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Uncivil Servants

Political Atrocities of 1996

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The real political atrocity this year was the choice of Clinton or Dole. Joan Rivers got it right when she noted that picking between them was like choosing your favorite Menendez brother. But Chicago's puttering pols stalwartly held their own, patting themselves on their collective back because the 1996 Democratic Convention didn't result in a repeat of the 1968 police riots. And guess what--the Haymarket riot, 1919 race riot, Chicago Fire, and Fort Dearborn massacre also did not recur. Great planning, guys.

Long before the convention a prime year of wall-to-wall atrocities was under way, stimulating hot competition for this year's Janie Award for Putrid Politics and Rancid Reform (named for the mayor blown into office by a snowstorm 17 years ago).

The contenders:

Little Jim's Silver Shovelings

When Big Jim Thompson was U.S. attorney here, he caught crooked politicians in flagrante. Lighter weight Little Jim Burns can't seem to catch any real crooks, so he hires sleazeballs to go undercover and create crooks by offering small-time bribes to small-time politicians. These small-time politicians (some of whom will receive their own nominations below) never get cut in on the city's big-buck deals. So many of them took the bait, giving Little Jim lots of headlines. Little Jim tossed a tarnished silver shovel of dirt on more than a third of the City Council by subpoenaing 18 aldermen's ethics and financial records. He managed to spread the dirt far enough to hit some decent people like Joe Moore, alderman of the 49th Ward. But hey--Little Jim got himself even more headlines.

To Forgive, Divine

The first small-time crook Burns snared was Alderman Ambrosio Medrano, who confessed to taking bribes for political favors such as helping to falsely certify a firm as a minority business. Medrano begged forgiveness from his constituents, and they displayed their collective divinity by electing him Democratic ward committeeman about two months later.

The Streeter Meter

Burns also caught Alderman Alan Streeter with his hand in the cookie jar. Breaking the aldermanic code of honor among thieves, Streeter agreed to cooperate with prosecutors by wearing a wire. His recorded statements and court pleadings gave us what the Trib's John Kass called "a survey course in the landscape of political corruption." For example, Streeter taught us that the code word for bribes is "scholarships," though "campaign contributions" works equally well. Also, "lunch" is an offensive word, but the politician will wind up in a restaurant with the bribester anyway, scribbling a dollar amount on a paper napkin and shoving it across the table. Then they go outside into the fresh air for the actual money exchange. When first offered the money, protocol requires the politician to demur, "It's not really necessary." This means he will accept. As Streeter put it on tape, "You got to go through a process, man."

Ticket Masters

Not all aldermen take bribes. Some just accumulate dozens of unpaid parking tickets. Like scofflaw aldermen Burton Natarus, Jesse Granato, Virgil Jones, and Percy Giles--who along with thousands of policemen and payrollers owed more than $5 million in parking fines and water bills. The mayor was shocked, shocked to learn that so many trusted elected officials and civil servants were taking the city for a ride. He was even more shocked that city clerk Jim Laski blew the whistle.

As The World Turns

Rich Daley thought he was doing a good deed by converting Meigs Field into a park. After all, the idea was long supported by reformers and environmentalists. But it set off perhaps the greatest firestorm of his reign, drawing lightning bolts from Congressman Bobby Rush, lawsuits from Governor Edgar, and now an incredible move by the Illinois legislature to expropriate Meigs from the city. Independent alderman Joe Moore and John Steele are opposing Richie's plan--even though independent aldermen led by Leon Despres pressed for the measure for years only to be rebuffed by Mayor Daley the First, who wanted to put an even bigger airport in the lake. Welcome to Wonderland.

Salivatin' Salvi

Al Salvi, surprise winner of the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, just wasn't ready for prime time. Not only was he against abortion in any circumstance, he wanted to let people carry concealed weapons and also to repeal the assault weapons ban. Finally, he accused Ronald Reagan's former press secretary, Jim Brady, permanently disabled from shots fired at Ronald Reagan, of once being a machine gun dealer. With impeccable political timing, State's Attorney Jack O'Malley endorsed Salvi at the very press conference at which Salvi recanted. Thus sealing both their fates.

Creative Cartography

Remember the magical Chicago ward map that made four or five potential black aldermanic seats and a pair of Latino seats disappear? It continued trudging through federal court and has now cost the city some $8 million. Which isn't a lot when you consider how many people's rights it's stomped on, and that our new state's attorney, Richard Devine, got a million bucks for his law firm out of the deal by defending the map in court.

The U.S. Justice Department almost entered the case on behalf of the minorities, but its number three man, John Schmidt, a multimillionaire Daley operative who's now talking of running for governor, reportedly put the kibosh on that. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, who was a plaintiff in a similar case in the 80s that finally gave Harold Washington control over the City Council, was asked her position on the map. "I haven't read the case," she responded with that dazzling smile. But she did say she would "bake cookies" to help raise money for Daley. Richie himself, asked why the city was spending so many millions on the case, responded, "That's America!"

Poor Richard's Almanack

Our mayor continued making his father sound like Einstein this year. A sampling:

Chicago ranked 196th among the best places to live in America--with Madison, Wisconsin, first. "That's a university town," Richie said of Madison. "We have universities here, but it's not a university town. University towns are very pleasant. Everybody knows that."

He supported a city ordinance to impound cars driven by teens out after curfew with this social commentary on the role of the automobile in the American family: "Their car is their home. They don't like their kids. They don't like their husbands and wives--they love their cars."

And His Honor on political bipartisanship: "Forget about elephants and donkeys. Let's all get on both an elephant and a donkey and ride the same way."

As the Bulls were about to wrap up this year's NBA championship, the city braced for another riot. But it drizzled a bit that evening, dampening rowdy spirits. Why did it rain? "God," said Daley. "I talked to God."

A recent survey shows that Chicago has the poorest mail delivery of 39 major metropolitan areas. Perhaps Poor Richard might bring this up in his next conversation with the Almighty.

The Winner:

Carol Mo$eley-Braun

The year's Janie goes to none other than our soon-to-be-senior senator. Let me count the ways:

1. Her continued support for the big drug companies that may rip off ordinary citizens but contribute so handsomely to her.

2. Her support for big business against consumer groups--she was one of only 12 Democrats voting to cap damages in lawsuits against defective products.

3. Her half-million-plus-dollar campaign debt and the revolving door in her office, which has seen the exit of three chiefs of staff and four press secretaries.

4. The day she humiliated Hillary Clinton by publicly addressing her as "Mrs. President," which is what Rush Limbaugh and his ilk call her.

5. But especially her secret trip to Nigeria to visit the murderous dictator General Sani Abacha, accompanied by her sometime fiance, housemate, and consort Kgosie Matthews, who has been a registered foreign agent. Alone among black leadership, Moseley-Braun opposes sanctions on Nigeria.

Moseley-Braun first called the trip a diplomatic one. But the visit violated official policy and the State Department went ballistic. So she claimed the trip was personal, not diplomatic. She first said she paid for the trip with frequent-flier miles. But then she was reminded that it breaks Senate rules to use frequent-flier miles compiled on business trips for pleasure. So she changed her story and showed a credit card receipt. Still insisting it was not a political trip, she uncorked a letter from Abacha to Bill Clinton wishing him good luck in his bid for reelection.

We may soon need to rename the Janie Award.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by M.K. Brooks.

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