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Monday, July 10, 2006

Independence Day for City Hall

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Political consultant David Axelrod is absolutely right: Whatever federal juries may conclude about the illegalities of the Chicago patronage system, the voters of Chicago will re-elect Mayor Richard M. Daley, if he decides to run.

Maybe even if he decides not to run. Maybe without any opposition, even Spanky the Clown.

No matter how many indictments U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald obtains against patronage gatekeepers, grafters, insiders and schemers. Or how many federal juries convict the system's practitioners, as one did last week with Daley's former top patronage aide and three others on charges arising from a system of placing campaign workers on the city payroll.

Axelrod last week explained on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" that voters would re-elect Daley because he's a great mayor who has done wonderful things for the city. And, as Axelrod implied in an article he wrote last year for the Tribune's Perspective section, the alternative of a system in which workers aren't recommended by "elected officials, business, labor and community leaders" is as scary as the federal bureaucracy. As the widely accepted (in Chicago) argument goes: Hiring sponsored workers makes them more responsive to their bosses and their bosses more accountable to voters.

Except the patronage system is not as benign as Axelrod and its supporters would have it. No need to go over the evidence of how the system has dumped incompetents into such important positions that are supposed to protect public safety. Someone needs to explain how the existence of thousands of incompetents, slackers and no-shows on the public payroll makes for a better city. And how workers responsible only to their political sponsors ensure quality. Yeah sure, thousands of energetic and competent workers are on the payroll, and so what? Aren't they all supposed to be energetic and competent? Isn't that what taxpayers are paying for?

Those who argue that a well-oiled machine makes for a "wunnerful" city engage in a fundamental logical error: The simultaneous presence of a patronage army and the existence of a viable city is not automatic proof that the first causes the second.

Dare I suggest that things beyond Daley's patronage workers, contractor buddies and City Hall itself may also account for Chicago's success? That the city rose on an expanding national economy and lifestyle choices made by yuppies and others who value urban living? Or that the city's success came in spite of a system that encourages dishonesty and corruption?

This apparently is a hard concept for Chicago voters to grasp, as they reliably march to the polls to ratify misconduct and fraud. Among their numbers are the tens of thousands who directly benefit, through jobs and contracts. And the tens of thousands more who indirectly benefit from relatives and friends on the payroll. And the uncounted more in business, labor, civic and neighborhood organizations who buy their way inside. Also include the misguided who honestly believe that illegality is necessary for success, illegal as in violating civil and criminal law.

Such is Chicago's lore, fed by those of us in the media who enjoy writing about it, who value graft for its humor and entertainment. Reformers like Robert Merriam and Martin Kennelly are mocked as ineffective daydreamers, and perhaps they were. While newspaper editorial boards are fuming about corruption, favoritism, secrecy and nepotism at the city, county and state levels, commentators, historians, authors and others are getting their jollies describing the goofiness and grittiness of it all. It's all part of the city's patina.

What I'm trying to say is that the network of political, business, labor, community, media and other interests has become so invested in the system that few are left to risk being labeled excessively moralistic for protesting the "way things work."

One clear symptom is the nearly complete absence of what used to be a vibrant community of political independents, something of a loyal opposition that brought the force of conscience into the public arena. Nobody wants to be a "do-gooder." How ironic, then, that Daley recently complained about the City Council messing around with a proposal to ban Chicago restaurants from using cooking oils that contain trans fats. Maybe if he gave the aldermen something real to do, they wouldn't be wasting the taxpayers' time with such nonsense.

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would gladly sign a petition to have a referendum placed on the ballot to reduce the number of aldermen in the City Counsil from 50 to five and to require the mayor's office to hire a professional city manager to run the day to day operations of the city government. Having 50 aldermen is the biggest waste of money imaginable, especially since they only represent themselves and whoever will line their pockets. And most municipalities of any size are run by people with degrees and experience in public administration.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with most of what you say in this piece, Mr. Byrne, I have to make a very stern disagreement with the last two sentences: "How ironic, then, that Daley recently complained about the City Council messing around with a proposal to ban Chicago restaurants from using cooking oils that contain trans fats. Maybe if he gave the aldermen something real to do, they wouldn't be wasting the taxpayers' time with such nonsense."

Do I really have to point out it's not Daley's job alone to give the aldermen something to do? Of course, as the city's chief executive, it's his duty to introduce proposals for the aldermen's consideration. But as I assume you would agree, they are not supposed to be his lapdogs.

Too few of them, such as Ald. Joe Moore, Ald. Rick Munoz and a few others, ever introduce any legislation that would challenge the status quo or make the city run better. And too often, when they do, it is more for show ... offering proposals that are either too short-sighted, or too over-reaching. Such as a proposal to somehow force any city worker found taking a bribe to forfeit that money to the city. Sure, that sounds all well and good, but it wasn't the city's money to begin with. It came from, in all likelihood, some individual or small business trying to get a contract or permit they wouldn't get, or at least wouldn't get as quickly.

I'm not so naive as to think the mayor didn't know this kind of corruption existed in his administration. But we shouldn't give the aldermen a free pass, either. Most of them sat by and benefitted from it just as much as Daley.

David said...

"Dare I suggest that things beyond Daley's patronage workers, contractor buddies and City Hall itself may also account for Chicago's success? That the city rose on an expanding national economy and lifestyle choices made by yuppies and others who value urban living?"

The national economy has expanded, and people who value urban living have made decisions, but your fallacy is the same as the apologists for the corrupt. Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and a host of other Rust Belt cities had the same objective situation as Chicago. The mayor had and has a vision to give decision makers confidence in Chicago that they don't have in those other cities. Political hiring, etc. do not make the city successful, but they do seem to be the cost of doing business in what is inarguably a system creating better results than the results in peer cities.

Marc Blumer said...

Mr. Byrne:

After listing for years to journalists who opine about the Chicago Machine, how much better life would be without it, and how they cannot understand why voters don't care, I offer one simple challenge: Name just one major city, anywhere in the world, where this paradise of clean government exists that also offers the cleanliness, world-class facilities, forward looking development and comparatively low crime rates and low taxes that we have in Chicago. And yes, I said low taxes. Go ahead and compare property tax rates in Chicago with any major city, we’re getting a deal here. (And those who think they pay too much are welcome to move to Naperville anytime they want.) The reality is the only way to smoothly govern a major city is with a democratically elected despot. Every four years, we voters have the option to kick out the mayor. Between those years, he or she get to do exactly what he or she wants on the city level (with Alderman having this power in their wards). Then, we hold the mayor accountable for the overall results at election time. So I have difficulty matching your objections and your political worldview. I mean, there are reasons why so many other Republicans love Daley and that’s because he’s pro-business, result oriented and driven to deliver good value. As long as I get this level of service, I care no more about a ward boss getting his cousin a job with the city than I care about at Tribune editor getting his cousin a job at the paper. This is why I’m always surprised when Daley is attacked from the right. What, you suddenly think merit is important in public sector hiring? Wish you’d preached that in 2000.

Anonymous said...

I moved to Chicago from England in March 2004. I can count on the fingers of one hand the days when there hasn't been a story in the Tribune or Sun-Times about corruption in Cook County/Chicago/Illinois. More depressing than the tales of otherwise unemployable toerags bagging nothing jobs that pay $60k and more becasue of who they know, is the reaction from locals here. The smiles and the shrugs. The feeble acceptance of this blatant theft and corruption.

Chicago schools are underfunded, the roads are decaying, the CTA lurches from one funding crisis to another - and all this in one of the most racially segregated cities in the Western world. And this is the city that works?

Have I missed something?

- Ian Gale

Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

The system you condemn is used in the business world. My company, for example, pays a bonus for employment referrals. Moreover, the majority of hiring is done by word of mouth. Frankly, I see no difference in the two systems.

Sincerely yours,



Stephen S. Schade