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.
(page 3 of 5)
That a sitting alderman would help pay for the funeral of a notorious gangster shows how the interests of politicians and gangs can intertwine. For the Ali twins, the connection conferred an above-the-law aura. For their mother, it offered the opportunity to work in the community as part of the alderman’s inner circle. For Shiller, the relationship seems to have brought street cred and political muscle that helped her fend off tough challenges at the ballot box.
Because campaign disclosure rules are vague, such relationships aren’t usually reported, nor are they easy to track through the paperwork on campaign contributions and expenditures that candidates are required to file. Assessing how pervasive the alliances are, or how much back scratching actually takes place, is difficult. Oversight is virtually nonexistent. Thus, the relationships are usually hidden from public scrutiny.
Even so, there’s no rule prohibiting aldermen from forming such relationships. State lawmakers are similarly unconstrained. Compliance with Illinois’s ethics act, which contains the code of conduct for legislators, is voluntary. As it’s put in the law, the ethical principles “are intended only as guides to legislator conduct, and not as rules meant to be enforced with disciplinary action.” (Many elected officials in Chicago and Springfield have also been stalwart opponents of rules designed to shed more light on potentially questionable conduct or to make their offices and political operations more transparent.)
Allowed such free rein, our lawmakers operate in an ambiguous moral universe that seems as lawless as some of the street corners in their districts. “No wonder corrupt pols here fear only one person: U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald,” said a Chicago Tribune editorial a few years ago.
Many forms of political corruption—taking bribes, rigging elections, engaging in pay-to-play deals—are plainly unethical, if not illegal. But forming political alliances with gangs isn’t a clear matter of right or wrong, some say. In many Chicago neighborhoods, it’s virtually impossible for elected officials and candidates for public office not to have at least some connection, even family ties, to gang members. “People try to paint this picture of bad versus good—it’s not like that,” says a veteran political organizer based in Chicago who specializes in getting out the vote in minority areas. “Everybody lives with each other, grew up with each other. Just because somebody goes this way or that way, it doesn’t mean you’re just gonna write them off automatically.”
For better or worse, gang members are constituents, the same as businesspeople in the Gold Coast. Says Aaron Patterson, an imprisoned gang member: “It ain’t like gangs come from another planet.”
For some politicians, gang members can be a source of political strength—all the more so given that the once-formidable City Hall–Cook County patronage system, the lifeblood of the old Machine, is mostly gone. In the heyday of the Machine, recalls Wallace Davis Jr., a former 27th Ward alderman, political chieftains could simply snap their fingers and marshal a large cadre of city workers to go door-to-door with “a pint of wine and a chicken” to turn out the vote.
Few politicians nowadays have such armies at their beck and call. To win elections, many officeholders and candidates—especially those who represent parts of the city with high concentrations of street gangs—turn to those gangs as their de facto political organizations. “It went from wine and a chicken to hiring a gangbanger,” says Davis, who served from 1983 to 1987. “It’s unfortunate.”
Though estimates vary, most authorities and criminologists agree that there are 70,000 to 125,000 gang members in the city. In the numbers game of Chicago politics—in which, as the old joke goes, a one-vote victory constitutes a landslide—a constituency of that size gets noticed. (Keep in mind that in Illinois convicted felons can vote once they are released from prison.)
And though gangs are anything but a monolithic voting bloc, they can, and sometimes do, offer enormous numbers come election time, especially when you count their relatives, friends, and those they muscle at the polls. “An alderman ain’t nothing without the backing of the neighborhood,” says a top-level Gangster Disciple from the South Side. “Without the gangs, it’s hard [for politicians] to exist.”
A Latin King, interviewed at Cook County Jail, recalls how the top leader of his gang, the Corona, ordered every member in his area to vote for Ricardo Muñoz, the 22nd Ward alderman. “Every chapter had to vote for that guy, anyone who was eligible to vote,” says the Latin King. “That was a direct order. That means you can’t say no. If you do, you face a violation”—typically a beating, or worse.
He estimates that the gang delivered hundreds of votes, maybe even a thousand or more, in one of Muñoz’s elections in the 1990s. Moreover, he says, members were also directed—under the threat of punishment—to pass out campaign flyers for Muñoz and walk around carrying his signs. They were instructed to wear their Sunday best: ties, khakis, trench coats. “No thug clothes,” he recalls.
Muñoz says he does not seek out gang support: “There is no coordinated effort in any way, shape, or form.”
Many politicians who enlist gang members try to cloak the relationship in the rhetoric of political empowerment or social activism. They’ll say they want to get troubled youth involved in the political process in constructive ways: doing things like circulating nominating petitions, passing out campaign literature, or registering voters. They’ll say that for many of these men and boys, participating in politics is one of the few positive things they’ve done in their lives.
Some gang members seem to welcome the chance to leave the thug life, if only temporarily, and use the political system to better their lot. They say they have grown tired of gangbanging, realizing that it typically ends in one of two ways: death or prison. But honest jobs, they quickly point out, are few and far between where they live. “We don’t just all want to sell drugs,” says a Vice Lord leader from the West Side who is in Cook County Jail. “Some people [are] trying to do right.”
UIC’s Hagedorn and others who study gangs say that as long as the gangs don’t cross a line of illegal behavior, they should be political forces in their communities. “It’s a good idea to bring gangs into politics,” Hagedorn says. “Co-opt them, get them to go legit. It worked for the Irish, right?”
But law-and-order absolutists say today’s street gangs are much different from the Irish gangs of old: They are not just a bunch of toughs who brawl in the streets. “Gangs drive all of the crime in Chicago, and it’s shocking that some of these [public servants] want to align themselves with them simply for political gain,” says Jody Weis, the former Chicago police superintendent. “It’s kind of like selling your soul to the devil.”
Weis’s predecessor, Phil Cline, agrees: “If they think that they can use the gangs and the gangs aren’t going to want something in return, they are wrong. Once you start lying down with dogs, you are going to get fleas.”