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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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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.”
 

The West Side Vice Lord at Cook County Jail speaks with a raspy voice about his own experiences with politicians. The leader of his gang, he says, had struck a deal with an alderman who was giving the Vice Lords extra money to buy heroin and high-grade marijuana. It was a win-win for everybody, by his account; the whole operation raked in $50,000 a day. Most of the money went to the gang, but the alderman took a nice cut, he says.

Before he was charged with shooting a rival gang member, the jailed Vice Lord says, he regularly met with the alderman in parking lots or at a Mexican restaurant to pick up and deliver envelopes of money. In time, the alderman—whom the Vice Lord refused to name but described as heavyset and middle-aged—grew more comfortable with these meetings and began asking to be introduced to young women who hung around the gang.

In return, the Vice Lord recalls, the alderman would sometimes give the gang a heads-up about what was discussed at CAPS meetings, where police and residents talked about neighborhood crime and other issues. The alderman, he says, would tell them which corners or gang members were receiving police attention. That way, the gang would “know how to move around” to avoid police, he explains. (Many aldermen wield considerable influence over the police commanders in their districts. In some respects, the commanders unofficially report to the aldermen.) He says that the alderman would also let them know about jobs at particular construction sites in the ward.

The Vice Lord and five other top gang members—all of whom requested anonymity out of concern for their safety—described how gangs and public officials use each other in ways legal and illegal. Though they are from different areas of the city, their stories are similar. Generally speaking, they say, the relationships grow out of activities related to Election Day, when politicians can offer dozens of temporary jobs to those willing to do the get-out-the-vote work or, if necessary, intimidate voters, tear down signs, or vandalize an opponent’s campaign office, among other misdeeds. From there, the relationships can, and do, get seedier.

A high-ranking Latin King claims that a Latino elected official, still in office, and a member of his staff routinely buy drugs from the gang. “They do PCP, coke, smoke weed, drink, everything,” he says. Several gang members call such actions common. “That shit that goes on behind closed doors is outrageous,” says a Latin King from another part of the city.

Two police sources—a former gang investigator and a veteran detective—bluntly acknowledge that even if the police know of dubious dealings between an alderman and a gang leader or drug dealer, there is little, if anything, they can do, thanks to what they say is the department’s unofficial rule: Stay away from public officials. “We can’t arrest aldermen,” says the gang investigator, “unless they’re doing something obvious to endanger someone. We’re told to stand down.” The detective concurs: “It’s the unwritten rule. There’s a two-tier justice system here.”

Meanwhile, the city’s inspector general can’t—by design of the City Council—investigate council members. (In May 2010, the council, under pressure to curb its corruptible ways, created its own inspector general. The job went unfilled for more than 18 months, until last November, when the council picked a New York lawyer for the part-time position, which has a minuscule budget and no staff and which critics have decried as window-dressing.)

Beyond providing protection from police—the gangs’ number one request—public officials can help in other ways. Gang leaders, particularly the most powerful, are usually looking to build on the riches they already have. Knowing an alderman or a state legislator—or even a congressman—can help. Traditionally, aldermen have almost total say over what gets built and what sorts of businesses open in their wards. They also have considerable sway over city contracts, which can mean tens of thousands to millions of dollars for gang-owned businesses.

By many accounts, state legislators and, to a lesser extent, the lawmakers in Washington can, and do, steer state or federal contracts or grant money to gang-backed businesses and gang-friendly nonprofit fronts. This isn’t always as simple as a direct contract. Sometimes officials and other political insiders encourage gang leaders to form minority subcontractor companies and hook them up with reputable city contractors. It solves problems for everyone: Gang leaders who want to get on the straight and narrow, or perhaps launder their profits from their criminal enterprises, can form legitimate businesses that won’t draw scrutiny; contractors get a minority-owned company to work with (the city requires that 25 percent of all contract payments go to minority firms and 5 percent to female-owned firms); the political go-betweens get political support or just goodwill that they can draw on later—and maybe even a cut of the profits.

Consider the case of Radames DeJesus. A convicted cocaine dealer who was sentenced to seven years in prison for shooting and seriously wounding three rival gang members in 1989, DeJesus, 45, is currently active in the Latin Kings, according to three Chicago gang investigators and a well-placed Humboldt Park gang member. At his 1990 trial, a gang investigator testified that DeJesus was an enforcer in the gang. DeJesus admitted he was a gang member but not an enforcer, according to court documents.

Sometime around 2006, sources say, a political insider told DeJesus he could start up a minority-owned business and reap lucrative city contracts. He then opened SewerTech Services, a sewer maintenance company on the city’s West Side. SewerTech has received a total of $31.1 million in subcontracts from Kenny Construction, the politically connected firm that has won hundreds of millions of dollars in sewer lining and repair business under the Daley administration. DeJesus also hit the taxpayer trough in March and July 2010 for nearly $300,000 in grants from TIF Works, a program that awards tax increment financing to companies for job training in TIF districts. (City records show that SewerTech has been paid about $94,000 so far.)

The law enforcement sources, who closely monitor the Latin Kings in Chicago and beyond, say DeJesus has been “laying low” but maintains an “active connection to the organization”—an allegation confirmed by the Humboldt Park gang member.

In a statement to Chicago, DeJesus said: “I am not affiliated with any street gang. I left that destructive life behind two decades ago.” He added that he tries to help other former gang members, hiring them to work at SewerTech and offering them Bible study classes to support their efforts to turn their lives around. “I believe in second chances,” he said. In a separate statement, Kenny Construction said SewerTech was the lowest bidder on their two projects and added that the company has done a good job.

When Chicago asked a spokeswoman for the city for comment, she said the city had not been aware of DeJesus’s criminal background or his alleged current gang involvement. While all city contractors must disclose whether their businesses’ owners have felony convictions—they can be ineligible for contracts if they’ve been convicted of bribery, fraud, theft, or other so-called crimes of deceit—subcontractors aren’t required to file felony disclosures with the city.
 

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