You can take Obama out of Chicago but …

by Ken Feltman

Hello, Chicago!
– Barack Obama, beginning his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park

Can you take Chicago out of Obama’s past, present and future? Probably not. The latest ploy by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich – appointing a respected former Illinois official to the vacant U.S. Senate seat – shows that Chicago will not go away quietly.

Shortly after Blagojevich (Blah-GOY-a-vitch) was outed for trying to sell the seat vacated by President-Elect Barack Obama, I heard a rumor that the Obama inner circle was going to try to reposition Obama as a product of his Hawaiian youth, not his recent Chicago political career. The Obama brain trust would work with friendly media to stress Hawaii, not Chicago. Sure enough, the New York Times soon ran a flattering story about how Obama exhibits the laid-back political attitudes of Hawaii, not the feisty, smash-mouth politics of Chicago.

No matter how hard the incoming president and his advisors try, however, history suggests that they could soon be preoccupied by an enervating investigation. With so many other crises facing Obama, the Chicago mess is a distraction no one needed. But it was predictable.

Chicago political reporters and commentators expressed surprise during the campaign that reporters from outside Chicago did not dig into Obama’s Chicago roots. One veteran Chicago newsman suggested they would not find anything to disqualify Obama, but they would learn about the workings and ethics of the place where Obama learned his political lessons. Beside, they would find Chicago politics fascinating and humorous in a dark way.

Untamed town

Chicago politicians laugh at the city’s Latin motto, Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden). Chicago’s garden is truly the garden of good and evil. Long-time political columnist Mike Royko rejected Urbs in Horto. He came up with a new motto: Ubi est Mea (Where’s mine?) It perfectly sums up the attitude of many Chicago pols, past and present.

So long as I get my share, why should I care what somebody else gets?
Maybe Chicagoans should care because now they are sending one of their own to the White House. Like all of us, he is a creature of his environment. Will he soon be embroiled in investigations, as President Clinton was? Obama’s close supporters hope that Obama is not tainted by the ruthless, gangster-influenced style that typifies Chicago politics. They point out that he is cultured, erudite, careful. They are right. But some of his political companions are coarse, unsophisticated, careless.

They are products of a system that demands and rewards loyalty in the feudal way. Their political system is a blend of the ethics of the Mafia and the ethos of the street hustler. Obama’s chief-of-staff designate, Rahm Emanuel, once sent a package of rotting fish to a political opponent. That was reminiscent of the Chicago gangster practice of sending a horse’s severed head to a rival as a warning. Another time, while he worked for former President Clinton, Emanuel plunged a steak knife into a restaurant table as he shouted out the names of Clinton’s political opponents. Emanuel’s behavior is not unusual for Chicago. Such a crude political culture causes some people to wonder what Obama gave up to advance so far, so fast.

Anybody who gets something must give up something in return.
Other American cities were tamed. Chicago remains the rough and tumble town it was when Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin ruled Chicago as “Lords of the Levees” along the Chicago River. They controlled the river wards that routinely gave supersized majorities to cronies and sycophants. So entrenched was their political machine that years after their deaths, Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John’s minions delivered the notoriously large margins that sealed John Kennedy’s election as president in 1960.

The Second City

Corrupt politics did not mean that Chicagoans could not create and execute breathtaking plans. That’s the paradox: How can a city which has so many spectacular attractions be so corrupt? The answer: Chicago is in the right location. Chicago took the challenge that the Chicago Fire (1871) presented and built a grander city – which they referred to as The Second City. Streets along the Chicago River are built up one story above the ground to avoid flooding if the river rises. That allows delivery trucks, and drivers who know their way along the “lower” streets, to get around quickly. It keeps those delivery trucks off the grand boulevards, such as North Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile.

Chicago takes advantage of everything. The city could have remained a swampy village. Chicago’s average elevation above Lake Michigan is only two feet; the highest elevation is a land fill piled high. Poke a hole in a basement in the Loop and water might pour in, as happens every so often. The flatness allowed engineers to reverse the Chicago River and send a torrent of Lake Michigan water spilling downstream to the Mississippi River, creating the great commercial waterway that links Lake Michigan with the Gulf of Mexico. The St. Lawrence Seaway links the Great Lakes with the North Atlantic Ocean. Chicago stands at the junction. The river flows, the money flows.

Add the railroads centered in Chicago, and then one of the world’s busiest airports, and you have a commercial powerhouse. Rising from an inland prairie, Chicago is one of the world’s largest international ports.

The Windy City

Chicago is windy, mostly because the wind whistles through urban caverns created by tall buildings. But it got its nickname when the outlandish boasts of its politicians turned out to be lies once too often. Chicago is a liveable city that came by another nickname, “the city that works,” because it does function more smoothly than most large metropolitan areas. Home to the first skyscraper, Chicago is filled with citizens who insist that developers put up statements, not office-buildings-on-the-cheap. Works of art by (among others) Chagall, Calder and Picasso stand beside impressive buildings in people-friendly plazas. Would that Chicagoans were so demanding of their politicians.

Sometimes the soaring skyscrapers were built on public streets and alleys. Years later, too late, the courts would agree that the building should never have been built. But who would want to demolish the Sears Tower? Other times, an old treasure stood in the way of a politician’s vision of progress. Louis Sullivan’s famed Chicago Stock Exchange Building was about to be designated a historical landmark when, just after the federal courts closed for a weekend, wrecking balls smashed through the walls. By the time the courts responded, not much was worth saving. The first Mayor Daley did make sure that parts of the beautiful trading floor were salvaged. Today, you can see them, reconstructed, in the Art Institute, Chicago’s impressive art museum.

More recently, Chicago’s lakefront airport drew the current Mayor Daley’s attention. It jutted out on landfill into the lake and would be a wonderful place for a park or upscale housing or business development. But the pilots refused to budge. Then one night five years ago, workers bulldozed the runway. Later, the mayor’s action was called illegal. But the airport is gone. Does that sort of thing happen as predictably anyplace else?

Good things can come from arbitrary actions. After reversing the Chicago River, the city soon sent its garbage downstream. Al Capone disagreed with using the river as a sewer. He disciplined his men who dumped bodies into the river to dispose of them. The police knew that bodies found in the river were not by-products of Capone’s enforcement tactics. Other gangs stopped tossing bodies in the river.

Capone and Chicago’s Republican Mayor Big Bill Thompson had a symbiotic relationship. Enough ordinary citizens got a little something from the crime syndicate or the city government to have a vested interest in perpetuating things. When Thompson lost an election to a Democratic reformer in 1931, Capone was thrown out, too. The Democrats have held on since, with their own “elements” dispensing favors and sin.

Capone settled in suburban Cicero, a working-class enclave. Quickly, Cicero became overwhelmingly Republican and Capone’s “business interests” flourished. Cicero payrollers vied to get jobs as Republican precinct captains because Capone installed the country’s first pension plan for precinct captains. So long as the captains delivered the votes, they kept their pensions. The Capone culture is still evident: Cicero officials are regularly involved in scandals, indictments and convictions, just like officials in Chicago. But people drew a lesson from the pension plan and payroll jobs and ignored the occasional gangland carnage.

Even bad guys have some redeeming qualities.

An old Chicago slogan: Vote early, vote often

Some years ago, during the tenure – some call it reign – of the first Mayor Daley, a television station decided to root out election corruption. They took a camera crew to a store-front polling place not too far from Obama’s present neighborhood. In the minutes before the polls opened to voters, the camera recorded two Democratic Party officials pulling the levers to record votes for Democratic candidates. They never touched the levers for Republican candidates. The TV station called in the equivalent of the district attorney – a Republican from the suburbs. He burst into the polling place demanding an explanation for the fraudulent voting and was promptly arrested by Chicago police for creating a disturbance. When he was released hours later, the polling place was a model of efficiency and decorum.

The DA filed charges against the two Democratic officials and they went to trial. The trial judge was a former law partner of Mayor Daley. When the two Democratic officials were asked why they were pulling the levers, they claimed that they were testing the machines. When asked why they tested only the Democratic levers, they looked surprised and said that no one ever voted Republican. The judge said: “Case dismissed.” Later, he reminded reporters that the law said that Chicago was required to hold elections but said nothing about fair elections.

You can’t beat the system.
For years, new residents of Chicago presumed that they had a secret ballot. But if they did not vote the way the precinct captain “suggested,” they sometimes found that their garbage was not collected while their cars collected loads of parking tickets. Hundreds of other citizens learned that their garages encroached on city property. Based on city maps, the citizens had assumed that their garages were on their property, next to an alley. Lucky for them, their alderman (who had “alerted” city officials to the problem in the first place) headed a law firm that, for a few hundred dollars per garage, could fix the problem. Unconfirmed reports suggested that only a few garages were knocked down before the law firm was deluged with new clients. The alderman, known affectionately as “Fast Eddie,” was reelected by a larger margin.

After confronting such blunt corruption, people usually followed the path of least resistance. They consoled themselves with the thought that they lived in a beautiful city, with world-class museums and cultural attractions. It was all true because Chicago may be the one place in the world where everything you think about it – bad and good – probably is rooted in truth.

There are no secrets in Chicago, just people who keep their mouths shut.

Yes, Chicago has one of the best symphony orchestras in the world. Chicago also had the Black Sox – the only major league baseball team to throw a World Series. Chicago has not one but eight public yacht and boating basins along the Lake Michigan shoreline and more public parklands and playing fields per resident than any other major city. Chicago also invented the chain ballot, which allowed the precinct boss to cast everybody’s vote and produced thousands of ghost voters, many of whom still vote when needed.

Ghost voters and ghost employees

Chicago has a history of “when needed” practices. A guy knows somebody and gets on a payroll, maybe two or even more (I recall that the record was eight when I left Chicago in 1976). Time and again, newspaper investigations find that some city “ghost workers” draw a paycheck but never show up for work. One such ghost worker reasoned: “I think I’m on call. They’ll call me when they need me.” He had never been called in 13 years.

New York’s Tammany Hall – another political institution of questionable integrity – had a concept that they called “honest graft.” This concept seems to have been a foreign notion to Chicagoans. Graft was not honest or dishonest. It simply was. Chicagoans needed no adjective to explain something so straight forward and necessary.

Chicago is not Camelot

Sure, other cities have similar tales to tell. Others cities have their share of corruption. But Chicago finds ways to perpetuate unsavory practices while other cities have yielded to a little reforming. Chicago is an incestuous pool of cronies, linked deal-by-deal, pol-by-pol, office-by-office, favor-by-favor.

Over 50 years ago, Chicago Alderman Paddy Bauler celebrated the election of the first Mayor Daley by dancing on a table and shouting, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.” After he could not find his hat at a political dinner, Bauler looked around at the assorted politicians: “They even steal your hat. You can buy a new senator anywhere but a good hat is hard to find.” Bauler struck a clear note, apt and true, even today.

The ties that bind may become the ties that trouble

So that’s the legacy that Obama may have absorbed. It seems humorous to the point of harmlessness. But is it? Obama’s lead political advisor was Blagojevich’s advisor. Emanuel followed Blagojevich as the congressman from Chicago’s fifth district when Blagojevich moved up to governor. Obama’s financial benefactor (recently convicted and “singing” to the authorities for a reduced sentence) was also Blagojevich’s benefactor. These may not be ties that bind but they may become ties that trouble.

On the other hand, the good guys are not perfect. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan can hardly keep her ambition to become governor in check. She called for the state’s highest court to remove the governor’s powers. The court rejected her request so her father – yes, her father – now calls for impeachment to proceed. He is the majority leader of the state House of Representatives. Incest? Well, this is Illinois, after all. If Madigan can’t help his daughter, what can he do? It’s sort of a tradition.

At Christmas years ago, aggressive reporters hammered the first Mayor Daley on sweetheart insurance deals between the City of Chicago and an insurance brokerage firm that employed two of his sons. He scowled: “If a man can’t help his sons, what can he do?” The reporters continued. A mischievous smile brightened the mayor’s face. Then, as he turned around, he said: “Kiss my mistletoe.” The reporters saw that Daley had pinned a sprig of mistletoe to the bottom of his jacket, just above, well, you know.

Lt. Governor Pat Quinn was the first public official to call for Blagojevich to resign. Need I mention that Quinn has been lusting after the governor’s job for years? Need I mention that Quinn will become governor if Blagojevich leaves?

There are no good guys.

Are there any clean hands in Chicago? Cynics say no. They agree with Bauler: “Everyone is on the make in Chicago. Everybody. Maybe even me.”

The cynics cannot believe that Obama is for real. If he is, it upsets their world. So what will it be? Are these Chicago practices going to swamp the Obama Administration? Or are they just going to provide jokes for late-night television comedians?

Are we willing to accept Obama’s Chicago political origins without blaming or condemning him for them? Paddy Bauler summed up the cynical case:

Every pol is just one rat away from ruin.

Obama may long to retreat to Hawaii but Chicago is in his future.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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