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This week brings two must-reads on how politics is done in Chicago these days, both for locals and out-of-town pundits still stuck on the patronage cliche: David Bernstein and Noah Isackson's Chicago piece on the alliances between gangs and politicians in Chicago, and Steve Bogira's Reader piece on alliances between big business and politicians in Chicago. There's a common thread between the two pieces, which charts the evolution of Chicago politics since the first Mayor Daley. Bogira writes:

Earlier mayors threw their weight around in local elections by supplying their chosen candidates with extra doorbell ringers. Thanks to consent decrees from a lawsuit attacking patronage, city workers no longer can be forced to work a precinct, so the bell ringers are in short supply—and money has become the main commodity a mayor can offer. In addition, the new limits on contributions in Illinois compel a mayor to be more creative if he wants to raise vast sums: Emanuel can't sit back, as Richard M. Daley could, and watch the giant checks roll in.

The Shakman decrees were instituted between 1972 and 1983, coinciding with the end of Mayor Daley's reign and the beginning of a struggle for power in city politics that would end with the second Mayor Daley. By that time, an evolution was taking place from the ward politics of yore into a modern campaign finance system, as charted by David Moberg in "The Fuel of a New Machine," a 1989 piece about Richard M. Daley's fundraising that reads a lot like Bogira's:

The relationship between money and the machine has changed over the decades. "It was a more direct corruption in early periods of machine history," observes former alderman Dick Simpson, now a professor of political science at the University of Illinois. "You would simply bribe officials, and they would spend what they needed on campaigns. Even in the 60s there was a standard amount for zoning changes." Simpson points out that since the 70s, 13 aldermen have gone to jail, "so the practice is not dead."

But generally, Simpson says, "with Mayor Daley, as far as anyone knows, you didn't slip money in an envelope. When Daley remade the machine, that way of buying influence changed. By the late 60s, if you had a multimillion-dollar contract, it was more of an alliance between institutions and political leaders. It wasn't paying $500 and getting a vote. It was a knitting together of institutions, but businesses made sure Daley knew they had contributed to the party and to the mayor."

Compare that to Miguel Del Valle's comment to Bogira:

"You establish a fund, distribute it to campaigns, and then those candidates are indebted to you," del Valle says. "The tendency for those elected officials is to back the source of those funds. They cannot do what they're supposed to do—represent the interests of their constituents 100 percent of the time, rather than the interests of the person who has made it possible for them to be elected."

By the time Daley II took power, he was much more reliant than his father on big-business contributions, as Moberg details. The man behind the money? Rahm Emanuel, who started in national political fundraising before taking that experience back to the city. Emanuel's campaign haul and methods are striking but not unprecedented; he's picking up where he left off in 1989, just as Richard M. picked up from where Richard J. left off.

As early as 1989, Moberg was describing the nostalgia for the old machine that the new had created: "The old machine, corrupt as it was, could at least make a claim that the average citizen was an important part of politics, even if he or she had no real voice. The emerging system threatens to produce more direct control by a rich elite. Even if their motives were purest altruism, there would still be reason to worry about this subversion of democracy."

Moberg, here, was prescient: some of the big money in Chicago politics is altrustic, or at least not exclusively self-interested. Our one percent, in particular, is passionate about education, and the past election cycle saw tremendous amounts of money moving into education reform, with the Zell/Pritzker-backed Stand For Children group that pushed reforms through the state legislature. More recently the Gates Foundation poured $100,000 into charter school-district collaboration efforts; CPS has accepted $28 million from them since 2002.

But the big money's disconnect from the streets of Chicago has a big drawback: it's not on the streets of Chicago, and even in our technologically-mediated world that's where the people live, and a get-out-the-vote campaign is still vital at the ward level. Which brings us back to Bernstein and Isackson's piece about gangs:

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.”

It's not as simple as a transition from ward heeler to gangbanger; as the piece notes, gangs and politicians go back to the Lords of the Levee days. But as Bernstein and Isackson tell it, without the mediating influence of the patronage system—also a mediating influence between business and politics—it's a bit more like the olden times.

That's where Bogira's piece completes the circle: a sense of what could come next, and Emanuel's role in it. Bogira focuses on Emanuel's New Chicago Committee, a PAC that supports "candidates for public office who share the goals of the political committee." It went seven-for-nine in its first local election cycle.

The NCC is still very much in its infancy, but from here it looks like the next step, the old ward organization being absorbed by the contemporary campaign-finance system, as Emanuel translates his early education as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Director onto Chicago's grid.

Related: Bogira has a shorter post about the CME tax break and the money the CME Group has funneled to local politicians (hint: it's gone way up recently). Which made me think: lots of people, including myself, have pointed to the CME/Sears mess as a reason to lower and simplify the Illinois corporate tax code. Like, make it modest, make up the shortfall by making everyone comply, and you stand a chance of reducing the benefits of lobbying. It should be more efficient all around, right? But reading Bogira's piece, I can see where inefficiency—a complicated and/or loophole-filled code—creates financial incentives… for the same reason you don't need a guide and a GPS to get around the Loop, but are doomed without one on Mt. Everest.


Photograph: wrestlingentropy (CC by 2.0)