It's been months since Johnny Lira didn't get the job he wanted with the state, but folks up on the northwest side are still talking about how Governor Rod Blagojevich turned his back on his old friend.
Lira and the governor go back almost 30 years, to the days when they were both Golden Gloves boxers fighting in west- and northwest-side gyms. Lira--who's spent more than 40 years as a boxer, trainer, promoter, and judge--wanted a job with the state's Department of Regulation, overseeing the licensing of trainers, promoters, and boxers. But for all of his knowledge about the sport, he had a major strike against him. He's a convicted felon.
There are of course many good reasons why Blagojevich--or any politician--wouldn't want a convicted felon in charge of licensing, especially in boxing, a sport that's widely seen as disreputable. But his many supporters in both parties say Lira's been straight for years.
Lira was convicted once. As he tells the story, in 1974 he was a rough-and-tumble 21-year-old from the old Italian neighborhood around Grand and Ashland--too cocky and stupid for his own good. He was caught breaking into a jewelry warehouse on Chicago Avenue near Sedgwick. "I went in through the skylight and let myself down on a rope," he says. "There was a security guard in there, and he happened to see the rope."
While out on bail, Lira got caught trying to rob the safe in an office near Kedzie and Addison. "This is how stupid I was," he says. "I needed money to hire a lawyer for the first case. So, I know--I'll do another break-in."
It was Thanksgiving Day. "I had a tip that the owners were out of town," he says. "They weren't out of town. They were leaving the next day. I got there a day early."
He was brought before Judge Marvin Aspen on both charges. "Judge Aspen gave me an offer I couldn't refuse," he says. "I was already boxing then--I'd been boxing since I was eight. He sentenced me to two years on work release. If I messed up he was sending me to prison for real time."
From 1974 until 1976 Lira trained and fought in competitions across the city during the day and spent his nights in Cook County Jail. "I have no real excuse for what I did," he says. "I wasn't one of those abused kids. My parents gave me the best they could give me. My dad was a chef at an Italian restaurant. I had three meals a day. I had my own clothes. I had my own room. They sent me to parochial schools. There was no reason to do what I was doing except I was chasing the excitement. I was thinking how certain guys went to work every day and saved their money and paid their bills, and to me they were like squares. Looking back, I didn't want to be a square. I wanted to live life on the edge."
By the time Lira finished his sentence he was one of the finest lightweights--140 pounds--in the country. "I almost made the Olympic team in '76," he says. "I lost to the guy who Sugar Ray Leonard beat to make the team."
After the Olympic trials he moved to Las Vegas and fought as a professional. All in all he had 33 pro fights. He won 27, tied one, and lost 5.
"I remember Johnny from those days--met him in 1974, when we were on the same card at a Golden Gloves event," says Joseph Birkett, Du Page County's state's attorney. "He had the quickest short right hand. It was lights out, Suzy, if you got tagged by one of his punches. Of course he also took a lot of shots."
After retiring in 1983, Lira became a promoter and trainer. He coached at Boys & Girls Clubs and gave motivational speeches to teens in prison. "I've seen Johnny talk to kids--he's great," says Birkett. "He's honest about his life. He tells it straight. 'I did this, but I got out. You can do it too.' He never tries to hide his past."
Lira also worked in political campaigns, building a strong alliance with Ed Kelly, Democratic committeeman of the 47th Ward. He made no secret that his ambition was to get a job regulating boxing for the state. "I let everyone know this is what I wanted to do--I had big ideas for what the state could do to promote boxing," he says. "Chicago used to be boxing capital of the nation. No more. No one fights here. Why? Because there are lousy shows. They're building up guys with a bunch of bums. Number one rule is you have to protect the boxer. Number two rule--protect the ticket holders by keeping out sham fights."
Throughout the 80s and 90s the governors were Republican, and Lira's contacts were Democrats. He figured he had a great chance to get the state boxing-regulator job once Blagojevich won the Democratic primary in 2002. "I used to see Rod at tournaments all the time," he says. "I worked in his campaign. I know Rod. I told him what I wanted to do. He liked my ideas."
After Blagojevich took office in January 2003, Lira began maneuvering to get the job. He called Kelly, who called state senator John Cullerton.
"I didn't really know John, but I do know Ed Kelly," says Cullerton. "He called me and said, 'John would be outstanding for the job.' It's a courtesy in something like this. The senator from the home district of the person writes a letter of recommendation. John lives in my district. He had a great reference from Ed. So I wrote a letter."
Lira also had an endorsement from Birkett. "If you want to reinvigorate the sport of boxing, you should put someone in who loves boxing and understands it," says Birkett. "That's Johnny."
Throughout the spring and into the summer Lira was in contact with state officials. He says they told him the problem was that two state regulatory departments were being merged to create a new one, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, and it would take more time than usual to fill all the new positions.
In May of 2003, says Lira, "I had a meeting with the acting director of the department, and he told me, 'John, I'm going to get this right over to the governor. I'm sure you will be sworn in.'"
Several more weeks passed. A new director was hired, Fernando Grillo, a lawyer from Chicago. In July, Lira met with Grillo. "He called me in and we talked," Lira says. "I told him my ideas about building bigger purses so the state gets more taxable revenue. After all that he said, 'I can't give you the position.' I asked why, and he said, 'Because you're a convicted felon.' I said, 'Wait a minute, Fernando. You're telling me it's all right that I can hold a state license to box and a state license to judge and a state license to promote'--all of which I had gotten over the years--'but I can't be the regulator? That's fucking hypocrisy.'"
For several months Lira stewed. He made a few phone calls, hoping someone with clout might intervene. But he heard nothing back, and he finally decided he might as well go public with his story. "I figured this is bigger than me," he says. "This is about ex-cons trying to get a chance. What the hell do you have to do? I don't lie about my past. I tell everyone what I did. I'm not proud of it. But I served my time. You name me a person in the world who never did a bad thing."
I called Grillo for comment, but he did not return my calls. His secretary referred me to a department spokesman in Springfield, who asked that his name not be used. "I'm new around here," he said, "and I'm still learning my way."
According to this spokesman, Lira was applying for the "position of chief of general investigation," which oversees "a lot more than boxing. A position like this requires education and experience, and for this position Mr. Lira is not best qualified. That's really all I know. If you need an exact job description for what this job is you could put in a FOIA."
Lira insists he applied only to be the boxing regulator, and Cullerton says he remembers writing a letter of reference on Lira's behalf for the same thing. "Maybe since they merged the departments the job has changed," Cullerton says. "But the job back then was in boxing."
Some of Lira's old friends in local politics think he was duped. They say his story fits a pattern. They say Blagojevich got his start with the blessing of Chicago's political bosses--including former 10th Ward alderman Ed Vrdolyak and 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, the governor's father-in-law--but in the last few years he's tried to position himself as a reformer. They think he's ashamed of his past, and so he's taken to ignoring his old friends. They point out that earlier this year one of Blagojevich's aides refused to hire Dominic Longo, a longtime Mell aide who'd helped Blagojevich in his first run for office. Longo had pleaded guilty to charges of voter fraud in 1984, but it hadn't hurt his political career till then.
"Johnny's a great guy, but he's naive," says one Mell associate. "Rod probably said, 'Don't worry. You're the best. We'll take care of you.' Then he figures, 'If this gets out that I hired an ex-con to run boxing, the papers will kill me.' So much for Johnny."
Kelly, who remains a close ally of both Lira and Blagojevich, refuses to blame the governor. "I'm disappointed that Johnny didn't get the job--I think he was an outstanding candidate," he says. "But it was probably some aide who said, 'We can't let this get public. The papers will kill us.' I doubt the governor even knew it happened."
Lira says he's thinking of moving to Vegas or Miami to follow up on some job offers. "I don't think it's Rod," he says. "I think it's the system. They tell me, 'You paid your debt.' But that debt never gets paid."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.