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Is Political Patronage a Thing of the Past in Chicago?

By Ted Cox | June 9, 2014 7:33am
 Chicago City Hall
Chicago City Hall
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CITY HALL — The city marks the end of an era next week, when it's expected to be dismissed from a longstanding suit against political patronage, 45 years after Michael Shakman first filed it.

Although Shakman was only trying to crack through the Cook County Democratic Party stranglehold on positions at the 1970 Illinois constitutional convention when he filed suit in 1969, the case soon expanded to cover biased political hiring at the city, county and state.

Governments lost the case and submitted to the so-called Shakman Decrees, allowing a limited number of exempt political positions, but then struggled for decades to prove compliance on rank-and-file hiring.

That proof has now been made for Chicago, as Shakman has filed paperwork dismissing the city from the suit, affirmed by attorney Noelle Brennan, Chicago's Shakman compliance monitor. A court date has been set for June 16 to formally dismiss the city from the suit.

 Dick Mell discusses his unapologetic attitude toward political patronage at " First Tuesdays With Mick & Ben " at the Hideout in April. Mell is seen with Ben Joravsky, Aldermen Scott Waguespack and Joe Moreno and Mick Dumke.
Dick Mell discusses his unapologetic attitude toward political patronage at " First Tuesdays With Mick & Ben " at the Hideout in April. Mell is seen with Ben Joravsky, Aldermen Scott Waguespack and Joe Moreno and Mick Dumke.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Yet some are sorry to see patronage go and pine for the days when Hyde Park ward committeeman Timothy O'Sullivan told a young Abner Mikva, "We don't want nobody nobody sent," later adopted as the title of an oral history of Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine.

Dick Mell, who served as 33rd Ward alderman for 38 years, boasted upon his retirement last July that "patronage was a great thing." Just last month, Mell told a political gathering at the Hideout that he had put college students through school by getting them do-nothing overnight jobs as bridge tenders along the Chicago River.

Of course, Mell was called out at the same meeting by a truck driver who complained he could never get hired by the city because he never had the right connections.

Does patronage exist in subtler forms these days?

"It's not out in the open in public the way it was many years ago, when in the City of Chicago the mayor had a patronage chief who had an office," Shakman said in a recent interview. "When ward committeemen wanted to get a job, they wrote a letter and gave it to the applicant, and the patronage chief then decided if the committeeman was delivering the kind of work that was needed for the organization."

If you got out the vote, you got the positions.

Those days came to an end with the Shakman Decrees, even though patronage kept going under the table through attempts to rig hiring tests and job interviews.

"What we've done is put in enough checks and balances on the city's employment practices to severely limit the ability of people to do that," Brennan said. "I don't think tests are being rigged now. People aren't engaging in fraudulent interviews. There's no ability for people to do that now."

Patronage had a brief reflowering in the 1990s under the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Shakman said, when community groups like the Hispanic Democratic Organization received public money to in effect serve the same old purposes, only outside the actual government.

"They were really front groups for political workers who responded to the directions of the Daley administration," Shakman said. "That was all pretty well documented," with Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez sentenced to prison in the scandal.

"In Chicago, that was the transformation from the open municipal process of the Daley era to the outsourcing, if you will, of operations still using public jobs," Shakman added.

Yet that too was ferreted out and prevented, Brennan said, adding, "It would be very difficult if not impossible for anybody to do that today."

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County and Sheriff Tom Dart's office have already been dismissed from the suit, although Shakman pointed out, "The county has a little further to go. The assessor is an issue."

And the state has issues in its Department of Transportation and in the job referrals House Speaker Michael Madigan has routinely given political workers.

"Madigan is a perfect example," Shakman said. "He's clearly operating an old-style patronage operation."

Madigan became a key figure in last year's Metra scandal after Chief Executive Officer Alex Clifford refused to give a raise to a low-level employee who gained the speaker's favor. Clifford was ousted from the job, and later disclosed several instances of patronage at the agency, which is seeking to come out from under the cloud that followed the suicide of former CEO Phil Pagano, who was accused of pocketing public money.

Still, patronage violations in the city have almost become comical. For instance, Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan reported last year that an alderman had put in a call to the Forest Preserve District asking that a former intern, by then a fired forest-preserve police officer, be granted a third chance to pass a mandatory test after failing it twice. Identified by the Tribune as Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd), the official "should not have involved himself in this process," Khan's report determined.

As Mell said, when an alderman makes a call for someone these days, it most likely means that person will be ruled out for whatever position is being sought.

 Patronage hiring flourished under Mayor Richard J. Daley (l.). Michael Shakman says it's all but gone from the city of Chicago, but the Cook County Assesor, Joseph Berrios (r.), continues to use patronage hiring.
Patronage hiring flourished under Mayor Richard J. Daley (l.). Michael Shakman says it's all but gone from the city of Chicago, but the Cook County Assesor, Joseph Berrios (r.), continues to use patronage hiring.
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Library of Congress/Wikimedia; Cook County Assessor's website

Yet Khan said the former alderman protests too much.

"This is a common practice," he said. "In general, aldermen end up calling or making requests on behalf of relatives, friends or constituents, and that's a practice we'd like to see go away."

And that, Khan added, is just the tip of the iceberg where aldermen are concerned, because they were never subject to the Shakman Decrees.

"To say that patronage has been eliminated, I think, is actually false," he said. "It still goes on, but on a much more complicated level."

Today, what patronage exists is more openly a matter of clout. As of February, according to a report filed by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, the city had 1,285 Shakman-exempt positions. And more powerful politicians have more positions to offer. For instance, Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the Finance Committee, is budgeted for 25 committee positions worth $1.7 million in annual salaries.

Because aldermen weren't under the Shakman decree, all their positions are basically considered exempt, Khan said. There is very little "oversight of hiring," he added, which is "a fairly significant issue."

"A lot of them do employ family members. The argument that's previously been presented in this area is they're the ones they can trust," Khan added, calling that "illusory" because hiring should still be "on the basis of qualifications rather than who they know or who they're related to."

Nonetheless, "they've got a number of family members on all sorts of different payrolls, which is troubling."

The task of monitoring compliance is now formally passed to the Office of the Inspector General.

"They should be able to detect those attempts to violate the rules," Brennan said.

While Ferguson openly acknowledges in his reports that his office is "required to review and audit various components of the hiring process and report on them quarterly," Khan pointed out the council has denied him the same jurisdiction.

"We'd like to do the same thing with the City Council," Khan said. Yet the council has limited the legislative inspector general to not initiating investigations, but only following complaints that are made to the office, then clearing investigations with the Board of Ethics and informing an alderman within 14 days of opening an investigation, which Khan said "defeats the process of an investigation in so many ways."

Khan said he has lobbied the Mayor's Office and aldermen to amend the LIG ordinance to allow it to initiate investigations, but no one has yet moved on it.

"The question is, why would they do that?" Khan said. "And the answer is self-preservation."

Yet for the most part, at least where citywide hiring is concerned, there is enough oversight to have all but eliminated old-school patronage — and now the Shakman Decrees. Mayor Rahm Emanuel "has pretty much cleaned up his act. I don't think it's operating now as a patronage system of that type at all," Shakman said.

"It'll end, yes, but not so quickly, because these practices are pretty deeply entrenched, and some people want to hold on to them."

Brennan echoed that, saying, "There will always be people who try to do something that is against the rules or against the law."

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