Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chicago Tuesdays: Patronagizing

Before I had to leave for a family emergency, I got to be a part of a small gathering of witnesses for a really great, and really intense actually, forum discussion on Chicago corruption called The Chicago Way. Those on the forum included an alderman (Proco "Joe" Moreno, of the First Ward, my old and - depending on the redistricting - possibly future area), an activist (Don Washington, of the fabulous Mayoral Tutorial), a writer/professor (Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader), and a guy who does finances for his uncle's firm. The moderator is the head of the Chicago edition of the Huffington Post.

So, three local political junkies, and one guy sharing chairs with them who doesn't know about politics to keep them grounded. Actually, a pretty good idea.

Although I took some notes on my phone, my thumbs gave up after a few minutes and I just listened in to the drama. Specifically, the drama concerning patronage in Chicago politics. For those not aware, the Machine in the Chicago Machine (especially as perfected by the first Mayor Daley) worked like this:

I, Hizzoner Mayor Richard J. Daley, as the head of the Cook County Democrats, am slating a bunch of candidates. I need them to win, and win well so that I can maintain my power over the city. And I expect them to be loyal to me. And by that, I expect votes. Lots and lots of votes to turn out to vote for me and my slate. Because somebody else may be more charismatic. Someone else may have more money. Someone else may be able to promise and even deliver the world to you. But I get the votes. And I do that by hiring workers who can churn out votes. Those city workers have well-paying (and often low-performing) jobs because they knew somebody, and they owe their jobs to me and my machine. So they will get out the vote for me and my machine.

Marina City, Chicago : i’ve always loved these towersphoto © 2010 John Manoogian III | more info (via: Wylio)
That's patronage in a nut-shell. "I got your back. You get my back." While I was at the event, most of the fighting came as a result of questioning in what realm patronage is/was/could be a good thing, and when it gets bad. Moreno felt that the idea is a good idea, just sometimes abused. But because of that abuse, it couldn't be used any more in the public sector (there was a ruling that came out of it that forbade anybody to get a job because they "know somebody." All city employment jobs [at least in the blue collar sector] need to be advertised and then selected from all available applicants). This is bad, he argued - and correctly, I think - because it's a good character- and relationship-driven way of getting in applicants. Knowing Kelly and knowing that that she does a good job are good determiner for how well that person can do on the job - probably better than a resume or an interview. Further, if Stan recommends Kelly, that puts the pressure on Stan that Kelly would work out well as an employee. If it doesn't work out, Stan won't be trusted as much, so he needs to be careful of his advising.

That system of patronage is actually good. I can't fault Moreno for defending that, so much.

But, Joe also should be aware of how Chicago pols practice patronage. And it's not just a case of "a few bad apples" either. The whole system is corrupt. Patronage had nothing to do with honor, but everything to do with getting out the votes and political power. As such, it stole from the public resources. Good people were not being advanced to their qualifications for a specific job so much as people who could turn about a favor were being promoted to waste away at "jobs" (some meaningful, others had no work or task besides punching a time clock). Patronage workers would spend their clocked and un-clocked hours campaigning, putting up signs, taking down opponents' signs, going to rallies, etc, etc, etc.

So, no, the whole system is corrupt, the whole culture of it was corrupt. It needed to be broken down until something different could replace it.

Unfortunately, that something different just looks like new money...

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