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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, December 2

Gapers Block

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The genesis of corruption in Chicago lies in the necessity of founding a frontier town from scratch. The town's earliest leaders -- men like William Ogden -- were business tycoons and tireless boosters who blurred the line between personal success and municipal successes. This legacy perservered until the Twentieth Century, when institutional progressivism and rapid municipalization -- not to mention demographic shifts that led to ethnic and racial concentrations -- shifted the focus of political corruption to an established political class and over-reaching local government.

This is the central thesis to James L. Merriner's enjoyable if problematic new book, Grafters and Goo-Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003. "Graft" of course is idiomatic for a political pay-off; "goo goos" is the derogatory term now no longer in use for "good government" activists. Merriner's book deals not only with the corruption in Chicago, but the largely failed reform movements, too. Merriner argues that Chicago's early reform movements, which were almost entirely religious in origin, led to a consistent religious/class conflict between Protestant natives and Catholic immigrants, where the Protestants strove for reform while the Catholics increasingly dominated municipal government and consolidated the rule of government over private industry.

As a raconteur Merriner shows great skill. The book is packed with hard-to-believe, fascinating and engrossing anecdotes about Chicago business and political figures, often at the expense of good chronology. Sub-chapters would have been a huge help in following the ebb and flow of reform movements and the responses to reform. As it is, the book repeatedly sinks to a morass of anecdotes and tangentially related political phenomena that can become repetitive and confusing. Perhaps the book was so well researched, Merriner was loath to keep anything out.

His tone is glib throughout; he occasionally takes cheap shots by inserting his opinions into direct quotes and slipping in little asides:

"'Internal improvements' as they were known then transfixed the federal government as much as social welfare entitlements do now." (p. 15)

Merriner's distaste for big government aside, Merriner does a good job of showing the Protestant/Catholic tension in Chicago's history and using that conflict to detail the skeleton of public corruption that has infested the city for its entire history. According to Merriner, the religious and cultural interests of public figures drove their actions, and guarding those interests lead to abuses of power on the part of reformers as well as those in power.

The early Protestant reformers fought to limit the consumption of alcohol -- which was a major business for German brewers and tavern keepers. Later, Irish canal diggers resisted attempts by settled German business interests to keep licensing and other political decisions out of the hands of the "immigrant" (read: Catholic) class. Later still, African-American and Hispanic political reformers sought to hold onto power and serve the interests of their own groups by strengthening their positions at the expense of the public.

One of the joys of the book is that Merriner attacks the hypocrisy of the institutional reformers (namely, federal prosecutors) in their excessive zeal to go bait Chicago's public figures into corruption and then riding that popularity to higher office. He is especially critical of the Operation: Silver Shovel investigation, in which prominent aldermen were convinced to take bribes to allow slimy federal mole John Christopher to dump dangerous waste in public areas, seriously affecting the health over neighboring residents. Was this government-engineered sting operation worth the damage to public health? The question is worth considering.

At times, these institutional reformers come across as downright cruel. With no real reason to do so, they played a tape of mobster Rocco Infelice at a bond hearing, alleging that the Outfit had aided Mayor Daley's 1989 mayoral campaign because as state's attorney Daley had blocked the subpoena of a mobster. It was this event that lead to one of Mayor Daley's most high-pitched denunciations, coming out and calling the allegations "bullshit," to the press.

Merriner is at his best when detailing the hypocrisy of both reformers and "regular" pols in the period following Richard J. Daley's death. Unfortunately, the number of federal investigations and scandals is so long and intertwined that you start to lose your breath after a while. Among the scandals:

Operation Gambat ("Gambling Attorney"): An attorney up to his neck in juice fesses up to the feds that the entire judicial system is tied up to the notorious First Ward's (now split between the 42nd, 25th, and 2nd) organized crime ties. 1986.

Operation Greylord: Dozens of judges, attorneys, and law enforcements are netted in this investigation of judicial ties to organized crime and corrupt lawyers. 1984.

Operation Haunted Hall: A ghost payrolling investigation that netted several Aldermen, including anti-City Hall so-called "reformers."

Operation Phocus: Federal sting used to net public officials in regards to zoning variances and licensing. 1985.

Operation Lantern: An investigation into how contracts were handed out and vendors chosen for city business. Also happened under the Washington administration.

Operation Safebet: This FBI Chicago investigation targeted the organized crime control of illegal prostitution activity throughout the Chicago metropolitan area and resulted in the indictment and conviction of more than 30 individuals. (That's right off of the FBI webpage.) 1984.

Operation Incubator: Standard run-of-the-mill bribery investigation, in which moles were used to get city contracts in exchange for bribes. 1986.

Operation Silver Shovel: The mother of them all. Six aldermen and 12 others go down in a massive sting operation that disgraces the last of Chicago's hardcore "reform" Aldermen, Lawrence Bloom. 1995.

Grafters and Goo-Goos is best read in tandem with a book like Dick Simpson's Rogues, Rebels, and Rubberstamps, a history of the City Council, which sets into political context many of the early social movements Merriner discusses. Although it often gets bogged down in anecdotal minutiae, and despite the big-government bias that isn't wholly defended, this is a valuable volume in understanding Chicago's and Illinois' current political structure and the legacy of its own past. It is exactly because Merriner has focused on the tensions between corruption and reformers -- and the inherent problems, biases, and abuses by both parties -- that these very dense pages are so valuable to the general literature about Chicago political histories. What it lacks in organization it makes up for in depth of research and entertainment value.

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brian / May 3, 2004 9:47 AM

Along a similar topic, I'd highly recommend "The Lost City" - a book about how Chicago worked in 1950. It has a great section on how the machine worked and posed an interesting question: are we willing to trade lack of choice for better safety and few problems? It's worth reading, esp. for learning the early days of the suburbs, Bronzeville before it was "renovated", and a fascinating read of how the machine worked.


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