A “Chicago Pol”? Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 25 2012 @ 2:21pm


Several well-informed readers are pushing back against Weisberg's piece. One writes:

The real answer is somewhere in between the "fantasizing right" and those who believe corruption is a thing of the past in Illinois. It certainly isn’t just a fantasy for people who live in Illinois. And, more importantly, the truth about what politics is really like in Chicago provides some good insight about how Obama has been so successful.

The Chicago-way may not have the iron-clad grip it did long ago, but make no mistake, it is still alive and well. The Shakman Decree (banning hiring for political reasons) sounds great, but for Mr. Weisberg to quote the intent of the law and then leave out the countless examples of Chicago/Cook County/Illinois politicians who have violated it with impunity is a complete joke. Just Google Shakman Decree or go to this site and see if you still believe everything here is OK just because we have the Shakman Decree in place.

The core of Chicago-style politics in this day and age is still patronage.

Politics is controlled very tightly by a few insiders. It is virtually impossible to be elected in Cook County without their support and the door-to-door GOTV work done by the workers whose firms benefit from government contracts. And it isn’t all warm and fuzzy GOTV efforts. In many Chicago neighborhoods, it isn’t easy saying no to the volunteers who knock on your door.

Another writes:

Weisberg's idea that Axelrod and Emanuel are too eggheaded or young to have known of the power of patronage is belied by the evidence:  Axelrod's name appears as a political sponsor on the patronage chief's clout list used as evidence in a trial and by the fact that a witness testified that he was directed to have his political troops help Emanuel's first congressional campaign. That's not to say they knew of the fraud (none of the above shows they did), but they weren't exactly newborn babes.

As a result of the patronage prosecutions (google "Robert Sorich") things have improved since 2006.  Of course now, however, there is a whole other issue of pinstripe patronage, which involves rewarding contractors who are friendly with politicians. That, however, is not specific to Chicago, and there's little to no evidence Obama personally had any part in it or other more traditional forms of patronage. 


As a longtime Chicago "goo-goo" lawyer (and an acquaintance of Jacob Weisberg's parents, who contributed mightily to reform in the City), I know what I'm talking about.  Weisberg's main point about Obama coming out of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, not the Chicago machine, is totally correct.  Obama is a Harvard/U. of C. intellectual liberal lawyer with a pragmatic streak, not a machine pol.  He had to get along with machine pols to get ahead, but they don't care much for his type, and he always kept some distance from most of them (though he had to play footsie from time to time).

Weisberg is totally wrong, however, about Richard M. Daley, Axe, and Rahm.  While patronage and other corruption wasn't quite as all-pervasive under Richard M. as under Richard J., it was close.  Hiring at the City of Chicago was almost entirely driven by politics under our recent Mayor.  In fact, Robert Sorich, the Mayor's "patronage czar," was convicted along with other top City officials for federal mail fraud.  The scheme involved keeping a second set of books for City hiring, favoring political workers, while discarding written exams and conducting sham interviewers.  Richard M. Daley relied on these political workers, and campaign donors who received government contracts, for his political empire. 

When Rahm was first elected to Congress, he won a hotly-contested primary against an "independent" Democrat, Nancy Kaszak.  Court testimony at the Sorich trial revealed that the support of the Mayor's organization was crucial to his campaign, as the patronage workers were dispatched to circulate petitions, go door-to-door, and do other campaign work for Rahm. Before working for Clinton, Rahm was chief fundraiser for the Daley's first campaign for Mayor. Similarly, Axelrod was a longtime strategist for Daley, and defended Daley and patronage when the federal government was prosecuting Sorich (though he didn't defend the test-rigging). And let's not even talk about Bill Daley.

A professor in Chicago writes:

Ok, now we are in my actual area of scholarly expertise. While Obama is not a traditional Chicago politician by some measures, by others he is. How did he win his campaign for State Senate?  By the old Chicago political trick of challenging the legitimacy of the signatures on the nominating petitions of his opponents, including the popular incumbent.  He got them all thrown off the ballot and essentially ran unopposed.   A very nice old Chicago trick, and one that he brought to his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, where he knew the technicalities and rules of various primaries in different states, and played for the end-game all along.

And the idea that Rahm et. al. aren’t hip-deep in Chicago political shenanigans is wishful thinking.  Richard J. Daley’s Machine was geographic and feudal; his son’s Machine was far more free-form, but it was a Machine nonetheless. Instead of precinct captains who had city jobs and worked elections in particular wards, he had the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which worked all of the city and county.  These are the guys who got Rahm elected to the House of Representatives.  And several of the politicians who built this Machine for Richard M. Daley are now in jail due to their corrupt hiring practices.

Weisberg is right that Romney et. al. are using "Chicago politician" as shorthand for "corrupt politician," and he’s right that Springfield is more corrupt than Chicago.  And he’s definitely right that everyone should read Mike Royko’s Boss. But the idea that because Richard J. Daley is dead that there is no Chicago style of politics is just nonsense.  Obama might be the cleanest politician to come out of Chicago in generations, but he’s not spotless.  No one in Chicago is.

(Photo: US President-elect Barack Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and political advisor David Axelrod listen as Obama speaks during a press conference in Chicago on November 25, 2008. By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)