Why Chicago Will Never Be Ready for Reform

Whenever I hear a Chicago politician say he’s running as a reformer -- as Rahm Emanuel did in 2011 -- I have to laugh. Because “Chicago” and “reform” are two words that will never go together.

It’s simply not in this city’s DNA. As Mike Royko wrote in his obituary of Richard J. Daley, “If Daley sometimes abused his power, it didn't offend most Chicagoans. The people who came here in Daley's lifetime were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king, or rural sheriff. The niceties of the democratic process weren't part of the immigrant experience. So if the machine muscle offended some, it seemed like old times to many more.”
Whether they arrived here from Poland, Russia, Ireland or Mississippi, most newcomers to Chicago were introduced to politics when a precinct captain knocked on the door of their shabby flats. The precinct captain wanted something -- a vote for the Democratic Party -- but he also had something to offer: a Thanksgiving turkey, a garbage can or, at best, a job with the city or the county. Chicagoans came to see government as a source of favors and a vehicle for social advancement. Many still see it that way. That’s not exactly consistent with reformers’ notions of good government, or Republicans’ notions of small government. But one man’s reform is another man’s unemployment. Or school closing. Or unpaved street.
Consider the reminiscences of Richard Mell, who recently retired as alderman of the 33rd Ward. During the heyday of patronage, Mell said, he had a thousand jobs under his control.
“The jobs that I really thought were great ones were the bridge tender jobs,” he said. “At one time we had three people on every bridge. I put four kids through college as bridge tenders. I would get them on the second shift, from 3 to 11, where they could do their homework. Or 11 to 7, where they'd sleep, and they were getting electrician's pay, and it was great. I helped. We helped a lot of great people who did great jobs for the city.”
That kind of featherbedding may irritate lakefront liberals, or Chicago Tribune editorial writers, or panelists on Chicago Tonight, or members of the Better Government Association. But it didn’t bother Mell’s constituents, who were making good money on a public payroll. They elected Mell alderman nine times.

Chicago’s most successful politicians are those who look out for their supporters and family members, often to the consternation of good government types, or goo-goos, as they are known to the Machine faithful. The most successful Chicago politicians -- Richard M. Daley, Edward Burke, Michael Madigan, Joe Berrios, Tom Hynes -- have all put taxpayers’ money in their relatives’ pockets. The taxpayers don’t mind. The taxpayers go along with it by voting for the boss’s relatives. They don’t begrudge a guy for using government to get ahead. It’s the Chicago Way. They’d do it, too, if they could.
In 1975, Sun-Times columnist Bob Greene columnist Bob Greene asked former Ald. Paddy Bauler -- originator of the famous quote “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” -- whether the city was ready yet.
“Chicago?” Bauler responded. “Christ! Who the hell would want to live here if it was? This is the big city, boy! This ain’t Honolulu! Reform? It’ll never be ready! Not as long as I’m alive!”
That was 40 years ago. Bauler is long dead. But Chicago still ain’t ready for reform. If that’s what you want, move to Honolulu. The winters are easier there, too. If Barack Obama had stayed in Honolulu, though, he wouldn’t be president. They don’t know the first thing about politics in Honolulu.
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