While Rod Blagojevich appeared in a federal courtroom Tuesday morning, at least one of the Chicago political insiders who had supported the deposed and disgraced governor since his earliest campaigns had a better place to be, in another courthouse.
In Cook County Circuit Court, a few blocks from the media horde covering the ex-governor’s re-appearance and re-sentencing, Chuck Lomanto sat in the audience with other city government retirees, for a hearing in a case involving their health-care benefits.
Lomanto once was the most trusted aide to Dick Mell, the Democratic ward boss who deployed all of his campaign ground troops to power his son-in-law into the Governor’s Mansion.
When the relationship between Mell and Blagojevich soured, the precinct captains of the 33rd Ward Regular Democratic Organization were caught in the middle of the bitter political divorce. They stood by their clout and turned against his daughter’s husband.
The 33rd Warders accused Blagojevich of violating a cardinal rule of Chicago-style, transactional politics: He had not stayed with the guy who brought him to the dance. Nor did he follow through on promises of jobs in his administration for the little people who helped him rise from state rep to congressman and governor.
Many of the Mell loyalists came from working-class backgrounds and had relatively simple tastes. They resented how he seemed to look down on them. In his 2009 book, Blagojevich singled out Lomanto, a former Streets and Sanitation worker who also was chief of staff in Mell’s ward office.
“Think about it,” Blagojevich wrote. “I’m the governor of a big state. And I have a situation where if, hypothetically, my father-in-law wants me to hire Chucky Lomanto’s cousin and I don’t, my father-in-law will run to my mother-in-law, tell her all about it and convince her I was a big ingrate who wasn’t helping him.”
So there was little or no sympathy for Blagojevich in the old neighborhood on the Northwest Side when he was arrested, impeached and imprisoned. I’ve never heard of anybody throwing a legal fundraiser for Blagojevich, as the 11th Warders did for convicted mayoral aide Robert Sorich and the 10th Warders did for crooked Streets and San commissioner Al Sanchez.
Mell retired from the City Council and lost his ward committeeman’s job to a much younger, progressive candidate last spring. His once-fearsome band of precinct captains, some of who started with him in the 1970s, also aged.
Promises of jobs and promotions in blue-collar city government departments no longer can motivate them to work on campaigns. Many, like Lomanto, have retired from their government jobs.
What could happen to their pensions and benefits concerns them far more than the fate of their fallen white knight. That’s why Lomanto rode the L from his home in the 33rd Ward and got off near the Daley Center, rather than the Dirksen U.S. District Courthouse, on Tuesday.
There was little news for the retirees in the long running legal battle between the city and 350 plaintiffs to determine if the city will cover retiree health care and how much former workers have to pay for it.
Another court date in the case, which was filed in 2013, was set for Aug. 31.
Lomanto said he was paying $750 a month for health care when he retired in 2012 but now he’s paying $1,840.
“The city is on the hook, and they’re going to pay,” Lomanto said. “It’s been a constant battle. I’m a free man, but I’ve been fighting ever since I retired for myself, my family and my friends.”
Regarding Blagojevich, Lomanto would say only that he felt sorry for his family and that other politicians “who have done worse have gotten less time.”
As the morning of heated rhetoric in two downtown courtrooms passed into another sunny summer afternoon, Lomanto decided to ride his Harley out to the suburbs to get serviced, enjoying the sort of freedom Blagojevich likely won’t have for many years.