‘It happens,’ convicted pol says of worker’s death

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There’s the intellectual argument against clout, that patronage hiring is unfair to the public job applicants who may be most qualified but lack the right friends in high places.

Then there are the people that clout victimizes most deeply and emotionally. Such as Earceen Alexander and her survivors.

Alexander was a laborer on a city garbage truck nearly 10 years ago when she was pinned between a telephone pole and the truck. The vehicle’s driver, Denise Alcantar, was an inexperienced city employee who owed her job to the Hispanic Democratic Organization’s clout.

Alexander’s thigh was gashed, her pelvis broken and a lung damaged, forcing her to remain in a wheelchair, tethered to an oxygen tank, for much of the following five years until she died in 2008, at age 63.

Her daughter Angelique Boyd felt a measure of redemption for her mother’s death when Al Sanchez, once Mayor Richard M. Daley’s top Streets and San man, went to federal prison a few years ago for rigging the hiring process to favor HDO campaign foot soldiers.

Now, though, Sanchez is a free man again, and Boyd feels he’s using his freedom to add insult to the Alexander family’s irreparable injury.

Attempting to mount a comeback in the March Democratic primaryfor a Cook County Board seat, Sanchez says he has a clear conscience.

“It was an accident,” Sanchez said Tuesday of the 2003 incident that maimed Alexander. “It happens with Streets and San. Everybody wants to make a bigger deal out of it.”

But Boyd says it could not have been a bigger deal to her, Alexander’s four other children and 10 grandchildren.

“My mom would still be here if not for that accident, and I believe it was his fault,” Boyd says of Sanchez.  “For him to say nobody was hurt by what he did — he knew what they were doing. He should have made sure [Alcantar] had the experience to handle that large of a vehicle. He was putting lives in danger.”

Alexander’s story is a tragedy that became well known as HDO and the rest of the Daley machine  became entangled in a corruption scandal, but it’s worth re-telling, since Sanchez now wants the public’s trust — and a taxpayer-funded salary — once again.

On a spring day in 2003, Alexander had the misfortune of being assigned to a garbage truck crew in which the driver was Alcantar.

Alcantar had only landed on the Streets and San payroll six months earlier. Before becoming a city truck driver, the biggest vehicle she had driven was a rented U-Haul.

Over the years, Alcantar’s many attempts to get a city job with good pay and benefits had failed. Then she got to know Sanchez’s buddies in HDO.

Having worked on many election campaigns for HDO — which was created by Daley’s allies and served the former mayor loyally for more than a decade — Alcantar suddenly had the right credentials.

Years after the accident, on the witness stand in the federal corruption trial of Sanchez, Alcantar would admit she filled out and turned in what would be her successful job application at an HDO meeting.

Sanchez’s personnel director, testifying with a grant of immunity, told jurors that qualifications had not mattered at all in the Streets and San hiring hall. Only clout counted, and Sanchez had chosen Alcantar and other HDO-connected applicants before they were even interviewed, that witness said.

Alcantar’s driving miscue in May 2003 left Alexander with what a workers compensation arbitrator called “devastating permanent traumatic injuries.”

Her death in February 2008 left her daughter, Boyd, with not only personal regrets but also a sense of political indignation against Daley and his machine operatives, Sanchez especially.

Boyd still recalls bitterly how Alcantar acknowledged applying at a bar where she got her HDO campaign assignments.

“She filled out her job application at a lounge,” Boyd says. “I have nothing against the Hispanic organization and whatever they were trying to do, but she had no business driving that doggone truck.”

Sanchez insists clout had nothing to do with hiring Alcantar, who had a trucker’s license, the minimal qualification for her job. (According to the city’s website, Alcantar still works as a Streets and San driver, with an annual salary of more than $70,000).

Sanchez says most voters think he was a fall guy for Daley. The feds, he says, “couldn’t get the man, so they had to do something” and criminalized normal City Hall practices.

Sanchez surely hadn’t meant for Alexander to be hurt, just as corrupt former Gov. George Ryan could claim he didn’t deserve fault for the truck driver who got his license through bribery and went on to cause the accident that killed six of the Rev. Scott and Janet Willis’ children.

Yet, Earceen Alexander’s case shows how clout’s consequences can be as deadly as they are unjust.

It’s certainly something for voters to remember as Sanchez asks them to deem him as pure as the freshly fallen snow he once was responsible for plowing from city streets. He may have been better at removing the snow than his successors at Streets and San, as he now boasts.

That doesn’t mean he was the victim of unfair prosecution for a victimless crime.

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