Looking for the best primer on Chicago politics? Try 'The Lawyers Who Reformed Chicago'

March 28, 2011

Want to get a quick, easy-to-follow primer on Chicago politics, corruption and, sometimes, even redemption?

Don Rose’s “The Lawyers Who Reformed Chicago” ran last week in The Week Behind. Since then, I find myself recommending it over and over as probably the clearest and most accessible narrative on the Daley eras that I’ve ever read.

 

It’s also an honest hats off to the long line of mostly young (and many Jewish) lawyers who have gone against the currents of corruption in this city.

As Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel preps to take over, it strikes me as must reading.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Rose – a longtime progressive political consultant -- had a tough time selling the piece.

“I had been thinking about doing this for some time,” he said. “The Baffler, last year, asked me for a piece--I wrote it for them and they went out of business before publishing. Yes, I tried other mags but never got a good reason why it wasn't for them. The Nation wanted to turn it into something ‘national’ with other cities, which I was just not up to doing.”

I’ll start it here. But you can follow the link at the bottom to finish it.

The Lawyers Who Reformed Chicago

By Don Rose

Richard M. Daley will leave a schizophrenic legacy. On the one hand, he will be remembered for developing and beautifying his city, boosting its economy and its arts, and bringing it together socially and politically; on the other, for turning a blind eye to the cesspool of corruption, greased palms, and sweetheart deals that has festered just under the surface of civic government since the days of his father, the late Richard J. Daley.

Despite the procession of pols marched off to the slammer during Richard M.’s tenure, recent census data showing the horrendous disparities of income and education between white and minority communities and the dismal daily toll of gang violence in those neighborhoods, the perception remains that the Mayor Rahm Emanuel takes over a city bent on reform in a post-racial America.

Any number of legislators, civic leaders, community organizers – even Mayor Richard M. Daley himself – are in a position to claim some credit for improvements. But the slow, decades-long reform movement that cleaned up the worst of the abuses was a complicated struggle, played out under the rules of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-60’s by an unlikely combination of a Republican senator and a handful of crusading attorneys. They not only fractured the racism and repression of the old Democratic machine in Chicago but set the course for all the reforms that followed.

Let’s call them the unsung heroes of Chicago reform in the era of heroic landmark lawsuits.

“Chicago Ain’t Ready for Reform”

On the fateful April night in 1955 when Richard J. Daley was elected mayor, a red-faced, beer-bellied, saloonkeeper alderman named Mathias “Paddy” Bauler, danced a little jig and immortally proclaimed, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet!”   

Not only was it not ready for reform, it was about to double down on clout. In an era when the old urban machines were gasping and wheezing their last, Daley grabbed hold of both the mayor’s post and the county party chairmanship to retool the fearsome Chicago Democratic machine into the nation’s most powerful political organization. He became, in Sidney Lens’s phrase, not the last of the old-time bosses but the first of the new-time bosses.

He did it based on a new model that invited the business and financial communities—two traditionally WASP-ish groups that initially opposed his election–to share in the spoils. Their unwritten pact gave them almost unlimited business and real estate development downtown while he worked at controlling the spread of Chicago’s burgeoning black population that threatened the central business district’s white sanctity.

In Daley’s Chicago, politics was intrinsically tied to race. He used every possible instrument of government, from schools, housing and employment to protective and recreational services to suppress the African American population and created the nation’s most segregated city. It took federal legislation, a potent local civil rights movement and a few brave politicians like Ralph Metcalfe and Al Raby to liberate what some called Massa Daley’s plantation.

But all that might still not have been enough if a youngish, progressive Republican named Charles Percy had not upset the once liberal Democratic icon Senator Paul Douglas in the 1966 election.

The Golden Boy

 The handsome Percy, who rose to become head of the Bell & Howell Company at the age of 30, was sometimes called “The Golden Boy” of Republican politics, a well-spoken North Shore entrepreneur who nonetheless championed civil rights and low-income housing.

When Percy took office, federal judges in the Northern District of Illinois were every bit the political hacks that Chicago municipal judges were. They typically emerged from the ranks of precinct captains and owed their first loyalty to party bosses that appointed them. In his first decade in office, Mayor Daley filled the federal bench with former law partners and cronies he could reliably count on to rule against anything resembling reform.

At the urging of the newly formed Chicago Council of Lawyers, however, Percy (who made the official nominations to the federal bench) pledged to vet all his nominees through the council—a reform-minded bar association set up to counteract a then-stodgy Chicago Bar Association known for its obeisance to the Machine. The CCL stringently recommended only highly qualified, non-political judicial candidates.

By the mid-1970s, Percy’s appointments were scattered through the federal courts. At least half the hacks of past years were gone— and the stage was set for a series of groundbreaking lawsuits to reign in the excesses of the political machine and curtail institutional racism in most operations of local government.

The Shakman Decree

In 1969, Michael Shakman was a 25-year-old candidate for delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention who lost his first run for public office by 600 votes. He filed a federal lawsuit charging that political patronage – which essentially required public employees to do political work in exchange for their jobs –was an unconstitutional intrusion into the election process. He noted that more than 600 city workers holding patronage jobs were out campaigning against him in his district.

At the time Shakman filed his suit, there were an estimated 35,000 city and county employees who owed their government jobs to the patronage system. As both mayor and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Richard J. Daley and his ward bosses controlled most of them.  One of his closest friends on the bench, Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, threw out the case.

Shakman appealed. A new panel of federal judges that included two Democratic judges not beholden to Daley reversed Marovitz and the case wound up back in federal district court. In the district court, a tsunami of facts poured in about how patronage really worked. To stem the flow, the city agreed to a consent decree limiting patronage abuse that came to be known as “The Shakman Decree.”

The Slow Creep of Reform

As the case wended its way through the courts in the 1970s, more units of government were put under its rulings.  Eventually, in 1979, two years after the elder Daley died in office, patronage hiring was ruled illegal. That led to an extension of the patronage ban to other units of the county and state governments; and, of course, new subterfuges designed to get around the ban.

In 1994, Federal Judge Wayne Anderson uncovered a city scheme to use private employment agencies to circumvent the hiring ban. By now, a new mayor named Richard M. Daley was in office. He moved to vacate the decree. Anderson not only reaffirmed it, but also appointed a federal monitor to oversee the city hiring practices.

All this came to a head with the notorious “hired truck” scandal in 2004. A Chicago Sun-Times series titled “Clout on Wheels” began as an investigation into how the city spent $40 million on private hired trucks but soon morphed into a larger expose of a sub-rosa system of patronage hiring and phony minority-owned business set-asides. Some 40 city officials were convicted of rigging tests and interviews to get political workers hired; patronage-based groups such as the Hispanic Democratic Organization were disbanded; and top aides of the younger Daley, including patronage chieftain Robert Sorich, went to jail.

“Shakman” remains the longest running reform saga in Chicago history, still making headlines as City Hall lawyers dream up new ways to get around it. Meanwhile, election after election demonstrates a decrease in the Machine’s strength as the grip and power of patronage continue to weaken—but never disappears.

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