Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Chicago Way

Sunday's Chicago Tribune has a couple of good articles on the issue of patronage and corruption in the Windy City. Ron Grossman has an interesting piece here, while Mayor Daley's campaign wiz David Axelrod discusses the evolution of his philosophy into the acceptance of the patronage system here.

Mike Lawrence, whose writing I really respect, and who was one of Gov. Edgar's point guys, also recently weighed in on the subject here.

Daley and Edgar are two of the people that made the practice an art form, so it is interesting to read what an Edgar guy has to say about how Daley operates.

Discussions of patronage inherently encompass several subsets - jobs in exchange for political work, contracts awarded to supporters, and many nuances thereof. On its face, hiring people who you know or come recommended is a relatively benign concept that takes place in the private sector every day. The slippery slope comes when jobs or promotions depend on not only doing political work, but how good you perform at that work. By the time that the importance of political performance outweighs job performance, you are in treacherous waters indeed.

A ward committeman is technically responsible for the party operations, constituent communication and vote turnout in their turf. For years, the job of the ward committeman in Chicago was of particular importance as the ward office operated as a de facto hiring hall. As the hiring power consolidated into City Hall, the role of the committeman has waned somewhat. Nevertheless, the public still as an inate perception that politics and municipal services are inextricably intertwined. As Ron Grossman put it:
According to a long-standing pact between Chicago's voters and politicians, the ward bosses deliver basic services, seeing that garbage is picked up and potholes repaired. The electorate returns the favor at the ballot box--and pretends not to notice when office holders and their friends dip into the public trough.
It is likely that the concentration of this practice into one place set the stage for inevitable problems that appear to have followed. A little bending of the rules spread around the whole City is one thing, a lot of it under one roof is another. Compound it with a tinge of resentment by formerly influential leaders, and things just multiply.

Yes, the practice has been around forever and has its certain sense of twisted efficiency. But elected officials need to understand that the excuse that 'this is how it's always been done' just won't cut it anymore.

There is no question that some of the most powerful organizations have thrived as the result of the ability to reward political trench work with job security and advancement. But if the current federal actions truly change the way things are done in Chicago, many of these organizations are living on borrowed time. If public employees are unfettered from their political obligations, the candidates and 'organizations' that will have ability to achieve results will be those who can garner support by appealing to real believers and delivering results to the constituents. For years, the concept has been mostly rhetoric, but this is the closest we have ever come to seeing it become a reality.

Conversely, if the current round of revelations, indictments and convictions don't change the 'Chicago way' of doing things, the system our forebearers grew up with will be the same one endured by our grandchildren.

Contracts bring with them their own set of problems. On one hand, it makes sense to do business with people you know and trust. And that's fine in the private sector. In the public sector, the temptations to improperly circumvent the system have consistently proved too great. Given that virtually any system can be abused, I don't pretend to have the answers to the problem. But again, officials better understand that all deals will, and should be, more carefully scrutinized than ever. Especially the no-bid contracts.

Decades of repeated scandals appear to have finally taken their toll on both the public and the media. It appears that the masses have run out of cheeks to turn. And neither party has the claim to the high road on this issue. And that makes sense because these problems are borne of individual misdoings not partisanship philosophy.

What is going to be the most telling, especially at the state level, is which party does a better job of putting forth candidates that embrace the new tenor of the times and can instill confidence in the issue to the public. But at every level, it will no longer be enough to just talk the talk.


At August 21, 2005 at 3:29 PM, Blogger DownLeft said...

It would be interesting to see what Mike Lawrence writes on the subject since he worked for Edgar, who openly defended the patronage system. I would be shocked if Edgar ran for Governor, but patronage should be a big issue if he does.

For 26 years of Republican Governors there were thousands of Democrats in Springfield who were afraid to vote in a primary, volunteer on a Democratic Campaign, or donate to a candidate other than their Republican boss for fear of losing their state job. There's no doubt that it has a corrupting, unhealthy influence on the city as a whole and on state politics.

At August 21, 2005 at 5:30 PM, Blogger Amy Allen said...

Patronage is an inevitability, but also indefensible. The sort of palpable detente(and, sometimes, the nexus between the two) that existed for many years between Republican statewide administrations and Democratic city(of Chicago) government is not the solution. Bipartisan corruption has long been the watchword in Springfield, but that, too, fails at the basest test of a government's worth: efficiency and accountability to it's constituents.

At August 22, 2005 at 11:40 AM, Blogger Bill said...

I love it when you use words like palpable, detente,and nexus. You are a fine example of the great higher education system we have in Illinois. I hope that you send John some math questions.

At August 22, 2005 at 11:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe a $10,000 bounty wasn't enough. Might I suggest you make some headlines of yourself and put a $100,000 bounty on any corrupt political organizations, Republican or Democrat.

At August 22, 2005 at 3:50 PM, Blogger Amy Allen said...

Shucks, thank you very much. Being only fourteen, I can't say that I've partaken in the Illinois system of higher education. I do know, however, that Rep Fritchey could run laps around me in math(and all other areas).

At August 22, 2005 at 8:51 PM, Blogger Rep. John Fritchey said...

Ideally the concept is one of keeping people from breaking the rules and laws to start with rather than just trying to catch them after the fact.


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