Clout is in the news this week. Crain’s Chicago Business uncovered the fact that gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner used his influence with former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to get his daughter a spot at Walter Payton College Prep, even though her test scores didn’t qualify her for one. And today, WBEZ published Duncan’s “clout list” -- a log of “requests by public officials and other connected Chicagoans seeking to get their children into the city’s elite grammar and high schools.”
What Is Clout?
Clout is a misunderstood term. It originated in Chicago, during the heyday of the Democratic Machine. In the 1937 book Machine Politics, a precinct captain told author Harold Gosnell that “clout from behind” was essential to political advancement. The term was so catchy that it caught on nationwide, coming to mean any sort of political influence. But as Mike Royko pointed out in a 1973 Chicago Daily News column, such usage is a bastardization of “Chicagoese…one of the world’s most beautiful languages.” Clout means using influence to get around rules that govern lesser-connected mortals. Royko offered several examples of the word in its proper context:
"Nah, I don't need a building permit--I got clout in City Hall."
"Hey, Charlie, I see you made foreman. Who's clouting for you?"
"Lady, just tell your kid not to spit on the floor during the trial and he'll get probation. I talked to my clout and he talked to the judge."
"My tax bill this year is $1.50. Not bad for a three-flat, huh? I got clout in the assessor's office.
"Ever since my clout died, they've been making me work a full eight hours. I've never worked an eight-hour week before."
"My clout sent a letter to the mayor recommending me for a judgeship. Maybe I'll enroll in law school."
Former 10th Ward Ald. Edward Vrdolyak was said to live in “the house that clout built.” Vrdolyak received 30,000 free bricks from a contractor, free electrical work and discounted plumbing. He also closed off an alley to make room for a tennis court in his backyard. Vrdolyak’s East Side neighbors often pointed out the house to visitors, proud to live near someone with so much clout.
Ironically, Rauner says he wants to become governor to “take on the insiders.” He wants to prevent others from exercising the same clout that he himself has employed.
We’ll see if he has enough clout to do that.