Sipping from a bottle of Orange Carrot Mistic in Mississippi Rick’s, a Bronzeville restaurant a couple buildings down from her apartment, Delmarie Cobb seems to belong somewhere gentler than the coarse world of Chicago politics. Cobb is the founder of Publicity Works, a Bronzeville media and political consulting firm that’s been around for twenty-four years. The gentle impression lasts up until the moment when she relates how, since she doesn’t have any candidates this election cycle, she’s just returned from a trip to Tanzania, where she attempted to scale Mount Kilimanjaro—although she didn’t quite reach the summit. When asked why she’s not working on any political campaigns this year, she explains that nobody called her up, perhaps because of a changing political landscape. Cobb wonders if she’ll have to start advertising herself to candidates again, something she hasn’t done since the early days of her company.
Cobb founded Publicity Works on April Fools’ Day, 1990. Though its initial headquarters was downtown, Cobb relocated in 1999 to the apartment immediately above her own. There are three or four permanent staff members (around election time, the number usually increases). Between campaigns, the firm also works with a number of non-profits and corporations, including Genesis Housing, an organization that helps low-income families find affordable housing, and Cedar Concepts, a manufacturing plant run by the first female African-American CEO to work in chemical manufacturing. Cobb calls herself politically progressive, adding, “I’m very principled with how I choose my clients. They have to align with my beliefs and the community’s best interests.” She claims that, especially in Bronzeville, she can obtain “credibility for a client,” and she’s turned down both Wal-Mart—instead working with an oppositional group, Good Jobs Chicago—and the City of Chicago, who wanted her support for the failed 2016 Olympics bid. Politically, she has run a number of successful campaigns, including for 9th Ward Aldermen Anthony Beale and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and David Orr in his initial bid for Cook County Clerk in 1990 (Publicity Works’s first campaign).
Cobb’s first job within the world of political consulting came in 1988, when she worked as the traveling press secretary on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. For most of the preceding decade, she had been a journalist, most prominently on “Street Life,” a world news program that covered events from an African-American perspective. This transition—from relating a narrative to, in some cases, creating it—gave her a unique perspective on the campaign trail, and on the amount of bias she saw in many reporters. As she recalls: “Every time in ’88 a white reporter referred to Jackson’s voters they were ‘followers,’ whereas Bush’s were ‘voters.’ This has demeaning implications, painting black people as simply incapable of making their own decisions. I told Jackson to point it out to them and, once he did, they started catching themselves, and stopped doing it as much. But I was sensitive to those issues because I was on both sides of the camera.”
Often, Cobb’s most exciting campaigns have been special elections, since “with a special election, you only have ninety days to do a full-out campaign. They’re more short form, which I think appeals to my past as a journalist, where you had the excitement of doing something new every day in a way that you don’t in a longer election.” Special elections, however, have also contained some of the more disappointing moments Cobb has seen. She cites the recent race for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s vacant seat in the House of Representatives as a particular example of this. Cobb’s candidate was Anthony Beale. But fate intervened in the form of former-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Super PAC gave $2 million to help beat out Beale in favor of his challenger, Robin Kelly.
Bloomberg bet on Kelly for her gun control credentials. Cobb explained: “I was disappointed with the tenor of the campaign, the way in which Mayor Bloomberg decided who the candidate should be by defining the issue—gun control, which wasn’t an issue before he turned it into one. I don’t think a force outside a community should decide that community’s leadership for them.”
This cuts to the core of Cobb’s political philosophy: the importance of politicians’ remaining accountable and continuing to work for their local communities. Over the course of our conversation, she said again and again that her first move in considering a candidate is to ask herself: “Who has a history with the black community?” Controversially, she supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries for exactly this reason, explaining, “Hillary had the better urban agenda. If you looked at Barack’s speeches, he didn’t have an urban agenda.” And Cobb still thinks that Obama has been “very disappointing” since taking office. Of course, her decision to support Clinton created rifts between her and members of Chicago’s African-American community—one Obama supporter called her an “Uncle Tom.” But Cobb’s ire toward the President extends to his mayor. “In 2011,” she says, “Rahm Emanuel won Fifty-nine percent of the black vote—now black people rue the day they ever saw Rahm. But way back, this man was a congressman on the North Side, and he didn’t talk about the issues that mattered to these voters then, so why should he do it now?”
Cobb’s frustration with Emanuel may stem from a larger problem she experiences: working primarily in aldermanic elections on the South Side doesn’t actually effect a whole lot of change, even when her candidates win. Often, aldermen go straight to city council and, in Cobb’s words, “are happy just to be ‘in the room.’ ” Her opinion is corroborated by a study released last April by the University of Illinois at Chicago that showed the mayor receiving well over ninety percent support from aldermen on divided roll call votes. Once an alderman reaches city council, the previous rhetoric of change tends to evaporate—or it remains, but is rarely supported by acts of legislative rebellion or dissent. Cobb’s solution is simple: “When you lose a candidate who then becomes an arm of the mayor, you need to cut off the head.” She believes that if Emanuel is forced to run on his record for his next campaign, he’ll have a good deal more trouble regaining the mayorship than he had in obtaining it. Cobb thinks of Toni Preckwinkle as a particular threat to Emanuel, saying that Preckwinkle could turn out to be “Rahm’s biggest nightmare” if she decides to run in 2015.
Though Cobb mentions her ability to remain friendly with people both inside and outside of the political arena, she has also become estranged from some former friends in the past couple of years. In 2010, she worked for Roland Burris, the former Illinois senator appointed by Rod Blagojevich, in an attempt to clear his name and help him regain popularity. In the process, she called out several former clients, writing, in a letter to an alderman, “In true David Axelrod style, all week, white progressive Democratic elected officials have called for Roland’s resignation—David Orr, Dan Hynes, Dick Durbin, Pat Quinn, and Alexi Giannoulias.” In person, she is just as harsh. “I fell out with David Orr and Quinn in 2011 because I thought the way they treated Burris was despicable. All this time Daley had done things that were super-scandalous, but they never said anything to him, and I thought they were being hypocrites.” Through his communications director, Courtney Greve, Orr responded that he “has always respected Delmarie Cobb and calling for Burris’ resignation was in no way a reflection on her or her work.” In her profession, one that is more often conciliatory than incendiary, Cobb’s repudiation of Democratic allies in the name of integrity, despite its idealism, nevertheless comes off as a little reckless.
And yet if there is a recklessness to Cobb, it is hidden beneath layers of warm mannerisms and a thorough professionalism. Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston and 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell both vouched for her expertise, with Hairston adding, “She knows people from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows. She has her finger on the pulse and knows the history of the city.” When asked if her work with Burris may have kept politicians away from her this year, she cautiously ventures, “I may be seeing a little bit of it this election cycle,” but declines to go much further. As Cobb gets up to leave Mississippi Rick’s, she mentions the need for a smarter electorate and more young activists—political cliches since Socrates first chided the “bad manners” of Athenian youth—but she manages to make them convincing. Even if Cobb, as she speculated earlier, may need to get out there and re-sell herself, she still seems awfully well-prepared.