To co-opt and abridge a Warren Zevon song title.
It happened all the time on the radio show. An erstwhile Republican guest would come on and their inevitable declaration almost always went like this:
If Christina Castro/Anna Moeller/Linda Chapa LaVia/Tom Cullerton/Stephanie Kifowit (or insert name of Democratic legislator here) would simply buck the Madigan Machine, Illinois would be far better off. And they could do it if they really wanted to do it, too!
Similarly, while covering the recent Chicago Alderman Ed Burke revelations, the Tribune’s John Kass lamented that only after the attempted extortion charge was Burke finally radioactive. Prior to that, Chicago pols would line up to kiss his pinky ring despite being blitheringly aware of what he was doing.
In yet another classic case of Kass oversimplification, he chided the Cook County rank and file for acting “as if there is no gambling in Casablanca,” and not only ignoring Burke’s shenanigans, but sidling up to him whenever it suited them. He took Board President Toni Preckwinkle to task in particular for having the temerity to accept money from Burke backers.
But it’s not that simple and it never is!
Because what our radio guests and Kass are asking Chicago aldermen and Springfield legislators to do is essentially this:
We understand you had to carry water for the party for years, work your way up through lower level political positions, painstakingly build the kind of team that gets you elected, generate the kind of cash to run an effective campaign, solicit the appropriate political alliances, pound the pavement every two to four years, attend all sorts of party events that keep your from your family, address a litany of constituent complaints, and suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous political fortune, but we want you to throw it all away in a Quixotic gesture by taking on a Machine Boss who will summarily squash you like a bug for doing so!
As my favorite TV judge likes to say, “It doesn’t sound quite as good when I say it, does it?”
Think about the real Illinois/Chicago reform candidates who managed to get elected and actually hang onto the gig:
- Former 44th and 43rd Ward Alderman Bill Singer
- Former Treasurer and Governor Pat Quinn
- Former 49th Ward Alderman and County Clerk David Orr
- Former 25th District State Senator and current Kane County Chairman Chris Lauzen
- Former 46th Ward Alderman Hellen Shiller
- Former State and U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald
- Former 4th Ward Alderman and current Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
I loved listening to Singer rail against Mayor Daley the elder in the 70’s, but the Machine simply ignored and isolated him and I couldn’t list one of his accomplishments. Quinn did manage to blunder his way into the Governor’s mansion, but to say he was in over his head would be the most massive of understatements. He eventually turned to the Dark Side, too.
Taking on the Springfield establishment got Lauzen labeled “Dr. No,” which put him perpetually on the outside looking in. He still has difficulty adjusting to the role of chairman. After attaching herself to the late Mayor Harold Washington’s coattails, Shiller finally got elected, but even though I always found her entertaining, her legacy is thinner than Cody Parkey’s NFL prospects.
I still believe Preckwinkle is a reformer at heart, but like so many idealists faced with the stark reality of getting elected, she’s trying to use and work within the system to change it. The problem with that is, most reformers can’t sublimate their true nature, so she’s not very good at it. And even I have a problem with her hiring Burke’s son at a six-figure salary.
But I don’t have a problem with her currying Burke’s favor because that’s what it takes to get elected in the Second City. And if you’re not willing to play the game to get there, you never will. Like unicorns, there is no such thing as a 100 percent pure politician.
That leaves Fitzgerald and Orr as the exceptions that prove the rule. They harbored those too-rare qualities of being able to build a crack campaign team that kept them in office, to work within the system to change it without making too many enemies, and they never had to sell their souls in the process.
Please note! Neither one of ‘em ever went after Madigan or Burke.
But to ask your average Chicago/Illinois politician to regularly pull that kind of thing off is like asking Donald Trump to start making sense. Those kinds of extraordinary elected officials come once or twice in a lifetime.
I would also say this to Mr. Kass. “What about the voters? They know damn well what Burke’s been up to and they’ve had 50 years to throw his sorry ass out of City Hall. But he’s dispatched each and every opponent without as much as breaking a sweat.”
Why? Because as long as their streets are plowed, their garbage is picked up, crime is reasonably contained, and he takes care of their complaints, Burke’s constituents don’t care what he does in his spare time. Machine bosses never exist in a vacuum.
The good news is, politicians like Burke and Madigan are every bit as rare as successful reform candidates are. Both are well into their 70s and they are the last of their kind. No current or future Chicago alderman will ever match Burke’s rise to power, and whatever pretender seeks Madigan’s throne will be but a mere shadow of Iron Mike.
You see, through the often-plodding efforts of unspectacular regular politicians, who generally have our best interest in mind, the political playing field that brought us Madigan and Burke no longer exists. The late, great 43rd Ward Alderman Paddy Bauler notwithstanding, reform has come to The City That Works whether anyone was ready for it or not.
And that’s the only way it ever works. It’s hard to see it day-to-day, but the Illinois/Chicago political change I’ve witnessed to in my 60 years is nothing short of miraculous. Think about it! Chicago Mayors used to die in office, but the last two Machine anointed candidates stepped down when they realized they couldn’t win.
For Kass, who’s a virtual encyclopedia of Chicago political history, to insist that your average Cook County politician grab their lance and start charging at windmills is the height of naivete. It’s the equivalent of asking them to commit political suicide for no good reason.
The truth is, just like the metaphorical hotdog vendor said to the Zen master when he asked for his change, “Change can only come from within!”