Chicago cures itself of patronage, judge rules, so constraints go away

Chicago cures itself of patronage, judge rules, so constraints go away
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, left, and attorney Michael Shakman leave court after a federal judge found that Chicago had finally controlled the patronage that long dominated hiring practices and propelled the city's political machine. (I. Chandler West / Sun-Times Media)

Chicago, which helped define the nature and power of political machines, was released from constraints on its hiring practices because it had cleaned up its act and had put into place rules to eliminate illegal patronage, a federal judge decided Monday.

Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier declared from the bench that the city had "taken the actions needed to prove it has achieved substantial compliance" with the decades-old Shakman accord, which bans the city from taking politics into account when hiring, firing and promoting.


"I'm speaking to the people of Chicago that this is a big day for you," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in court, according to the Associated Press. He told the judge that it was one of his priorities to fix Chicago's hiring system because patronage had eroded public confidence.

Monday's move at the relative beginning of the 21st century is a far cry from the tumultuous days of the 19th century when George Washington Plunkitt, a New York politician, could proclaim that he knew the difference between honest and dishonest graft. Dishonest graft was when a politician only worked out of personal greed, while honest graft was when a politician sought to promote the interests of one's party, one's state and, of course, one's pocketbook.

To be sure, swapping votes for favors has a history going back to the colonies. But as government services increased, so too did the number of jobs, the soul of the new political machines. Giving out municipal jobs not only allowed new immigrant groups to get economic power but it also allowed new politicians to come into office since jobs were swapped for votes. That model became the basis of political organizations from New York City to Albany to, of course, Chicago, where two mayors named Daley capitalized in the 20th century.

Chicago attorney Michael Shakman sued, leading to a 1972 agreement that was named after him. Mayor Richard J. Daley, the father, agreed to a court order requiring the city to abide by hiring rules, with a few exemptions for some policymakers. Oversight was tightened after 2005, when four officials in the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, the son, were charged in federal criminal court with rigging city hiring to reward political foot soldiers. Some top lieutenants were later convicted and sent to prison.

The younger Daley eventually took some of the steps to put the city in compliance with the accord, but it fell to successor Emanuel to push the political envelope, developing plans and cooperating with investigators to prevent any back-sliding.

"For decades, city jobs that were supposed to be awarded based on merit were instead based on political clout — it was who you know instead of what you know," Emanuel said in court, according to the Chicago Tribune. "In many cases, the people of Chicago suffered the consequences — through unqualified workers, no-show jobs and the abuse of taxpayer resources."

No one thinks every patronage job has been eliminated in Chicago, but Judge Schenkier noted that "substantial compliance" had been achieved and that vigilance was still needed to ensure that the old days of illegal patronage did not return.

"Substantial compliance does not mean the city has achieved a state of perfection," the judge said. He also credited Emanuel for doing what had to be done and ensure that patronage wouldn't be condoned. "At the highest levels of the city, that message has been sent," Schenkier said.

Shakman agreed in court that the city was in substantial compliance, but warned that vigilance was needed.

"Cultural change is hard," he said. "Elements of patronage undoubtedly remain in city government. We have never expected that this litigation would produce a perfect non-political employment system."

Shakman has continued his fight, setting his sights on the state. Recently he filed a complaint alleging some workers in Gov. Pat Quinn's transportation department were patronage hires.

In response, Quinn has said he has "zero tolerance" for any wrongdoing in his administration and blamed former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich for any problems.

Blagojevich is in federal prison serving a 14-year sentence on corruption charges. He was accused of soliciting bribes to fill political appointments, including the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.

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