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Business as Usual

The day word got out about Todd Stroger, aldermen fondly remembered a patronage king and defended their own nepotism.

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On June 28 the City Council chamber was buzzing. Before things got going, aldermen, city officials, reporters, and even state and county leaders moved about the chamber floor glad-handing and gossiping about the latest developments in the John Stroger saga. That morning word had circulated that Democratic Party leaders had worked out a plan for replacing the County Board president on the November ballot with his son, Todd Stroger, who's served as Eighth Ward alderman since Mayor Daley appointed him in 2001. The choice was almost as unsurprising as it was unimaginative.

The Strogers' self-appointed spokesman, Seventh Ward alderman William Beavers, kept insisting there was no deal. And indeed, the plan still has to be voted on by the Democratic committeemen, but a lot of them are also aldermen, and in the weighted balloting they'll have the most clout.

Word also had it that Beavers planned to take John Stroger's county commissioner spot on the November ballot--as a way to buttress Todd Stroger, who's known for saying nothing whatsoever during council meetings, if both of them win in November. (Beavers and Todd Stroger would split the job now held by John Stroger; the County Board president can also be a commissioner but doesn't have to be.) The decision to slate Beavers has to be voted on by the Democratic committeemen as well.

And there was a rumor that Beavers would work to get his City Council seat filled by his chief of staff, Darcel Beavers, who happens to be his daughter. That decision would be made by Mayor Daley in consultation with the Seventh Ward's committeeman--who happens to be William Beavers.

The council meeting opened with a series of eulogies for former Democratic patronage boss George Dunne, who died in May at the age of 93. Dunne had served as Democratic committeeman of the 42nd Ward for 43 years and as County Board president for 22. As his biggest supporters recalled, he was beloved for his decades of doling out advice, favors, endorsements, and jobs.

Forty-second Ward alderman Burton Natarus, a Dunne protege, received a couple of understanding nods and more than a few uncomfortable glances when he remembered Dunne as his "Chinaman." He didn't seem to notice. "What George Dunne saw in me, I don't know," he went on. "He gave a lot of people a start in government. And I am probably one of the only persons in the entire world who saw him lose his temper. He lost his temper at me."

"It's not hard to believe," 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell muttered audibly.

Walter Burnett, the 27th Ward alderman, lauded Dunne for giving him a chance when he was a troubled kid from Cabrini-Green. "Over 20 years ago my dad took me in to see Mr. Dunne," he said, "and everything's been great since."

As usual, Beavers was more direct when he had the floor. "In 1984, when I first became a committeeman, George Dunne reached out to me as he did to others," he said. "He made me feel like a real person." And he made Beavers feel like a real Chicago politician. "When I was elected he handed me a list and told me, 'Here's all your jobs.' That's the kind of person he was--what you had coming you got."

"No one ever gave me a list and said these jobs are yours," said 29th Ward alderman Isaac Carothers, sounding hurt. Carothers, whose father was an alderman and committeeman and whose grandfather was a committeeman, recently showed up as a sponsor of 98 patronage jobs on the clout list introduced in the corruption trial of four Daley aides. He did have a few good memories of Dunne: "In the old 28th Ward, when my father was committeeman, I remember when he said he had to go see George Dunne."

After the aldermen concluded their tribute with a moment of silence, some of them walked out of the chamber into the lounge area. Only a couple aldermen, including Carothers, expressed misgivings about the Stroger plans--but only because the west-side deal makers had been cut out by the south-side ones.

Of course politics is often a family business at City Hall. Four years ago Richard Mell helped his now-estranged son-in-law Rod Blagojevich get elected governor. The staff of Second Ward alderman Madeline Haithcock includes her husband and daughter. The father of 39th Ward alderman Margaret Laurino handed her his seat shortly before he was indicted, and her husband still serves as the 39th Ward committeeman. Fortieth Ward alderman Patrick O'Connor was once entangled in a hiring scandal involving several relatives. Sixth Ward alderman Freddrenna Lyle once employed her mother because, she said, her mother knew so many people in the neighborhood.

"I was the one best qualified at the time," said the 34th Ward's Carrie Austin when I asked why she was picked to take her husband's job as alderman after he died in 1994. "I had the most intricate knowledge of what he was doing. I was able to think more like him than anyone else could." She pointed out that she'd been elected in 1995, 1999, and 2003 on her own. She also said none of her family is now on her staff, though her son-in-law once was. "He could best fill a secretarial spot we had because of his typing abilities," she said, then added that his real passion was architecture, so he'd moved on to a job in the city's Department of Buildings.

I also asked Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman about her daughter Ebony, one of her aides. "How do you know she's on my staff?" Tillman demanded. When I said I'd seen her daughter's name on the payroll she said, "Well, she's very good. . . . I spent a lot of money sending her to school."

One of Shirley Coleman's sisters works as a receptionist in the 16th Ward alderman's office. "I come from a family of 12," Coleman told me, "so to only have one working for me says something."

Burnett shrugged off the issue. "Big corporate people have their kids on their staff, newspaper people have their kids on their staff," he said. "You can't blame people for trying to help their families." He said he doesn't employ any of his relatives and noted that his son is just ten. "He's not on my staff yet. But I want him to go into finance. Someone in this family has to make money."

After the meeting Mayor Daley held a press conference down the hall, where he wanted to talk about a plan by the Department of Streets and Sanitation to crack down on graffiti. But reporters were more interested in getting him to comment on the Stroger machinations. Daley didn't outright endorse Todd Stroger taking his father's spot on the ballot, but he did say the younger Stroger was qualified to be board president. Then he was asked to respond to rumors that his brother John Daley, the 11th Ward committeeman and arguably the most powerful commissioner on the County Board, would serve as interim County Board president until the November election. "I haven't heard that," the mayor responded. "I haven't heard that at all. John. No. I haven't heard that."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/AP Photo/Spencer Green, Diane Schmidt.

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