Two Cheers for Old-Fashioned Political Scoundrels

The recently deceased Dan Rostenkowski was an old-school Chicago politician. From my knowledge of the breed, this means that if you had lunch with him, placed a twenty on the table for your share of the tab, and then turned to flag the waitress for a refill on your ice tea, when you glanced back at the table, the money would be gone and there would be an innocent smile on his face.  

Rostenkowski's generation wasn't much into six-figure bundled political contributions. For one thing, by today's standards, they they seldom spent much on their own campaigns. When they began, campaigns were mostly local affairs, managed by political cronies or family members and staffed by the ward heelers. Nor when they first ran for office did pay to play mean contributing $20,000 to a campaign fund in return for an appointment to a government board that may determine how millions in government contracts were spent. It meant getting the entire family and one's neighbors to vote the straight Democrat ticket if one wanted to keep the street-cleaning job received through the offices of the Democrat ward committeeman.  

Instead of campaign finance shenanigans, the old school Chicago politician compulsively gamed the system once elected. A little bit skimmed each year from the office postage account, a regular kickback from each employee on the office staff, hinting to the the favor-seeker that the key to the matter was to buy insurance from a certain agency where the politician himself or a relative held the license. Yes, it was all nickel and dime, as was mentioned ad nauseam by the press at the time of Rostenkowski's indictment. But when totaled up, those nickel-and-dime amounts made many Chicago politicians of his generation rich men. After all, Rostenkowski may have left office in disgrace while looking at a heap of legal bills, but his last breath still came at a summer home on a Wisconsin lake.  

Perhaps the only thing that was more compulsive than Rostenkowski's petty corruption was how the media downplayed the issue. Rumors about Rostenkowski's corrupt ways simmered among political insiders for years, if not decades, before his indictment. After the Ways and Means Committee chairman's 1994 indictment and subsequent conviction, the national media were more concerned about the political vacuum that might exist because of Rostenkowski's supposed unique abilities move legislation than they were about his thievery.  

Most of the stories about Rostenkowski's death last week listed his work on the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA 86) as his crowning achievement and say his downfall began when 1992's House Post Office Scandal and House Banking Scandal changed the political environment. As someone who watched the story unfold, as a tax professional, as a political junky living in Chicago, and as someone who worked to get him defeated in two elections, I date Rostenkowski's political downfall to that very achievement. The process that resulted in TRA 86 reeked of corruption.  

As the Ways and Means committee hammered out a new Tax Code, Democrat and Republican alike accommodated hundreds of well-heeled friends who wanted a favor. To do so, they blatantly misused a legislative tool called a transition rule --  language in a bill that does not become part of the permanent U.S. Code, usually because it contains a phase-in period to soften the impact of the change. Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele of the Philadelphia Enquirer won a 1989 Pulitzers prize for their extended series deciphering some 650 "transition rules" in TRA 86. Here is a good example from their series:

THE LAW. Treatment of certain partnerships. In the case of a partnership with a taxable year beginning May 1, 1986, if such partnership realized net capital gain during the period beginning on the first day of such taxable year and ending on May 29, 1986, pursuant to an indemnity agreement dated May 6, 1986, then such partnership may elect to treat each asset to which such net capital gain relates as having been distributed to the partners of such partnership in proportion to their distributive share of the capital gain or loss realized by the partnership with respect to each asset .

Barlett and Steele determined that partners at Bear Stearns saved approximately $8 million in tax via the above "transition rule." They sent a letter to Dan Rostenkowski about his committee's role in all this. He never responded. Neither did Senate Finance Chair Republican Bob Packwood. Indeed, the reporters found that almost no one in either political party in the House or Senate, or the businesses and investors involved, wanted to talk about TRA 86's "transition rules." Their series was picked up by other publications and written up in the nation's op-ed pages and opinion journals. While none of the politicians mentioned in the article benefited, much of the resulting public scorn fell squarely on Rostenkowski's burly shoulders, as he was the one whose name was most closely associated with TRA 1986

Rostenkowski's political style began to look dated around the same time the Philadelphia Enquirer series seeped into the public's memory. The year 1993's Shakman decree gutted Chicago-area politicians' ability to hire and fire government employees based solely on political connections. In 1987, almost half a million was spent on a lowly aldermanic race in part of Rostenkowski's congressional district by a new generation of urban Democrats, the scions of wealthy families looking to start a political career they hoped would take them far beyond the City Council Chambers. 

The year 1989 saw a new Daley in City Hall, --the son of Rostenkowski's patron, to be sure, but also a man who wanted his own legacy. A whole new way of running political campaigns was fast taking shape as ward committeemen gave way in strategy sessions to image-makers who took a hefty share of campaign funds as a commission on the huge advertising buys coming to dominate politics even at local levels. 

Lip service was still paid to the ward political organizations, but increasingly, the real action was with the mercenary army of campaign professionals -- pollsters, media consultants, and election lawyers. Those who put up the money needed for such campaigns weren't after menial city jobs for followers who would then knock on doors on Election Day. The new game was pinstripe patronage -- government fees to lawyers, accountants, and consultants, exclusive concessions at airports/other government facilities, and privatization contracts for the low-level services once performed by the armies of ward heelers.  

Large parts of Rostenkowski's district were changing, too. Eastern Europeans were being replaced by Puerto Ricans. In addition, many neighborhoods in the district that had been blue-collar white ethnic were being colonized by young professionals who wanted to live in the city but couldn't afford housing prices in Lincoln Park. Increasingly Rostenkowski's celebrated Polish pride seemed a poor fit with the trendy fern bars sprouting up between supermercados and new Se Habla Español placards being placed next to faded ones that read Mówię po polsku in district shop windows.    

The August 1989 confrontation at the Copernicus Center further damaged Rostenkowski's image. Area seniors irate over an income tax surcharge to pay for a Medicare nursing home benefit they had never wanted crawled onto the hood of Rostenkowski's car and then chased him down the street on foot. Rostenkowski's outraged response, "These people don't understand what the government is trying to do for them," was widely reported. Images of the tall, gravel-voiced congressman high-tailing it away from the furious senior citizens captured the imagination. That year's local Gridiron dinner featured video was Dangerous Dan's Driving School, where neophyte drivers knocked down not traffic cones, but seniors in walkers.  

The local press obviously felt that authoritarian old white guys could be ridiculed -- but only up to a point. The real dirt about "the Chairman" remained strictly confined to the realm of the insiders' grapevine, be it juicy tidbits about the cluster of F-bombs dropped in a family restaurant while meeting with with one of Chicago's more colorful city employees/political operatives or persistent stories of corruption said to be both extensive and easily revealed to those who did a little digging.

After the 1990 census, Illinois had to reduce its Congressional districts from 22 down to 20. With only one congressman retiring and with a demand for a new Hispanic district, the practice of congressmen getting to choose their voters was suspended. Rostenkowski's Puerto Rican precincts were moved to the "minority majority" Hispanic district, replaced in part by precincts along the affluent lakefront. For years, those voters had been represented by patron of the arts, Congressman Sidney Yates, plus a lot of Lakefront liberals still harbored ill feelings towards the first mayor Daley and his political allies. When added to the blue-collar ethnic precincts being colonized by young professionals, the result was that a significant part of this new district was ill-matched to Rostenkowski's political boss persona of rumpled suits, fractured syntax, and backroom deal-making. These voters sought out and read Pulitzer Prize-winning stories like Barlett and Steele's. They had friends who heard all the gossip the media didn't report. The Chairman might be effective on Capitol Hill, but these voters often found him uncouth and an embarrassment. 

The first tangible sign of trouble was the March 1992 primary, when Rostenkowski faced former Lakeview area Alderman Dick Simpson. A professor of political science and an author, Simpson is prototypical of what much of the Chicago Lakefront desires in an elected official.  

... Rostenkowski, who is used to standing for election rather than running for it, got less than 58 percent of the primary vote in the 5th District (Chicago's north side). His challenger and a perennial critic of the machine, Dick Simpson, came closer to knocking off Rostenkowski than any opponent has come in Rostenkowski's long congressional career; he was first elected in 1958.

From that point on, things didn't improve for Rostenkowski back in Chicago, even though the press downplayed the corruption stories while continuing to praise his abilities to shepherd tax legislation through the Ways and Means Committee.  In the autumn of 1992, two colleagues of mine ran the Quixotic campaign of Rostenkowski's Republican challenger. They dug. What they found were vehicles leased for official use that seemed to now be in the hands of Rostenkowski's family. These had been designated as "mobile offices" under provisions meant for congressmen representing rural districts so staff could provide constituent services to distant areas. (Rosty's district, one of the most compact in the nation, is laced with bus routes and el tracks.) My friends passed this information on to reporters at both major Chicago papers. My friends waited. Then waited some more. Finally, almost three months after the election one reporter called back that the story would run tomorrow, and by the way, thanks for the tip! By then, the media's indispensable Chairman was safely back in Washington for another term. What didn't pass unnoticed in political circles, however, was that against a Republican who had earned media derision for legally changing his middle name to "non-incumbent," Rosty got only 57% of the general election vote compared to the 79% he won in 1990.  

After November 1992, Rostenkowski was a marked man. Eleven people filed for the 1992 primary, six Democrats and five Republicans. Rostenkowski survived the primary but received only received 50% of the vote. Then the long-rumored indictment came down before November's general election. Rostenkowski lost to Michael Patrick Flanagan, an unemployed lawyer who'd entered the race on a lark and won the Republican primary by virtue of a great name in a town of Irish politicians. In 1996, the seat was easily recaptured by Democrat Rod Blagojevich, a scoundrel in his own right.

After his conviction and term in federal prison, Rostenkowski wasn't just unrepentant, but he was even a bit clueless as to the forces at work in his defeat. "'Congress changed in a sense, and he didn't,' Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said of Rostenkowski's misuse of office funds. 'That was probably his biggest weakness.'" 

Hastert was only partially right. Rostenkowski also never grasped how the Democratic Party itself changed, how important ideology, image, and narrative had become among urban Democrats. Had he not been indicted, his days would still have been numbered. Efforts by Republicans working with the Congressional Black Caucus in the 1980s to create more "minority majority" districts had three results. They pushed white ethnics like Rostenkowski and his ilk into liberal urban districts, where they faced ongoing challenges from their left; they saw them competing with each other for what was left of their white ethnic base (Russo v. Lipinski in IL-03 in the 1992 primary is an example); or they gave them so many suburban voters that they sometimes lost to Republican challengers in the general election. As a result, many of Rostenkowski's urban peers left Congress in 1992 and 1994, even though they had no indictment hanging over them. This battle inside the Democratic Party is still happening today. After some Democrats spent the last two election cycles supporting candidates who appeal to the white, blue-collar voters in those suburban and rural districts that trended GOP after 1994, others on the urban left still seem almost eager to again purge Democrat ranks of those they find uncouth and an embarrassment.      

In hindsight, I seem to have developed an almost wistful fondness for Rostenkowski's generation of Democrat politicians, especially when compared to their replacements in Democrat leadership. Others seem to share this feeling. I never met Rostenkowski, but a late client of mine was a contemporary and a very close friend and political colleague of Rostenkowski. A few years after Rosty went to prison, the Daley machine decided it was time my client went out to pasture. This old-timer neither surrendered nor protested. He told me that if Daley's man wanted to spend several hundred thousand to win an office that earned less than $100,000 per year in salary and expense allowances, so be it. He'd run his usual reelection campaign, spending his usual $25,000 to $30,000, and see where the chips fell. After the primary, my client was more resigned than bitter about his defeat. Without expressing disloyalty to the Democratic Party, he made it clear that he had disdain for the new way of doing things.  

So here's my two cheers for the old-school Chicago Democrats, the men who never failed to surreptitiously pocket the money left unwatched on the table. They were honest crooks, scoundrels rather than self-styled -- and self-centered -- redeemers. Their generation first entered the game to put people like their neighbors and grade-school friends to work in streets and sanitation jobs, not to make media consultants and election lawyers filthy rich.  

As they rose through the ranks, their expanding circle of friends may have needed ever more expensive favors at taxpayer expense, but they never developed the insufferably elitist attitude that what they did for a living transcended the pedestrian craft of politics as usual. Although they could be intensely partisan, they eschewed ideology. They were honest about their love of power and saw their habitual graft as just one of the perks of being on the winning side on Election Day. They may have abused that power, but they didn't rationalize that abuse as somehow being necessary for the voters' ultimate good, that we need to be forced to eat all our lima beans even as they deserved to dine on Wagyu beef. 

At times, they could be control freaks, but they were seldom, if ever, nanny-state scolds. Nor did they see their opponents as evil. They generally set out to solve a problem, and if something ended up in someone's pocket as they did so, that was just the necessary price of progress. They did not seek to create chaos and then manipulate the resulting crisis for political gain because they understood that real people could get hurt or even killed in the process. They were as straightforward as any politician can be.

They saw politics as a sport, sometimes even as blood sport, but never as a quasi-religious mission. I can even imagine them throwing a punch in a moment of anger, but I can never imagine them sending anyone a dead fish. And the game-playing stopped at the water's edge because they were proud Americans. No matter what the differences might be on a given political issue, they had America's best interests at heart: America as it is, not some idealized vision of what America could possible become if only they were allowed to remake her from the bottom up. That's why it was always easy for them to make friends across the political aisle -- which they did, frequently and always in good humor.
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