Contrary to what you’ve been reading about the latest controversies and scandals coming out of Illinois, it’s actually been a happy time for politicians around here. Between the recent sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory and the arrest of Governor Rod Blagojevich for allegedly attempting to sell off Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat, I don’t think our elected officials have ever felt more, oh, liberated.
Confused? Well, it helps to know that for all of their foul-talking, roughneck bluster, our politicians are really a bunch of wimps who are exceedingly cautious about confronting anyone who has the power to run them out of office. Our state legislators are known as 'shrooms, short for mushrooms--a nickname they’ve earned for spending most of the legislative session obediently waiting for party leaders to tell them what to do. Chicago’s 50 aldermen are known as puppets of Mayor Richard Daley, who’s virtually free to spend billions however he wants. And our congressmen--many of whom started their careers as aldermen or state legislators--may be the biggest wusses of all. They will rail against, say, torture in Guantanamo, while conveniently staying quiet about long-standing evidence of torture in the interrogation rooms of several Chicago police stations. In general, the further the sin is from this city, the greater their outrage. Having crawled out of this swamp, the last thing they want is to crawl back in by offending the bosses.
For all of these officials, the showdown at Republic was an early Christmas gift, giving them a chance to raise hell without retribution. For those unfamiliar with the situation: Having gone bankrupt, the company, Republic, decided to lay off 240 workers. But their creditors at the Bank of America, which recently received about $15 billion in federal bailout money, would not lend Republic enough money to cover the workers’ severance pay. It was an obvious case of corporate hypocrisy and the politicians didn’t hold back.
But to hear their outbursts of calculated bravado against the hypocrisy of bailing out fat-cat bankers, you would hardly know that many of them routinely approve, or look the other way, while Daley shovels millions of dollars worth of tax breaks and subsidies to well-connected developers and corporations. In fact, the city council, at Daley‘s urging, voted to give Republic about $10 million to build the very factory they eventually closed, a fact generally overlooked in their thunderous denunciations against corporate greed. What made this episode different is that they knew Daley was on the workers’ side--which also explains why the police did not arrest the workers for trespassing when they took over the factory.
The case against Blagojevich is a little trickier to understand. As governor, you’d think politicians would fear him. But, in fact, he’s always been a bit of an oddball. He owes his seat to his father-in-law, Richard Mell, an extremely powerful city alderman. Once elected governor, however, Blagojevich promptly stabbed Mell in the back by cutting him off from state patronage and letting him know he wasn’t welcome in the inner circle. Without significant allies and with his support plummeting for months, Blagojevich was not exactly an intimidating power, even before U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald filed his complaint. But once he was arrested, Blagojevich was a helpless target--and local pols were free to pound away with impunity.
As for the complaint itself, I still don’t think our politicians were nearly as shocked by its revelations as they let on. I mean, it’s pretty much standard operating procedure for politicians in these parts to take buckets of campaign contributions from the government contractors, business people, developers, zoning lawyers, and property-tax attorneys whose fate rests in their hands. As far as I can tell, Blagojevich’s biggest mistake was being dumb enough to get caught on tape demanding more, more, more! And, yet, in the aftermath of his arrest, every hack politician in Illinois--aldermen, state reps, congressmen, you name it--was sounding off like a reformer.
This exaggerated moralism reminds me of the time 21 years ago when members of the Chicago city council met to select a replacement for Mayor Harold Washington, who had died of a heart attack. After hours of back room arm-twisting and horse-trading, they settled on Alderman Eugene Sawyer as the next mayor. In a last-ditch effort to forestall the inevitable, Sawyer’s council opponents accused his backers of--horrors--making deals. Alderman William “Big Bill” Henry, one of Sawyer’s staunchest supporters, promptly popped up from his chair, bellowing: “Deals? We was all making deals!”
What a great character. Barrel-chested and thick-necked, with a booming baritone, Henry walked through hallways and down streets straightforward, almost daring people to get in his way. Alas, near the end of his life, he got indicted in the kind of seamy little scandal that has brought down so many other local politicians over the years. The feds charged him with racketeering, extortion, misapplication of city funds, mail fraud, and tax offenses. At his trial, they called on witnesses who testified that he had shaken down bribes from businessmen and forced ghost pay rollers to give him portions of the salaries they got for do-nothing city jobs.
Eventually, a federal judge halted the case before the jury reached a verdict because Henry was dying of cancer. He died in 1992, and I have to admit I miss him. He was a hack and, yes, he probably was a crook, but at least he was sort of honest about it.
The author of Hoop Dreams and a staff writer for the Reader newspaper, Ben Joravsky has been writing about politics in Chicago for decades.
By Ben Joravsky