall of Fame—in 2012.

Orr was famously acting mayor of Chicago for what he said was "a long week" following the death of Mayor Harold Washington in 1987. Over the course of the '80s he was an instrumental figure in a movement of independent Democratic alderman who opposed the "Machine" politics that were a holdover from the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who died in 1976. When Washington was elected in 1983, 29 aldermen dug in their heels and refused to work with City Hall; ultimately a progressive caucus majority that Orr led was elected in 1986.

"It was an exciting time," Orr recalled. "It was hard for Harold and a lot of the rest of us that so many Democrats decided to desert the party because of his color. Things like that were frustrating, but it was exciting [then]. A lot more was accomplished than people realize. History is often written by the winners. When [Mayor Richard J.] Daley came to office in '89, a lot of people wrote that nothing good came between when Richard M. Daley died in '76 and young Richie came to office in 1989. That's obviously bad history, but history is written by the victors."

Washington inspired Chicagoans to pay attention to City Hall more than previous politicians had before, he added. The mayor and his allies faced stalwart opposition who were able to dominate local news coverage.

"People were glued to the news," he said. "When people had to confront both a mayor who was a reformer and an African-American, it helped, even though it was painful at times. It helped to shape people's understanding of race relations. … When it is addressed in the right way, people began to change their minds and change their attitudes. It was difficult, but a lot got done."

Reforms that were supportive of Chicago's LGBT community were part of Orr's and his allies' platforms even then; Orr even recalled a rumor from the '80s that he and Washington were lovers. The County Clerk credits his awareness on LGBT issues to attorney/activist Mike Kreloff, whose mid-'70s campaign to be 49th Ward alderman Orr managed, as well as various progressive constituents Orr met in Rogers Park while on the City Council himself.

"To Mike's credit, we publicly supported the Human Rights Ordinance, the concept of it, way back then," Orr noted. "I credit mostly him for that. It was not a popular thing to do. … That was when I started to pay attention to that. Mike lost that particular election. But by '79, things switched: Mike was the campaign chairman and I was the aldermanic candidate, and so it was easy for me. I was in touch with people on City Council who wanted to help move that ordinance."

He added that a key part of winning political victories is understanding political power, something he felt some activists were not astute about.

"We were discussing the Human Rights Ordinance in '80 and '81, and even before I got to the Council," Orr explained. "Activists would say, 'Don't call a vote—we're not ready. If you a call a vote, it'll lose and it'll never pass.' As the years went by, some others and I began to think, 'That is a B.S. strategy.' A lot of aldermen said they were supportive, but really weren't. My advice was to call a vote; you have to find out if these people were really with you. You have to understand politics with accountability … If politicians have their way, they'll avoid having to take tough stands."

During his time as County Clerk, Orr took a number of actions that were in support of marriage equality, most notably refusing to legally defend his office when his office was sued over gays' and lesbians' then-inability to marry.

"I think they knew that when they sued," he said. "We're not supposed to conspire, but we all knew each other. The [movement] leaders had a pretty good guess that if I was sued, I would not defend that. The State's Attorney was okay with it, so I think it helped, but it was mostly the movement that was responsible [for winning marriage-rights]."

The litigation came to a head even after LGBT Illinoisans won the right to marry in the state legislature in 2013. Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation in November of that year, but marriages could not actually begin until the following summer. That winter, some LGBT individuals in Cook County with health issues asked courts to marry ahead of time and won, ultimately leading to all Cook County LGBT residents winning that same right on Feb. 21, 2014.

Orr performed some of the marriages himself. Speaking that day before the nuptials of Theresa and Mercedes Santos-Volpe, two of the original plaintiffs, Orr joked, "These two have been suing me for years."

Reflecting on the marriage fight, Orr said, "It shows how quickly things change. You get a power-base and it spreads quickly."

His advice for incoming Clerk Karen Yarbrough is ensuring cultural competency to effectively serve all Cook County residents.

"I don't think it will be a problem [with Yarbrough in office] but I'd say to continue important training of staff so that they understand issues related to race, human rights and other things, and make sure any prejudices or nervousness people have in the office get worked out. Make it clear: This is your job. … I think things are set there, which is good, but you always want to make sure that you can get [staff] to buy in and understand the law, so it is smooth."

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