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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comments
3 years ago
Posted by KadeJaLatefah

Gangs should not be a part of the politcal process - no criminal should. The last thing we need is politicians owned by criminals.

3 years ago
Posted by East Pilsen Joe

Why didn't anyone bring up Convicted felon (operation Silver Shovel)? He had Satin Disciples, Latin Counts, and Bishops threaten residents! He did this to get the vote for Bambi jr!

Another Candidate was Temoc Morfin who used the Bishops on the east end of Pilsen because one of his key volunteers is a former Bishop.

3 years ago
Posted by dangermaus

This article makes me really wish we had laws preventing convicted felons from voting.

3 years ago
Posted by So Cal Cop

Nothing new here. Even the article speaks about the criminal history and intertwined alliances between criminals and Chicago politicians which seem to be synonymous with each other.

Sadly, Chicago is the city of my birth. Equally as sad is that it doesn't seem as if Chicago will ever clean up their act, or for that matter, even has the desire to clean up the trash that permeates the windy city.

It's too bad that the rest of Illinois can't just divorce themselves from the cesspool called Chicago. Illinois wood be better off for it.

3 years ago
Posted by A wink and a nod

You didn't have to publish an elaborate report. We knew about this for years.

3 years ago
Posted by Apres Ski

This story is older than both my grandmothers!!! There's too much money involved for Chicago to ever clean up its act.

I agree with both A Wink & A Nod & So Cal COP!
Both are dead on target!

3 years ago
Posted by RUFFUS

Where are the FEDS in all this ???

3 years ago
Posted by Hotroddca

I am to assume that all who have commented are do gooders without ANY indiscretions as a youth or adult. This political system is no different than any system in the U.S. The relationships between politicians and street organizations be it in pasing or by association has NO relevance. YOU cannot change our street culture, the police cannot and the government cannot! so yes you MUST use what you have and be able to adapt and overcome the enviornment to be successful.

3 years ago
Posted by Gray Ryder

It will never be corrected as long as Chicago has controll of it's own progress. The US Government,DOJ, current ran by the same Chicago cesspool overflow politicians will look the other way and leave Chicgo to their own control.
However, there is a far more better way to deal with such corruption. Thereby, being in the opposite of the cause and just as illegal as the situation that has a history in Chicago.

" A well regulated Miliita, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" Second Ammedment.
Think about it.

Gray Ryder

3 years ago
Posted by Bullfighter

This is what "sanctuary" is all about. Cicero passed the "Safe Space" Act that supposedly protects Latinos for being harrassed about being US citizens and in the US illegally, but in fact it makes second class citizens out of all other races in the town of Cicero. It also protects individual Latino gang members from being picked up from all but the most serious felonies because they could always claim they are being harrassed for being Latinos.

The town is now being run by Latino "community groups" that are receiving American taxpayer funds from Cicero and Cicero is acting like the US State Department when it comes to getting citizenships for Latin American criminals that now live in Cicero.

3 years ago
Posted by GLUE

this article is a joke, conjecture, and no real stats or proof of wrong doing except for a community meeting in which gang leaders were at. Not saying that gang don't have an influence....but there was no actual "reporting" here to support that claim. And why would you stick to democrats because they are the ruling party? Looking at the gang map, there are gangs all over this city. Step it up tribune.

3 years ago
Posted by akbar

I am a formerly convicted person. I once was afiliated with one of the largest street gangs in Chicago. Because of the services offered to me upon my last conviction, i have managed to stay out of stgreet gang life, drug usage and a life of crime for the past 28 years. I have obtained an associate degree, a bachelors degree, a masters degree and currently seeking my PHD. How long will i and thousands of others that have turned our lives around conteue to be looked upon as a threat when we try to clean up some of the corruption we were once part of.

Benny Lee
National ALliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incacerated

3 years ago
Posted by Mzb923712

First of all....I hate the way media and reporters beef stories up to make things look and sound worst that what they actually are..Gangs have not had any relevance since the feds did the big sweep and rounded up all them gang members in the 90's! The youth today are not being told what to do by any gang leaders, nor are they listening to anyone! so all this is just spit in the rain! how long will we judge ex-convicts?? they supposely paid their debts to society when they became "Ex-Convicts" but yet they are still viewed and displayed like some kind of plague that destroys or is bad...come on now...The real criminals has yet to pay their debts, because of their political positions or
the who you know syndrome!! this article is just another drop of spit in the rain!! I know several peoplel that have served time, or were involved in gang activities and has turnt their life around with educational degree's but because people want to be so judgemental, and because of articles like this, it makes it difficult for them to function or get the jobs they desire...I worked with a gentleman that had served time, he was my supervisor, he kept us in good spirits and inspired to do a good job, he was great for the company, but because someone found out he did time and allowed jealously to come in, they reported him as a exconvict and they let him go, and this company has been going down hill every since, I say Get the hell over it!! then look at all the innocent people that was locked up by dirty cops, never committing a crime, but yet they are considered Ex=convicts....puh=leeze....Chicago is full of political criminals!! they just havent did the time!!!

3 years ago
Posted by daffers

I wonder if this state of affairs is the reason gangsters seem to be killing cops with such impunity? Corrupt pols, you have blood on your hands.

3 years ago
Posted by Lethe

Yeah, nice hard-hitting reporting. Uh-huh. I watched The Chicago Code, too. EVERYBODY here knows this.

Even so, I'm just wondering why this is being published AFTER Ms. Shiller stepped down...

3 years ago
Posted by Truth Teller

The hypocrisy of this article is mind blowing the biggest and most well organized gang in the city of chicago is CPD. Who have engaged in intimidation,shakedowns,drug dealing, torture and murder. But what's worse they operated with impugnity and full sanctioning of the press including this newspaper, the elected officials most notably our corrupt former mayor and his father who are part of an Irish Mafia that has been in control of both the police department and City politics since the early 40's. Who consistently aided in them keeping their secrets and protected them from prosecution. Jon Burge was just doing what he learned coming through the ranks of the CPD was acceptable behavior as long as you only victimized minority citizens. But now that same influence is being wielded by Black gangs all of a sudden its an outrage! Please spare me the rightous indignation you do not have the moral integrity to have it. I'd to see a story on the Irish Mob that really controls this City.

3 years ago
Posted by gemite

Wow! thank you for the fascinating article!

2 years ago
Posted by sohighres

One only has to look at the office of munoz to see the truth bout this article and his gang ties. Every time I pass through that office there's always Latin Kings repping in his office.

2 years ago
Posted by englewood2u

The article isn't at all shocking! Chicago is known for politicians to seek help from the gangs to boost votes. While, the politicians meet and sell gang members "dreams". I have personally witnessed several meetings and once the politicians was elected they could care less about the "ills" of the community. In my opinion they should get rid of the aldermans due to the fact they are always a no show when it comes to real issues that affect impoverished communities. They reap the benefits allowing foreigners to open more liquor stores on every corner but as an individual trying to open a legitmate business they tell you about "zoning laws". Zoning laws must apply to lifelong residents only. You inquire about a lot they come up with all sorts of "stories". It's all about money at the end of the day.

2 years ago
Posted by LawMan56

Did you expect anything different? All these politicians want today is MONEY!!! They don't care where it comes from or who has to die for them to get it. If you take the perks out of politics you may well get people that genuinely care about the everyday citizen, but until that's done expect things to carry on as they have for years.

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