In Chicago, the 'old machine' making way for the 'new machine'

The FBI raid on powerful Chicago alderman Ed Burke's offices may turn out to be the death knell of the "old" Chicago political machine.

Chicago's reputation for corrupt government is well deserved, going all the way back to the administration of "Big Bill" Thompson, who coddled gangsters like Al Capone.  Capone is gone, but the criminal enterprise he left behind – known euphemistically as "The Outfit" – has flourished no matter who has been in power.  It's not what it once was after the feds carried out several high-profile arrests and prosecutions.  

These days, the powerful Cook County political organization that once had national influence is a shadow of its former self.  This has been a function more of changing demographics in the city than anything else.  The old Irish, Italian, and Polish neighborhoods are mostly gone, replaced by black and Hispanic wards.  This has led to a changing of the guard at the top, as new power players take their place in the city's hierarchy.

John Kass, the excellent Chicago Tribune columnist who probably knows more about the "machine" than any other pundit, notes this transition of power from old to new.

When the feds raided Ald. Ed Burke's City Hall office Thursday, they wrapped the glass doors tight with brown butcher paper, and it looked like a nice, juicy crown roast of pork.

"The FBI doesn't show up just to say, 'Hi,' " said Jose Torrez, one of several Latino candidates challenging Burke's rule as alderman of the Southwest Side's 14th Ward.

Yes, Jose, the feds don't show up just to say hi.  And they don't bring a coffee cake.

And when they leave carrying cardboard boxes, you can bet those boxes aren't full of invitations to a party where Burke could play the piano and sing show tunes.

"It's a surprise this comes before the election," Ald. Joseph Moore, 49th, not exactly a pal of Burke's, told me at City Hall.  "My understanding was that feds take a holiday before an election."

Destiny never takes a vacation, alderman.

And neither does the corrupt political machine in Chicago – it just has different faces leading it.

Incoming U.S. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia – who wants to devour Burke – issued a statement after the federal visit.

"Make no mistake," Garcia said.  "Ald. Burke is the last bastion of Chicago machine politics."

Yes, Chuy, but you're the new machine.

Indeed, Burke is in danger of losing his seat on the city council that he's held for 50 years thanks to Chuy and his "new" machine.  Garcia is also a new breed of Chicago politician, more adept at squeezing the federal government for funds than city businesses.  He's a radical socialist with redistribution in his heart, and the new players in the game are supporting him.

If you're wondering how a sleazy, corrupt alderman like Burke could last 50 years and stay out of jail, Kass has the answer:

Burke isn't some cheap crook.  He's a lawyer.  And his wife is a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.

Yet with his lucrative law practice, and as chairman of the council's Finance Committee, Burke knows about leverage, and how to push things right up to the edge.

Most aldermen who go away don't have that patience.  They think they can dance along The Chicago Way.  Most aren't lawyers, and they're not chairman of a powerful committee.  They don't know how to leverage things.

What they know how to do is take the envelope.  And they go to prison.

Chuy isn't some cheap crook, either.  But he doesn't need to take envelopes in dark alleys.  He just asks his buds in Congress for it.  And to curry favor with the fastest growing voting bloc in the country – Hispanics – when Chuy asks, his friends in Congress deliver.

The "old" machine was at least predictable.  How the "new" machine will work the levers of power remains to be seen.

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