Chicago politics: now they believe me

Clarice Feldman and Rosslyn Smith
During the election I found myself trying to explain how corrupt Chicago politicians were to some neighbors, a very devout Christian family that tends to see the best in most people.  They nodded politely as I explained that all Chicago politicians are corrupt because even if they personally don't engage in pay for play practices, they accept the presence of the rampant corruption going on around them as the price of being allowed to stay in office.  But I could tell they really didn't comprehend the extent of the problem in Illinois and what it said about the career of Barack Obama.  

Part of the problem was that many of the rural counties around here aren't exactly politically pristine.  Chicago has its Daley, Madigan, Lipinski and Stroger political dynasties. Madison county, North Carolina has the notorious
Ponder brothers, E.T. and Zeno.  As in Chicago,  same half dozen surnames have dominated local political news for decades.  Nepotism is so common that in 2004 one first time candidate for county commissioner joked to me that when he was out shaking hands his unofficial slogan was "Elect me, all my kids already have jobs." It says a lot about the place that he won and lived up to his reform credentials only to lose his bid for reelection this past November when the local Democrats combined forces against him.  Various local government officials have also been known to look the other way or selectively enforce certain rules and regulations.  The man who built the house I now live in was a deputy sheriff and a county commissioner, as was one of his grandsons. Several family members have told me he's come home from work, change out of uniform and go out to tend his moonshine still.

There was even a local vote fraud scandal a few years back.  The relatives of an elderly man, a resident of adjacent Buncombe county and a life long registered Republican, had an interesting question for authorities.  How was it possible that a man who was close to comatose had managed to register and vote as a Democrat from his bed in a Madison county nursing home? 

Today it's understood that the resident of our little valley who does business with the county is expected to festoons his yard with campaign signs every time the Democrat sheriff and county clerk are up for reelection.  That's the way things work. So my neighbors are familiar with both the idea of political patronage and pay for play. What wasn't clear in their mind was the scale of corruption in Illinois politics.  In their minds the petty local stuff they were accustomed to was supposed to get weeded out.  Weren't candidates for higher office vetted by primary opponents and particularly the press? Didn't voters exercise more care when selecting candidates for statewide and national offices?   It just wasn't possible that the governor of a major state could be more venal than the sorriest of local candidate within memory.  

The day after the Blagojevich arrest, my neighbor called me. He and his wife had gone on line and listened to Fitzgerald's press conference  He told me "I remember my first trip to Boston.  Everyone told me the drivers were the worst in the world.  I thought, 'It can't possibly be as bad as all the stories I've heard.'   I hadn't been in the city a half an hour when a car cut across three lanes of traffic right in front of me and caused an accident. I should have learned from that.  But we kept telling ourselves, Chicago politics can't be as bad as Roz says it is, can it?.'  After listening to that governor up there on tape, it is that bad.  You weren't exaggerating"
During the election I found myself trying to explain how corrupt Chicago politicians were to some neighbors, a very devout Christian family that tends to see the best in most people.  They nodded politely as I explained that all Chicago politicians are corrupt because even if they personally don't engage in pay for play practices, they accept the presence of the rampant corruption going on around them as the price of being allowed to stay in office.  But I could tell they really didn't comprehend the extent of the problem in Illinois and what it said about the career of Barack Obama.  

Part of the problem was that many of the rural counties around here aren't exactly politically pristine.  Chicago has its Daley, Madigan, Lipinski and Stroger political dynasties. Madison county, North Carolina has the notorious
Ponder brothers, E.T. and Zeno.  As in Chicago,  same half dozen surnames have dominated local political news for decades.  Nepotism is so common that in 2004 one first time candidate for county commissioner joked to me that when he was out shaking hands his unofficial slogan was "Elect me, all my kids already have jobs." It says a lot about the place that he won and lived up to his reform credentials only to lose his bid for reelection this past November when the local Democrats combined forces against him.  Various local government officials have also been known to look the other way or selectively enforce certain rules and regulations.  The man who built the house I now live in was a deputy sheriff and a county commissioner, as was one of his grandsons. Several family members have told me he's come home from work, change out of uniform and go out to tend his moonshine still.

There was even a local vote fraud scandal a few years back.  The relatives of an elderly man, a resident of adjacent Buncombe county and a life long registered Republican, had an interesting question for authorities.  How was it possible that a man who was close to comatose had managed to register and vote as a Democrat from his bed in a Madison county nursing home? 

Today it's understood that the resident of our little valley who does business with the county is expected to festoons his yard with campaign signs every time the Democrat sheriff and county clerk are up for reelection.  That's the way things work. So my neighbors are familiar with both the idea of political patronage and pay for play. What wasn't clear in their mind was the scale of corruption in Illinois politics.  In their minds the petty local stuff they were accustomed to was supposed to get weeded out.  Weren't candidates for higher office vetted by primary opponents and particularly the press? Didn't voters exercise more care when selecting candidates for statewide and national offices?   It just wasn't possible that the governor of a major state could be more venal than the sorriest of local candidate within memory.  

The day after the Blagojevich arrest, my neighbor called me. He and his wife had gone on line and listened to Fitzgerald's press conference  He told me "I remember my first trip to Boston.  Everyone told me the drivers were the worst in the world.  I thought, 'It can't possibly be as bad as all the stories I've heard.'   I hadn't been in the city a half an hour when a car cut across three lanes of traffic right in front of me and caused an accident. I should have learned from that.  But we kept telling ourselves, Chicago politics can't be as bad as Roz says it is, can it?.'  After listening to that governor up there on tape, it is that bad.  You weren't exaggerating"