A friend of mine just wrote an excellent piece on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for the Washington Monthly. It brings up some compelling thoughts about finance and the 2012 elections and is well worth your time, but it reminded me of something in particular:

Blowing past months of GOP filibustering, he declared his recess appointment of Richard Cordray, a mild-mannered former Ohio attorney general, to serve as the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a powerful new regulatory agency created by the Dodd-Frank law. Back in Washington, GOP leaders, who had held Congress open in a pro-forma session during the Christmas break precisely to block such a recess appointment, went into fits of televised dudgeon, calling the move “arrogant,” “unconstitutional,” and—this from Mitt Romney himself—“Chicago-style politics at its worst.”

I'm still not exactly sure what that means, but I don't think it means "recess appointments"; I tend to assume that "Chicago-style politics" would have involved Obama sweet-talking, horse-trading, or laying waste until Cordray was installed at the CFPB, or better yet just getting his way without having to do any of that. "Recess appointment"? Pfft.

So what does it mean? Ballot stuffing? Ward-heeling? Bringing a gun to a knife fight? Technocratic neoliberalism? The answer, a tour through a newspaper database suggests, is that it means everything from explicit corruption to generic arm-twisting, and that we've infected everywhere from Reseda to Malibu to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It's unfortunate what we (allegedly) did to that former Rockport selectman, but classical realism's had it coming for a long time.

* "Seeking to boost his underdog City Council campaign, Gary Klein on Wednesday attacked 3rd District Councilwoman Joy Picus…. Klein also accused Picus of 'Chicago-style politics' in obtaining free office space in the city's West Valley Municipal Building in Reseda for the Reseda Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit group he said was operated by political allies of Picus." (Los Angeles Times, 2/7/85)

* "Calling Town Solicitor Charles T. Rennick Jr. a 'lawyertollah'… the town's Republican leadership yesterday demanded that Rennick resign or be fired for reducing a drunk-driving charge against a former school board member…. 'I say they are using Chicago-style politics to cover up a mess of their own making, and I don't consider the case closed.'" (Providence Journal, 4/17/87)

* "For most local artists, it is the only vehicle for exhibiting their work at the prestigious art institute. But the classical realists say their opponents have resorted to Chicago-style politics to keep their paintings from being shown, and belittle classical realism by calling it a 'dead' art form." (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 6/5/90)

* "Nonetheless, the recent [city council] campaign featured much-publicized smear sheets, anonymous hit pieces and an overall knock-down, drag-out atmosphere that appalled many longtime residents. The result, Zeanah said, was 'more typical of Chicago-style politics' than the traditional Thousand Oaks campaign."  (Los Angeles Times, 11/12/94)

* "But some industry sources, who asked not to be named, said yesterday that they considered calls made by a Transportation Department official closely involved in reviewing the awarding of lucrative new Pacific Rim air routes to be improper…. 'Sam's Chicago-style politics is such that he has almost no qualms about littering the landscape with twisted arms.'" (Washington Post, 6/21/90)

* "Outnumbered 4 to 1 and about to be replaced as mayor, Larry Wan abruptly quit Malibu's City Council on Tuesday, leaving the community's quarrelsome political factions more divided than ever…. "You can see that Malibu has not become Miami Beach. But tragically, in just two years, Malibu's political landscape has been blighted by Chicago-style politics," Wan said…. (Los Angeles Times, 3/23/92)

* "During the last weekend of the campaign, Kenniston charged [former Rockport selectman] Duke with 'Chicago-style politics' including faked letters of support to local newspapers. Duke said he had no idea who wrote the letters." (Bangor Daily News, 6/11/98)

* "Pronold was found guilty of charges related to his bartering away the right to dump liquid waste into the plant for free and his awarding of city contacts to a waste hauler who sponsored him in athletic competitions…. Pronold's personal and business dealings with Fugate, Dreyfus said, were "at best a very real error or lack of judgment," or "at worst . . . something smacking of Chicago-style politics." (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 8/29/98)

* "In a survey that would rival Chicago-style politics, readers strongly favored keeping the Green Sheet name. But the newspaper's executives in 1977 said enough people had supported a change that the paper would henceforth be known as the Valley News." (Los Angeles Daily News, 10/11/2001)

Anyway, as to the frequency of usage of "Chicago-style politics," this should come as no surprise, though it took a couple years to build up steam:

It's a pretty stable pattern, up until a certain Kenwood resident ran for the highest office in the land.


Photograph: Library of Congress