- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009




While I never met Illinois Gov. Rod Blagovevich, I have witnessed the world in which he lives. I grew up in the rough-and-tumble culture of Chicago politics. They produce an anesthetizing political brew in the Windy City - drinking too much of it causes ethical numbness. So the ongoing melodrama surrounding Mr. Blagojevich brought back a number of memories, but not a lot of surprises.

Many unfamiliar with Illinois politics expressed shock or astonishment by sordid revelations concerning the process of filling the state’s vacant U.S. Senate. I take a different view. Mr. Blagojevich’s actions, while extreme and unseemly, are more understandable when viewed as part of the broader culture of machine politics in the United States - a dying ethic that mixes questionable actions with more redeeming traits like efficiency and responsiveness.

My earliest memories of machine politics in Chicago involved my grandfather. A German immigrant, he owned a small apartment building on the city’s North Side, not far from Wrigley Field. Too much garbage and too few trash cans were constant challenges. My grandfather regularly noticed a friendly Irishman walking around the neighborhood who seemed to have a keen grasp on how to procure city services. Turns out he was a Chicago “municipal employee” but spent most of his time practicing politics as the local Democratic precinct captain. “I can get you all the garbage cans you need,” he told my grandfather. “The only thing you have to do is promise me you and your wife vote Democrat and hand out some leaflets to your renters.” Grandpa said “no problem” and he never lacked trash cans again (although I think he stealthily pulled the GOP lever those rare instances when a Republican’s name was on the ballot).

Then there was the time in college I agreed to help a “reform” candidate running in Chicago’s northwest side Humboldt Park neighborhood. The incumbent was an Irish politician with close ties to former Mayor Richard J. Daley (the father of the city’s current mayor). We were dispatched to polling places before the voting officially started to make sure all the election machines were working properly. At one site, when we checked the back of the machine, the incumbent was ahead 250-0 even before the polls opened! Seems that the city workers in charge of that precinct decided to give the mayor’s favorite candidate a little head start. I also remember seeing a Hispanic woman in tears that day when she heard the incumbent might lose. Wouldn’t she prefer someone of her own ethnic background as the local alderman? I asked. “No way,” she said. The incumbent “gets things done and takes care of us.”

These two anecdotes provide insights into why the culture of machine politics grew and endured for so many years, particularly in large American cities. As Robert W. Kweit and Mary Grisez Kweit write in their book, “People and Politics in Urban America,” “political machines in urban America developed a large following by distributing tangible materials such as jobs to potential supporters.” Chicago, like many big cities in America, lived with the contradictions of machine politics for the past half-century. Quid pro politics created the constant possibility for corruption and impropriety. But the system also worked, responding to citizen demands for jobs and services.

University of Illinois-Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson argues the system of machine politics confuses those involved in it. He recently told columnist Clarence Page: “Whenever you have people trading jobs and money for votes, you build up a pattern” until “the average precinct captain can’t tell the difference between the questionable ethics that George Washington Plunkett (of New York’s old Tammany Hall machine) called ‘honest graft’ and the illegal ‘dishonest’ kind.”

These challenges exist for those in the political arena at all levels, whether it’s trading garbage cans for votes or city-council people receiving campaign contributions from developers interested in government real estate contracts.

As former Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon told me when I first met him in the late 1970s, his life in politics often made him feel like “a piano player in a whorehouse.” Political leaders in America walk this ethical tightrope on a daily basis. And for many, machine-politics culture is the only structure they know. Some elected officials learn how to handle the strong brew of challenges and tradeoffs involved in the roadhouse of politics. Others - like Mr. Blagojevich - get inebriated and stumble hard.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of Dutko Worldwide.

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