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Airbags

Months ago I wrote in this column that corruption was not a cancer in Chicago politics -- that it was its skeleton. The Chicago political structure relies so heavily on connections, favors, and organizations that "corruption" begins to fudge and lose all meaning. People across the country are consistently surprised at the political scandals that break out in our city, and are equally befuddled as to why the same officials get elected again and again. It is because within the context of the municipal political system, there is no corruption. It's almost unfair to get upset with our public officials when something like this Hired Truck Scandal break out, because, simply, it couldn't be any other way. In a city with a partisan election board, top-heavy control of legislation, a subservient county government, and a historically politicized workforce -- not to mention absolutely no public support for municipal candidates -- local organizations and personal loyalties are the only way to get things done. Without the complex system of patronage and docile community leadership, Chicago politics would melt into a multi-polar, bitter free-for-all that would resemble what some pundits call "democracy." An absence of cronyism in both business and politics would be a fate worse than death!

If corruption is, indeed, the skeleton of Chicago's political establishment, let's see just how Ezekiel connects 'dem bones:

The toe bone's connected to the foot bone:

On the far Northwest Side, a 36-year-old man and his wife live in a bungalow with their two small children, both in Catholic school. She works for the Department of Aviation based at O'Hare, where she handles clerical work for the grounds crews. He works during the day in the office at an iron works plant that manufactures security and decorative fences as well as fire escapes and other building support systems. Much of their business comes directly from the city, and they are aided by superfluous city ordinances that require even factories in industrial corridors above a certain size to maintain decorative fences and ironworks. During the winter, he has a night job driving a support truck sweeping and salting trucks. It's a job he got through the foreman at the plant, who knows people at the Aldermanic office -- the alderman who also, coincidentally, sits on the Department of Aviation committee.

On 16 March, the man and wife will round up 10 or 15 of their neighbors and take them over to the their polling place. On the way, they may rip down a sign or two.

The foot bone's connected to the ankle bone:

A small, storefront church in the 52nd Precinct of the 28th Ward contains something of greater value than spiritual redemption: member lists. The congregation is about 75 or so people each Sunday, but over the course of a year, over 1,000 different people will drop by and sign in. They'll register to vote at that very church, a form that prompts you to leave not only the last four digits of your social security number, but your address and phone number.

The church's property was purchased from the city for a nominal fee of $1. They receive tax breaks, host low-level city functions that bring in a little bit of cash, and the ward's alderman is always sure to dispatch his street crews, headquartered around 18th and Pulaski, as soon as the first bit of snow falls, as soon as a street light burns out or a pot hole opens up. Come election time, the pastor shows up at campaign HQ with a list under his arm and a crew of church volunteers willing to make calls and get out the vote. Perhaps he'll even get a consultancy fee.

The ankle bone's connected to the leg bone:

An upstart, college-educated Latino activist files for an upcoming ward committeeman position on the city's Southwest Side. He has a small army of local volunteers who know him through church and family. They canvass several precincts, make house visits and write to local publications in support of their candidate. The sitting alderman makes a call to the president of a medium-sized local business that prints much of the city's signage. Being civic minded, the chap provides several thousand dollars in in-kind donations, printing glossy campaign literature for the incumbent committeeman. He also encourages several employees to put up signs in their neighborhood on their days off.

The leg bone's connected to the hip bone:

A sitting state representative announces intentions to retire at the end of their term, and a seat opens up on the city's central South Side. A local community organization nominates one of its own members, a popular business owner and community leader, for the seat and provides organizational support in the form of voter registration drives and phone banking services.

A lowly city worker with a fashionable name is called one night by the ward's committeeman and asked if she'd like to be a state representative and is given a campaign fund and an army of strangers to canvass for her. Meanwhile, several co-workers from other departments file for the seat, too, and are given smaller campaign funds and a handful of volunteers who also come from city departments. They contact loyal church organizations and business leaders and the day of the election, five names are on the ballot. The city worker finds herself elected to the General Assembly.

The hip bone's connected to the back bone:

In the Latino quarter of a Northwest Side neighborhood, a lowly block captain is charged with getting at least 25 people to turn out for the election. To ensure this, he goes to the only neighborhood group that has any real organizational muscle: a street gang. Having grown up in the neighborhood and on that block, he knows most of them by name.

He is able, with their help, to turn out the 25 votes and more, and when his precinct captain moves on he assumes the role and brings some of those same efficient gang members into his organization. A few days a week, they register voters and on election days they forcefully knock doors and give voting instructions. Their brothers and sisters, in thanks, are given clerical jobs in the Buildings Department, coordinating inspectors.

The back bone's connected to the neck bone:

A once-firebrand black community leader on the city's central South Side has lunch with a City Council member from a neighboring ward. They talk about his church, his family, and, just in the capacity of friendship, a large city contract that will be coming down to refurbish a major thoroughfare. A construction company that has made large contributions to the alderman's campaigns has made a low bid, but the city is falling behind in their minority-owned contractor's quota. Coincidentally, the community leader has a brother who works construction and has been looking to start his own business. Perhaps the big construction firm could arrange for the funding to buy equipment, and their satellite contractors could be hired by him as sub-contractors for the project? This would fulfill the minority contractors requirement and ensure a loyal organization vote come election time.

The neck bone's connected to the head bone:

As it stands, two volunteer-composed organizations are possessed of a remarkable organizational strength unmatched in any municipality in the United States: The Regular Democratic Organization and the Hispanic Democratic Organization.

How do they work? It is quite simple. Generally composed of city workers, their families, and young upstarts with political intentions, they "interview" candidates and make endorsements. Then, they use political contributions to print literature (such as reproductions of newspaper articles indicating the failings of their opponents) and coat targeted, high vote precincts. They talk to their friends and families who own the bars, grocery stores, and apartment buildings and convince them to put up window and lawn signs while simultaneously getting recalcitrant types to pull the signs of the opponents. They knock doors and obtain phone numbers of registered voters and get out the vote for a candidate. The RDO is divided up by ward, but the HDO is much more menacing because they travel. For a particularly heated race, they can typically deploy a hundred or so volunteers on a handful of precincts over a weekend, and cajole their way into people's homes to convince them just how important it is to support their candidate. And they usually win.

The leaders of these organizations sit down to lunch with the some of the Mayor's staff. They all pay for their own meals and they discuss the merits of their candidates and how pleasant the election returns are. Someone representing the Mayor mentions the city is looking for sub-contractors for a little-known program -- now headed, it turns out, by one of their own -- that protects the city's budget outlays by keeping depreciating holdings -- such as trucks -- off the books.

Do you know of anybody in your ward who owns a truck?

I hear the Word of the Lord!

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Comments

armaghetto / February 18, 2004 9:51 AM

And I thought Willie Brown (Former San Francisco Mayor) was the king!

Let's look at it this way. It's the mid-west. Mid-westerners are friendly! Hey, so I hired a few cops to work security at one of my commercial functions. I get to know these guys pretty well, and they are genuinely nice guys. So one day, my wife has a drinky poo or two and doesn't notice a stop sign. When the cop pulls her over, he recognizes the unique last name on the drivers license. "Hey, aren't you (theoretically speaking) Armaghetto's wife? How's he doing? Yeah, hey, tell him I said hi when you see him! Alright, have a good night and drive safe ladies!"

I can almost imagine a wide-eyed young man from a small California town saying "What? That sounds kinda crooked, no?" and being looked at with incredulity. Maybe they'd even hear "It's not shady, it's just friendly!"

For the record, I'm not married, and my police officer neighbor is truly a cool guy. Once in a while, I'll scrape & salt his sidewalk and he'll return the favor. _Regardless_ of his place of employment. I'm not sure where my other neighbor works. I've never seen them in a uniform. They can scrape their own damn sidewalk.

 

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