Chicago Politics: Evolution of a Machine
Clash Daily Guest Congtributor
In a strange way, I have been fortunate to grow up just after Chicago politics had evolved into its present form. Chicago has a shameful association with corruption – especially allowing the politicians who have engaged in questionable activities to remain in office. However, there are some differences between the practices of the most ethically-challenged politicians and bureaucrats of today, and those of only fifty years ago.
Growing up, I had been surrounded by native Chicagoans who had stories about their city, and their alderman. One such individual was Forty-Fifth Ward Alderman Charlie Weber - a classic example of a politician who would “watch out” for his constituents – in exchange for their votes. Every year, Riverview Amusement Park hosted Charlie Weber Day; a day that Alderman Weber would rent the park for the children who lived in his ward. If a constituent needed a job, he would find out if a business in his ward needed help. If a family had trouble affording food, the Alderman would help them as well. It was a type of relationship where a constituent, neighbor, or friend-of-a-friend, was somehow being ‘taken care of.”
As time progressed, this system turned into something where votes were expected, but the favors were reserved for an elite few.
There are corrupt individuals who believe that the abuse of public office is a part of the job – not a perversion of it. In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times conducted an extensive investigation into allegations of politicians and city employees who were using their authority to shake down businesses. This investigation happened at a restaurant that the Sun-Times had purchased – the Mirage Tavern. The results of this investigation - which included recordings of city and Illinois state officials taking bribes for various reasons, as well as shaking down the “owners” -- were printed in 1978 editions of the Sun-Times, and have been revisited on the thirty-fifth anniversary of this story: http://dlib.nyu.edu/undercover/mirage-pamela-zekman-zay-n-smith-chicago-sun-times.
Of course, it is expected for private citizens to accuse politicians of unethical behavior, but in Chicago, politicians could do the same to each other on occasion.
If it weren’t for Chicago P.M., a former local news show on WLS AM, I never would have heard a city council confrontation between now-former Aldermen Bert Naterus and Dorothy Tillman. During this debate, Naterus accused Tillman of keeping businesses out of her economically-depressed ward, so that she could buy property at below-market prices. By the way, Alderman Naterus is known for his ordinance that requires the operators of horse-drawn carriages to keep diapers on their horses. Like Naterus, Tillman has a reputation for engaging in publicity stunts. During a ward meeting in 1991 that suffered a “breakdown of civility”, she waved a gun around in an irresponsible attempt to restore order.
Besides money and favors, corruption could also include the mistreatment of citizens by politicians.
Corruption, including the abuse of constituents, is obviously not limited to the State of Illinois; search YouTube for “Representative Pete Stark Town Hall.” Former Congressman Pete Stark has a history of verbally taunting citizens who disagree with him.
From verbal abuse to intimidation, Milwaukee, Wisconsin had an alderman who is currently serving time in prison for shaking down businesses in his former ward. Michael McGee Junior had been taped calling restaurants in his ward – expecting free food for himself and his friends. He also referred to himself as “the gatekeeper,” meaning that anyone who wanted to do business in his ward had to deal with him. The possibility of McGee killing an individual caused the feds to conclude their investigation of him early, so that he could be arrested before the feared act could occur.
From corruption to arrogance, politicians with questionable standards tend to try to control the subjects that they discuss in public, while also controlling the forum – the consequences of failing to do so could range from entertaining, to the questioning of the intellect needed to hold public office.
The February, 1993 issue of Spy Magazine contains an article titled “Parliament of Suckers”, where several freshmen members of Congress thought that they were being interviewed on a New York radio talk show. During this “interview”, the Congressmen were asked about ethnic cleansing in Fredonia. From “moving through the United Nations”, to, “using the good offices of the U.S. government”, and “I think we need to take action to assist the people”, the answers were tackled with the typical sound bites that politicians are almost expected to use.
There was only one problem with this question: the country of Fredonia exists only in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.
I had not read the article when it was released - I only heard about the aftermath in a news story on the former WLUP AM. Instead of admitting responsibility for their failed attempt to comment on an issue that they had no knowledge of, the offices of some of those Congressmen released statements that all future questions would have to be submitted in advance.
The true character of a person is exposed when they are trusted with power.
Despite the many examples of arrogant, self-serving individuals who enter public office in the name of personal gain, there are true public servants. In 1995, I was fortunate enough to attend an appearance by then-Lake County, IL. Coroner Barbara Richardson. In the course of her discussion, Coroner Richardson humbly talked about the nature of her job - especially working with citizens who needed help – people who were at the lowest points in their lives after the deaths of loved ones. She said something else which revealed her willingness to act as a public servant: she never declined an invitation to speak in front of an audience, since she believed that she was obligated to do so as a public official.
Hearing stories about the dark side of the recent history of Chicago politics is enough to turn almost anyone into a pessimist; it could understandably lead to the thought that Illinois is home to the next Detroit. Fixing the damage could take generations. However, there is always the hope that the election of more true public servants, such as Coroner Richardson, will give this – and future generations -- an interesting twist to the stories about local history that is yet to be passed down.
Image: U.S. President Richard M. Nixon (right), Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, 02/06/1970; source Photograph by Robert L. Knudsen; National Archives Identifier 194669; public domain
Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for uncommonshow.com