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The [Friday] Papers

In a federal courtroom downtown, Chicago's patronage system is on trial. In the County Building a few blocks away, Cook County's patronage system flourishes before our very eyes.

There ought be no mistaking the fact that the planned elevation of Ald. Todd Stroger to the presidency of the Cook County Board is part and parcel of the same job-rigging ethos that has Mayor Richard Daley's former patronage chief and three other aides in the dock.

Both are about the hijacking of your government by privately run but publicly funded political machines - The Cook County Democratic Party and The Richard M. Daley Party - which use your tax dollars to further their own interests - and only their own interests. Your interests are secondary, at best, and only considered to the extent that they need to be manipulated to keep the Party going.

The hallmarks of democracy that America purports to herald and promote around the world - free, competitive elections, separation of powers between branches of government, accountability through transparency - do not exist here. I am only the billionth person to compare the Cook County Democratic Party to the old Soviet Central Committee, not because it's so facile but because it is so perfectly apt.

Apologists like Paul Green ask silly questions like, "Who does it better than Chicago?"

A better question, if we're talking about governance, and we are, is, "Who doesn't?"

"Chicago and Cook County are prime examples of how not to run local government," Jay Stewart, the executive director of the Better Government Association, told Time magazine this week. "It's a cautionary tale that shows what happens when there is no transparency or accountability."

Time is just the latest national outlet to gaze in wonder at the feudal political outpost that is Chicago and Cook County; The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor . . . each has found the political culture here perverse enough to file reports as if from overseas correspondents on foreign soil. Which is fitting.

"If you took out the [geographic] facts, it looks like we're talking about a Third World dictatorship," Stewart told Time.

Dick Simpson, the former alderman who has carved out a second career as a City Hall-watching University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist, told Time that local politicians are "breaking faith with the democratic process."

That faith was broken a long time ago, but Simpson's point remains. Todd Stroger has not earned a promotion to one of the most powerful jobs in the state, and the clumsy attempt to put him in charge of a $3 billion budget. (As Stewart said, "Todd Stroger has never been any kind of major player in the city council. It is essentially feudal law. The primogeniture system is alive and well here.")

In fact, Todd Stroger's career is built upon the same principles at play in the City Hall hiring trial, namely that jobs and promotions, including appointments to ostensibly elected national offices, are doled out to strictly serve the personal and power interests of political bosses; not on merit, and certainly not as rewards for fine public service.

This is the root of public corruption; jobs, money (yours) in the form of contracts for friends, power, ego, greed. It's called feeding at the public trough for a reason; those who go along with the system are pigs.

And yet some, like Green and his City Club pals, prefer this system because they prefer the bullying dispensation of power to "get things done" (without you getting in the way) to the values of honesty, integrity, thoughtfulness, and accountability. Do you?

Maybe we've reached a point where finally destroying the Machine for good is more important than any immediate policy goals, particularly because those goals can never really be met with the Machine in place.

Certainly Tony Peraica hopes we've had enough. Peraica is a rare Cook County Republican; chances are you don't agree with much of what he has to say. But it's hard to imagine anyone but a non-voting county board president controlled by Bill Beavers and John Daley who is not trusted enough to have his own seat as a commissioner doing a worse job than what we've had up to now. (See the The [Stroger] Papers for the latest on how the proposed arrangements would work.)

And should we really suffer the indignity of having Bill Beavers' daughter foisted on us as his replacement on the city council, while the mayor chooses Todd Stroger's replacement?

Mark Brown is wrong. We don't have to just sit back and take it. The papers could move their outrage to the front page. Citizens could flood these jokers with e-mails simply saying in the subject line, We've Had Enough. We could give up dogging Dusty Baker and use our best heckles at neighborhood ward offices, aldermanic chambers, and county offices. Bury the mayor in angry letters and phone calls. Go on strike. Boycott Millennium Park and city parking garages and Taste of Chicago and support even the craziest candidate for city and county offices as long as they aren't from the Party. Whatever you can think of, do it and tell two friends. If you want change, you have to demand it.

Patronage Peeps
And yet, some folks haven't seen enough.

Earlier this week on WBEZ's 848, Ben Calhoun filed a report on patronage that touched on both the naive and the cynical rationalizations for governing by fraud.

Northwestern business school professor Keith Murnighan got the ball rolling by stating that "favoritism has its place in private business."

Forgetting for the moment that public governance isn't private business, I'm not sure there is a single thing more corrosive to organizational culture in the workplace than office politics that rewards "favorites" instead of rewarding results. It only takes a couple days in a newsroom to see that.

Murnighan went on to point out that "past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior."

People who do political work are willing to volunteer, put in extra hours, and work for the interests of the organization, he says.

Which is exactly right. They just shouldn't be doing those things on the job when they should be inspecting buildings and filling potholes.

Bill Beavers, a vice chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, was up next, and though he's 71, you have to wonder if he's ever left his ward.

"Patronage system is the best system, that's all I can tell you, alright," Beavers said.

Um, go on.

"Because you have to have people around you that you can trust, you have to have people around you you can depend on and do the things you want done. That's the most important thing about patronage. You dance with the one that brung you. No matter how you look at it, that's the way it's supposed to be. If you don't know anybody, you're not going to get a job. Alright? How'd you get your job? Did somebody recommend you to public radio? That's right. Is that patronage?"

I don't know how Calhoun got his job, but it's only patronage if he got his job despite being a drunk with no experience whose focus is now on advancing Steve Edwards's political career. I don't know Ben, but I doubt that's the case.

Ironically, the system Beavers so passionately believes in is also the system that to this day warps the playing field against minorities. How many African-American friends do you think Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski has brought into her newsroom? One of the main arguments in favor of affirmative action and diversity programs, for example, is to counter the exact dynamic Beavers is talking about, not to mention a host of other legal standards established for both the workplace and the political arena.

"You can't just hire who you want wherever you want," Jay Stewart said. "Bill Beavers can wish for it all day long. I can wish I'm a millionaire, that's not going to make that happen tomorrow either.

"Civil service rules, the Shakman decree, the Rutan decree, the First Amendment, and 30 years of Supreme Court jurisprudence pretty clearly, unambiguously, says that we have made a determination as a society that we're not for patronage."

"I don't understand how you can plausibly [defend patronage]. Why do you have to be loyal to Mayor Daley to pick up the garbage? I don't understand how being loyal to the Democratic Machine makes you a better social worker. And what about the guy who didn't get the promotion, who maybe can't send his kid to the school he wants to send him to, or he can't get medical care for his parents because he was counting on a raise but he didn't get it because the committeeman's son got the job. Those are real consquences. Real people suffer."

Despite his many years in Illinois politics, Mike Lawrence, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, isn't so sure.

"Patronage is a bad word, and yet networking is generally viewed as a positive word," Lawrence said. "To me, patronage is a form of networking."

Not according to Merriam-Webster, which defines networking as "The exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions," and patronage as "the power to make appointments to government jobs, especially for political advantage."

I think we all know the difference.

Lawrence says he doesn't support what is alleged in the current City Hall job-rigging trial, but he does believe that political hiring makes public officials more responsible.

I don't know how he separates and squares those two notions, but this is the example he gave:

"If someone goes into a drivers license station to get a license renewed and is treated rudely, the Secretary of State is held responsible. The Secretary of State's picture is on the wall, and yet, the Secretary of State is very limited in who he or she can hire for that position and also very limited in disciplining and ultimately replacing that clerk."

So how does that clerk do a better job when their promotion and raise doesn't depend on how well they serve customers but on how many lawn signs they plant for the Secretary of State?

Lawrence has lost me.

"There's no hiring system that's gonna guarantee that you have the best people possible in those jobs," Lawrence said.

No. But patronage is a system that guarantees you won't.


Posted on June 30, 2006

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