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Media Tue Mar 16 2010

KassWatch: Mob Watchin'

Kudos to John Kass for reporting on Outfit machinations that influence and corrupt public institutions. I mean that seriously; despite my intense dislikes of Kass' contrived folksy jus' folks columns, He is more or less the only mainstream reporter who regularly delves into the world of high-level organized crime and its interconnections to mainstream politics. His latest piece, marking the beginning of the "DeLeo era" in the 36th Ward--given the retirement of William Banks, the former Alderman, and the death of his brother Sam--is an eye opening one that reminds Chicagoans that despite the many body blows the Outfit has received, it is still alive and well and corrupting away.

Kass clearly has connections to the social networks that comprise the upperworld face of part of Chicago's underworld. He spins some interesting anecdotes in that story--though, of course, he reveals nothing of substance. Jimmy DeLeo has not been accused of any crime, nor was Sam Banks. Or William Banks. Or Banks' nephew, James. Or Tom Breen, or any of the people named in this story. They appear to have some nefarious connections--appear to--and good for Kass for calling them out on that fact, and keeping a wary eye on them.

Kass relates the fact that the Feds are keeping a "watchful eye" on the 36th Ward organization. This is an interesting, though not surprising, tidbit. It's a fairly safe assumption that the Feds are keeping an eye on a lot of the City Council. After all, we did just have an alderman plead guilty to corruption charges--for fixing a zoning case. And that case had nothing to do with organized crime.

Which brings us to the "watch" part of "KassWatch": for all his posing as a defender of the little guy and an occasional wrench in the Combine, Kass rarely reports on anything of real substance. Does it bother me that mob fixers can arrange sweetheart zoning that harms people's property values and undermines their faith in government? Yes, it does. Is Italian organized crime the cause of that problem--or much of the city's corruption problems? No. And there are much, much bigger fish to fry.

First of all, the Outfit is mighty powerful, but the Gangster Disciples, to take just one example, have something like 20,000 people on the streets. At last count, there were less than a hundred made men in the Outfit (with, of course, a few thousand associates, business fronts, bagmen, etc.) Secondly, the corrupting influence of mob money will never get anywhere close to the corrosive effect of corporate malfeasance. Kass points to the Family Secrets trial as evidence that the Outfit is still a force to be reckoned with--though, of course, the Family Secrets trial convicted a bunch of men for murders committed decades ago, and several of those guys were already in prison. I'm glad justice was served, but the average Chicagoan felt barely a ripple from that story.

Where are Kass' columns about the corporate greed that leads to millions of dollars of wage theft each year? Bosses--not of the mob variety--are ripping off actually little guys every day in this city. And organizations with much more lethal coercion at their fingertips--street gangs with tens of thousands of young men under arms and who have been effective at infiltrating the political process, the police department, and construction and finance industries--are a much more serious threat to everyday Chicagoans than the thick necked Italian stereotypes Kass trots out once every six weeks to remind us that he knows a guy.

I'm not one to criticize someone for things they don't do. It's not that Kass isn't reporting on the actual perpetrators of injustice and bringers of misery--he can do whatever he wants, he's earned his stripes--and reporting on neighborhood mob stories has its place. It's that in doing so he presumes that he's Exposing It All, this big talk about the Combine with no reference to the fact that it's corporate money--his buddies a few floors up in that Tribune Tower and their lunchmates at the Civic Club--that grease the wheels. In Kass world, some two bit developer with a gambling jones greasing the Zoning Committee to build a strip mall and throwing no-work jobs to a racketeer is the height of injustice. Kass' admirable hectoring of mob influence would be easier to take if he ever bothered to take on some of the true tragedies that are grinding people up in this city. How about the on-going failure of the Plan for Transformation, a process that has thrown families into even more ghettoized neighborhoods while real estate developers get rich? Kass is not interested in the big structural problems that really screw people over at the point of contact--the workplace--he's interested in burnishing his reputation as a local guy whose Sick Of It All (no, not them). The real little guys, with their picayune problems of exploitation, are too remote, maybe, from the Tribune Tower or the Southwest Suburbs.

Without that type of empathy, Kass isn't really a fighter for the little guy, he's a well paid raconteur, who can provide local color but little else.

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LTM / March 16, 2010 12:28 PM

A little naive I'd say. I'm no Kass lover either, but I think he's trying to point out the corrupt bargain between the Mob and the City. The Mob protects pols on election day. City Bosses protect Mob guys in court and down at the Department of Procurement (not to mention McPier, Springfield, S&S, CC, Liquor Commission, etc.). That model may be a little outdated, but worked for decades and still goes on sometimes (see Hired Truck, Fratto, etc.).

What Kass fails to do is connect the dots all the way. He hints at stuff, but can't get to he meat of the matter. Mainly because no one wins if they talk to him. So what if a guy in his 20s gets a 4AM Liquor License. The only reason anyone cared was that someone got stabbed and killed and that he was part of Tank Johnson's entourage. Why didn't Kass write about that stuff earlier? He's not a fighter for the little guy. He's trying to sell newspapers.

Mickey / March 18, 2010 7:50 PM

For more in depth outfit info check out ktfmediagroup

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