There’s an old saying that some elected officials overstay their time in public life because they fear if they don’t die in office, no one will come to their funerals.
It’s one of the ideas that swirled in my mind as I tried to figure out why former Ald. Ike Carothers and former Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez want to run for Cook County commissioner — a position that pays about $85,000 a year — after having each served federal prison time.
Most people’s first reaction: Why would anyone vote for them?
Turns out that in the past, Chicagoans haven’t been willing to forgive and forget. Chicagoans are patient when someone is accused of misconduct or a crime, but they’re not as forgiving once someone has been convicted, said Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor and head of the school’s political science department.
“Their chances aren’t great. No one else has been able to do it,” Simpson said, citing recent attempts at office by former Congressman Mel Reynolds and onetime Ald. Ambrosio Medrano. “Voters usually won’t want to elect people who have been convicted, at least not in recent Chicago history.”
That could change this time, given the onetime strongholds Carothers and Sanchez wielded in their areas. Sanchez has never held public office, but he had heavy involvement in the now-defunct but once politically powerful Hispanic Democratic Organization. Carothers had a strong organization on the West Side.
But their candidacies raise another question: Why would they want to get back into public life?
Carothers and Sanchez underwent heavy public scrutiny with their federal cases. I happened to cover both cases, which are very different, in federal court, and in the instance of Sanchez, I also covered his first trial. Carothers (29th) didn’t go to trial because he cooperated and pleaded guilty to accepting $40,000 worth of home renovations while backing a development in his ward.
Whatever you think of their cases, there’s one thing true of many white-collar defendants: They undergo a singular stress that they’ve likely not encountered in their lifetime. The cameras are on them, their lives, their work, their finances, their fall from grace. All of it is under a microscope. Carothers wore a wire, certainly making him some enemies.
(I caught up with Carothers on Friday but he didn’t want to comment for this piece.)
Sanchez said he believes public service is his calling.
“I’ve been in public service over 31 years and I’ve been involved in public life for over 40 years,” Sanchez told me. “I think my record at Streets and San was impeccable. I’ll tell you what, the streets looked a heck of a lot better when I was there.”
Sanchez was convicted of mail fraud in connection with a scheme that rewarded political foot soldiers with jobs. Sanchez served his prison term but is still on supervised release, which has garnered him a petition challenge with the argument that he cannot run for office because he’s technically still serving his sentence.
Sanchez, 65, of the Southeast Side, sees all of this differently. He says he served time in a prison camp re-reading his indictment every day, wondering what he did wrong. He has long charged that prosecutors overreached in his case, which was an investigation that was an outgrowth of the Hired Truck Scandal.
“Everywhere I go, I get a positive response,” Sanchez told me. “People don’t look at me like I just killed somebody. They look at me like I got a raw deal.”
One influential, longtime commissioner doesn’t like any of it.
Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin told the Sun-Times he will do everything in his power to make sure neither Sanchez nor Carothers is elected to the County Board.
“I made up my mind that I’m going to work hard to defeat both these guys. I frankly find both Sanchez and Carothers offensive because they’ve both been convicted of violating the public trust,” Suffredin told me.
Most people are willing to forgive a mistake made while someone was a kid, but he said he holds crimes in public office in a different regard.
“This is a reflection on all of us if you think you can violate the public trust and come back. It’s not a pleasant thing to be working with people who don’t have the best interest of the public.”
Wait a minute, says Sanchez.
“You can tell Larry, if he can tell me how I violated the public’s trust, he should let me know. People did politics and got jobs? Because someone did politics they can’t work for the city?” Sanchez responded. “Hey Larry, how many people have you helped get a job? If Larry has recommended some people then he’s as guilty as I am. That’s what I’ve been indicted and convicted of, nothing more.”
So, who decides if Sanchez deserves this chance?
Well, you already know who.