Ensuring patronage stays dead this time could take some effort

SHARE Ensuring patronage stays dead this time could take some effort

A federal courtroom here will host what’s shaping up as the second funeral of Chicago-style patronage next week.

Almost 45 years after a young reformer named Michael Shakman filed his civil lawsuit against the Cook County Democratic Party, a judge is expected to decide Monday that the seemingly never-ending case should be closed finally.

Shakman himself says the time has come when City Hall no longer needs federal oversight to prevent political bias from infecting hiring and firing for most rank-and-file city jobs.

There really does seem to be considerable progress for reform-minded Chicagoans to celebrate. But this won’t be the first time patronage in the city has been declared dead.

Less than 10 years ago, the “Encyclopedia of Chicago” concluded its “Machine Politics” entry with a requiem:

“The election of Harold Washington as the city’s first black mayor in 1983 and his subsequent re-election four years later unequivocally ended Democratic machine rule in Chicago. Nor did the election to the mayoralty of Richard M. Daley, the eldest son of the deceased boss, indicate a resurrection of the machine in a new guise. As the younger Daley readily acknowledged, radically different demographics and the attendant alterations in the political calculus clearly made the machine politics for which Chicago became famous an anachronism by the end of the twentieth century.”

That assessment soon proved more than a little hasty. In fact, the Chicago machine had been rebuilt from almost the moment the second Mayor Daley took power in 1989.

In a case that radically changed the playing field of city politics, federal agents raided the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, on the sixth floor of City Hall, at 12:43 a.m. on Saturday, April 30, 2005. They emerged with proof that the old ways were very much alive.

The feds unearthed a secret spreadsheet listing thousands of job hopefuls and their political sponsors. It showed how the best way to land good positions in Daley’s administration was to show loyalty to patronage armies of campaign workers directed by mayoral aides.

Hiring for many coveted, blue-collar jobs again was rigged so that who you knew mattered most. What you knew meant little, if at all, for most Chicagoans who filled out applications at the personnel office in Room 100 of City Hall.

This systematic abuse of power helped perpetuate and solidify Daley II’s reign. The patronage groups supported candidates endorsed by Daley and tilted the election-day balance against those who lacked his blessing.

Among those who benefitted from this new Daley machine was a former White House aide locked in a hotly contested primary to represent the North Side in Congress in 2002.

Much has been made of the support Rahm Emanuel’s successful congressional campaign got from Donald Tomczak, a crooked city official who ran a pro-Daley patronage group. According to federal court testimony and records, Emanuel’s successful congressional bid also had the help of other Daley machine groups, including the Hispanic Democratic Organization as well as teams of “white ethnic” and Asian city employees.

Now, Shakman credits Emanuel with helping reform city hiring. Indeed, there’s no sign that what was done in Daley’s name is being replicated for his successor.

Working on Emanuel’s 2011 campaign did not seem to provide an advantage to job seekers. Just 10 of the nearly 50 people on the campaign’s staff have city jobs today. Nine of them are in the mayor’s office, which justifiably is exempt from anti-patronage rules.

The feds provided the most powerful deterrent against attempting to create a Chicago Machine 3.0 when they put Daley aides behind bars for rigging hiring and promotions for city jobs that are supposed to be filled on a merit basis.

The persistence of Shakman and Noelle Brennan — the city’s court-appointed federal monitor for the past nine years — also was crucial in devising ways to prevent clout hiring.

Given the history of machine politics in Chicago, however, keeping City Hall personnel decisions free of patronage could require the kind of eternal vigilance that recovering alcoholics employ to avoid drinking again.

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