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Why is Chicago so corrupt?
May 14, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Can you explain Chicago's corruption? I understand that that's "just the way it is here," but stuff like Daley's destruction of Meigs Field is something that would be rejected in fiction as unrealistic: "They'd throw the guy in prison, or at least kick him out of office!" What's up with the blatant, out-in-the-open corruption and illegality in Chicago politics?  

— Freejooky, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

This is a vast subject, to which your columnist cannot hope to do justice in a single column, even one appearing primarily on the Internet, where the only space limitation is the number of magnetic dipoles in the universe. (OK, this may be something of an exaggeration. If I overran the capacity of the server farm in Tucson, my portion of which runs to half a trillion bytes, I would probably catch some flak.) So we need to refine the question. For starters, you should understand that corruption isn't defined as any political maneuvering you, Freejooky, personally consider offensive, the midnight reclamation of Meigs Field presumably being a case in point. (For readers new in town: long story; some other time.) Even if we were to limit ourselves to cases where (a) official favor has been (b) illicitly sought, offered, or exchanged for (c) items of value within (d) the Chicago corporate limits … whew. One could still write a book. I humbly suggest, therefore, that the following be considered a mere high-level introduction to a summary of a gloss, and even then I'll have to struggle to keep it short.

We begin with a couple leading theories.

Corruption is fun. A succinct statement of this view may be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Chicago" article, 15th print edition, volume 16, with CHICAGO – DEATH on the spine:

Municipal corruption, another commodity on which Chicago was long thought to have cornered the market, is likewise not in fact a local monopoly, though Chicagoans have a higher tolerance for human frailty among politicians — politics in Chicago being to an extent an expensive form of entertainment — than do the citizens of other municipalities.

As a general proposition, one concedes, there's some truth in this. City rivalries commonly take the form: my town is seedier/wilder/has higher outlaw density than yours, and in competitions of this nature Chicagoans are seldom at a disadvantage. A couple years ago Little Ed calculated that the 26 aldermen convicted of official malfeasance between 1972 and 1999 constituted 14 percent of the total membership of the City Council during that time, a mortifying but nonetheless impressive figure. I bet they'd have a hard time beating that even in Louisiana. And governors! I tell you, if it weren't for the fact that we occasionally coughed up an Obama, the rest of the country would be justified in having the whole state nuked. Nonetheless there's an important distinction to be drawn. More on this below.

It's the price we pay for a one-party state. This is the gist of the explanation offered by Slate's Explainer, which observes that the city hasn't had a Republican mayor since the Hoover administration and thus has lacked opportunities to throw the rascals out. Given that Chicago's last Republican mayor was William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, who held office during the Capone era and was said by the Tribune to have given the city "an international reputation for moronic buffoonery," this isn't an entirely persuasive argument, unless you see benefit in periodic exchanges of buffoons. Corruption in any case is hardly confined to Chicago, but rather is generously distributed throughout Illinois and involves officials of both parties — witness George Ryan, Republican from Kankakee. John Kass of the Tribune explains this dispiriting situation as the work of a bipartisan aggregation of corruption he calls the Combine, the implication of which (insofar as I understand it; I concede the concept may harbor unplumbed Heideggerian depths) is that everyone is on the take except for you, me, and John. A defect of the Kass analysis, it seems to me, is that it implies some degree of organization, or at any rate complicity, among the relevant powers that be. Looking at the outcome of the alleged conspiracy — an impeached ex-governor facing a criminal trial, a state teetering on the financial brink, and county government in disarray — one can only say: God help us if things get confused.

The problem isn't so much corruption in Chicago as no one paying attention in Illinois. This is my personal theory. I concede it's idiosyncratic. But here goes: On a day-to-day basis, in my observation, Chicago is less corrupt than it used to be. Years now can go by without my being solicited for a bribe, or even having it intimated that a timely consideration of some kind would simplify my existence. Perhaps my aura of incorruptibility deters the lowlifes, but it seems to me we have objective evidence that the tide of graft has receded. In the same burst of industry that enabled him to compute the aldermanic conviction rate, Little Ed scoured the newspaper databases looking for reports of official crime. In the 1970s and 80s these were abundant, with scores of inspectors, judges, aldermen, police officers, park district workers and so on indicted in the course of Operation This-or-That. In the 90s the arraignment rate began to diminish, and the cases became more isolated, in contrast to the previous practice of (say) arresting the sewer inspectors en masse. In the past decade or so … well, here's a telling statistic, in my opinion. Prior to 1999 aldermen were being sent up at the rate of roughly one per year; since then the feds have nailed just one, Arenda Troutman. OK, ex-aldermen Laski and Vrdolyak were convicted too, although for acts committed after leaving office, and yes, you still have aldermanic elections with multiple felons on the ballot. All I'm saying is the previously breakneck pace of criminal activity has slowed to a more dignified rate.

So explain Blagojevich, you say. I'm getting to that. The ex-governor isn't a Chicago politician; he's an Illinois politician. This may strike you as a fine distinction. Rod is a Democrat; he lives (and to the extent that he worked, worked) in Chicago; his father-in-law is a Chicago alderman. More broadly, metropolitan Chicago, populationwise, constitutes two-thirds of the state of which he was boss. Nonetheless, he was a state official, and as any Chicagoan can tell you, Illinois is a thing apart. We know it's out there; we know they grow a lot of corn. As children we're packed into school buses and made to tour the state capitol in Springfield, where we rub the nose on Lincoln's bust. But on the whole we don't pay the non-Chicago parts of Illinois much mind — or state government either. Why should we? Chicago mayors commonly have bold plans; Illinois governors, with occasional exceptions (James Thompson comes to mind), don't. Where statewide office is concerned, we enter the voting booth thinking that there's nothing very grave at stake and the governor is a glorified county clerk.

This attitude has bred considerable mischief. Of the last nine individuals who have served as governor of Illinois, not counting the incumbent, five have been charged with felonies and three have been convicted (thus far). Dan Walker, it should be said, went to jail for crimes committed after leaving office, and William Stratton, accused of tax evasion, was acquitted. Still, to have an incarceration rate more than double that of Chicago aldermen … achievements don't get much more dubious than that. 

The novelty with Blagojevich is the circus aspect. Previously corruption in Illinois was a workmanlike affair — shoeboxes full of money, yes, but collected ten bucks at a time. Blago added showmanship. "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden" — eh, maybe in the past such things were said, just not recorded (although I don't remember it ever being intimated that an Illinois governor had tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat). But to talk like that when you know you're wired! (Yes, I'm a lifelong Chicagoan. Why do you ask?) And then to go on talk shows proclaiming your innocence, or try to become a reality TV contestant when you're supposed to be preparing your defense — I am, at a rarefied level of ironic detachment, mute with admiration. What will he think of next?

Some see in such antics signs that Illinois is entering a Louisiana-like era of brazenness. In my opinion that's reading too much into the matter. We don't need a political scientist to explain Blagojevich, just a shrink. Still, as in so many relationships gone disastrously wrong, the question needs to be asked: How did we wind up with this guy? Even at the outset it was evident his only qualifications were an ingratiating manner, an influential relative, and an imposing head of hair. Some blame the machinations of the Combine in the early going; I suppose that can't be ruled out. The fact remains that Blagojevich was up for re-election in 2006, by which time his shortcomings, if not so glaring as they later became, were nonetheless pretty well evident, and we voted him in again. What were we thinking? Presumably what people always think when picking an Illinois governor: It doesn't really matter, and how bad could he be? Now we know, and perhaps will draw the obvious lesson — anything can happen if you set the bar sufficiently low.

— Cecil Adams

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