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Gangs and Politicians in Chicago: An Unholy Alliance

LAWBREAKERS, LAWMAKERS: In some parts of Chicago, violent street gangs and pols quietly trade money and favors for mutual gain. The thugs flourish, the elected officials thrive—and you lose. A special report.

Photos: (left) Airedale Brothers/Getty Images; (right) alfiegiles/istockphoto

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A few months before last February’s citywide elections, Hal Baskin’s phone started ringing. And ringing. Most of the callers were candidates for Chicago City Council, seeking the kind of help Baskin was uniquely qualified to provide.

Baskin isn’t a slick campaign strategist. He’s a former gang leader and, for several decades, a community activist who now operates a neighborhood center that aims to keep kids off the streets. Baskin has deep contacts inside the South Side’s complex network of politicians, community organizations, and street gangs. as he recalls, the inquiring candidates wanted to know: “Who do I need to be talking to so I can get the gangs on board?”

Baskin—who was himself a candidate in the 16th Ward aldermanic race, which he would lose—was happy to oblige. In all, he says, he helped broker meetings between roughly 30 politicians (ten sitting aldermen and 20 candidates for City Council) and at least six gang representatives. That claim is backed up by two other community activists, Harold Davis Jr. and Kublai K. M. Toure, who worked with Baskin to arrange the meetings, and a third participant, also a community activist, who requested anonymity. The gang representatives were former chiefs who had walked away from day-to-day thug life, but they were still respected on the streets and wielded enough influence to mobilize active gang members.

The first meeting, according to Baskin, occurred in early November 2010, right before the statewide general election; more gatherings followed in the run-up to the February 2011 municipal elections. The venues included office buildings, restaurants, and law offices. (By all accounts, similar meetings took place across the city before last year’s elections and in elections past, including after hours at the Garfield Center, a taxpayer-financed facility on the West Side that is used by the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.)

At some of the meetings, the politicians arrived with campaign materials and occasionally with aides. The sessions were organized much like corporate-style job fairs. The gang representatives conducted hourlong interviews, one after the other, talking to as many as five candidates in a single evening. Like supplicants, the politicians came into the room alone and sat before the gang representatives, who sat behind a long table. “One candidate said, ‘I feel like I’m in the hot seat,’” recalls Baskin. “And they were.”

The former chieftains, several of them ex-convicts, represented some of the most notorious gangs on the South and West Sides, including the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Black Disciples, Cobras, Black P Stones, and Black Gangsters. Before the election, the gangs agreed to set aside decades-old rivalries and bloody vendettas to operate as a unified political force, which they called Black United Voters of Chicago. “They realized that if they came together, they could get the politicians to come to them,” explains Baskin.

The gang representatives were interested in electing aldermen sympathetic to their interests and those of their impoverished wards. As for the politicians, says Baskin, their interests essentially boiled down to getting elected or reelected. “All of [the political hopefuls] were aware of who they were meeting with,” he says. “They didn’t care. All they wanted to do was get the support.”

Baskin declined to name names, but Chicago has learned, through other sources at the meetings, the identities of some of the participants. They include: Aldermen Howard Brookins Jr. (21st Ward), Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), Willie Cochran (20th), and Freddrenna Lyle (6th). Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) attended a meeting; upon realizing that the participants had close gang ties, she objected but stayed. Also attending were candidates who would go on to win their races, including Michael Chandler (24th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th). Darcel Beavers, the former 7th Ward alderman who would wind up losing her race, and Patricia Horton, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District who lost her bid for city clerk, also met with the group.

Chandler, Brookins, and Burnett told Chicago they did not attend such a meeting. Sawyer and Horton did not return several calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Dowell confirmed that she attended the meeting after she objected. Beavers, Cochran, and Lyle, who was recently appointed as a Cook County judge, said they attended but were not told beforehand that former gang chiefs would be there, nor that the purpose involved gang-backed political support. “It, basically, was no different than sitting in front of any other panel that asks you questions relative to constituent issues,” said Cochran.

During the meetings, the politicians were allotted a few minutes to make their pitches. The former gang chiefs then peppered them with questions: What would they do about jobs? School safety? Police harassment? Help for ex-cons? But in the end, as with most things political in Chicago, it all came down to one question, says Davis, the community activist who helped Baskin with some of the meetings. He recalls that the gang representatives asked, “What can you give me?” The politicians, most eager to please, replied, “What do you want?”

Street gangs have been a part of Chicago politics at least since the days of the notorious First Ward bosses “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who a century ago ran their vice-ridden Levee district using gangs of toughs armed with bats and pistols to bully voters and stuff ballot boxes. “Gangs and politics have always gone together in this city,” says John Hagedorn, a gang expert and professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s a shadowy alliance, he adds, that is deeply ingrained in Chicago’s political culture: “You take care of them; they’ll take care of us.”

To what extent do street gangs influence—and corrupt—Chicago politics today? And what are the consequences for ordinary citizens? To find out, Chicago conducted more than 100 interviews with current and former elected officials and candidates, gang leaders, senior police officials, rank-and-file cops, investigators, and prosecutors. We also talked to community activists, campaign operatives, and criminologists. We limited our scope to the city (though alliances certainly exist in some gang-infested suburbs) and focused exclusively on Democrats, since they are the dominant governing party in Chicago and in the statehouse. Moreover, we looked at the political influence of street gangs only, not of traditional organized crime—a worthy subject for another day.

Our findings:

• While they typically deny it, many public officials—mostly, but not limited to, aldermen, state legislators, and elected judges—routinely seek political support from influential street gangs. Meetings like the ones Baskin organized, for instance, are hardly an anomaly. Gangs can provide a decisive advantage at election time by performing the kinds of chores patronage armies once did.

• In some cases, the partnerships extend beyond the elections in troubling—and possibly criminal—ways, greased by the steady and largely secret flow of money from gang leaders to certain politicians and vice versa. The gangs funnel their largess through opaque businesses, or front companies, and through under-the-table payments. In turn, grateful politicians use their payrolls or campaign funds to hire gang members, pull strings for them to get jobs or contracts, or offer other favors (see “Gangs and Politicians: Prisoner Shuffle”).

• Most alarming, both law enforcement and gang sources say, is that some politicians ignore the gangs’ criminal activities. Some go so far as to protect gangs from the police, tipping them off to impending raids or to surveillance activities—in effect, creating safe havens in their political districts. And often they chafe at backing tough measures to stem gang activities, advocating instead for superficial solutions that may garner good press but have little impact.

The paradox is that Chicago’s struggle to combat street gangs is being undermined by its own elected officials. And the alliances between lawmakers and lawbreakers raise a troubling question: Who actually rules the neighborhoods—our public servants or the gangs?

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