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Déjà vu: Growing up with Chicago pols in the 'Land of 10,000 Snakes'

In happier times: During an April 2007 rally in Chicago, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich,  then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley are all smiles.
REUTERS/John Gress
In happier times: During an April 2007 rally in Chicago, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley are all smiles.

Announcing and decrying the federal corruption charges that his office brought Tuesday against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich,  U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said that Blagojevich's alleged scheme  to peddle President-elect Barack Obama's open Senate seat "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave."'


Yeah, and make Mike Royko pop the nails holding down his coffin lid, no how, no way missing a chance to write about a Chicago story this big, this juicy, this quintessential.

Growing up in Chicago and Cook County in the 1960s and '70s, I saw this sort of thing firsthand: Local elected officials flexing their influence for political and personal gain was an unnerving threat to a free and Democratic society second, and just part of the cultural backdrop first.

Cameras clicking and flashbulbs popping around a crooked lieutenant governor, the dubious awarding of a snowplowing contract and an assembly hall full of aldermen shouting at each other while Mayor Daley pounded his gavel were scenes and soundtrack of a boy's life, almost as good in entertainment value as the Cubs, the White Sox, the Bears or the Blackhawks. In some ways, actually, it was better, because it came from that mysterious, slightly-out-of-reach adult world where we knew there was so much fascinating stuff going on, with intrigue and know-how into which we'd eventually grow.

So we caught the headlines in four (count 'em) daily newspapers, flipped the channels through three network affiliates and WGN for the nightly news and, over time, we read Royko and his Daily News (later Sun-Times, then Tribune) tales about Hizzoner, Slats Grobnik, the Curse of the Billy Goat and our beloved 16-inch softball games near the majestic lakefront.

A City of Big Shoulders (and greased palms)  
That's how we learned, too, that in the City of Big Shoulders, there were always greased palms at the end of those long arms.

The license plates said "Land of Lincoln,"' but for all practical purposes, we were living in the "Land of 10,000 Snakes." Chicago was the City That Works, my dad always told me when we'd motor through the Circle Interchange – the ramps and cloverleafs of the maddening "Spaghetti Bowl" connecting the Eisenhower, the Kennedy and the Dan Ryan expressways, built in stages from 1955 to 1962 under Daley's watchful and winking eye. Then again, if you were a resident of particular wards within the brawny city, you might only work if you and your dead uncle voted the right way in the most recent election.  

We lived in Brookfield, a bedroom community to the southwest, a few miles outside the Chicago city limits but well within Cook County's border and jurisdiction. My dad had grown up in Riverside, the suburb where Frank Nitti, one of Al Capone's Mob enforcers, took a walk along the railroad tracks and shot himself in 1943. I was born at a hospital in Berwyn, adjacent to Cicero, the town Capone and his thugs brazenly infiltrated and ran in the 1920s. Just to the west of my boyhood neighborhood, a fancy restaurant was known in the late '60s and '70s as much for the occasional car bomb in the parking lot, perhaps with a charred or bullet-riddled body in the trunk, as for its piano bar or prime rib specials.

At least, that's how it seemed to a kid growing up, getting indoctrinated one whack or scandal at a time and assuming it was all normal in our salty version of Mayberry.

To most, Brookfield was known for its zoo, the Chicago Zoological Park's bigger sibling to the Lincoln Park location on the city's near-north side. Long renowned for the number of exotic animal births on its premises, the zoo became even more popular in the '60s thanks to the first indoor dolphin exhibit and later a fully-enclosed rain forest. It gave us bragging rights as "The Most Visited Village in the World"' – admittedly a yawner compared with the political and criminal shenanigans going on around us.

My buddies and I got a bigger kick, for instance, out of Brookfield's very own corruption scandal-on-training-wheels: In 1975, village president Phillip Hollinger was indicted on 14 counts of extortion and tax fraud stemming, in part, from shakedowns of tree-service and sewer contractors.

Hey, now you're talkin'! Hollinger lives around the corner, one block over, right by the Little League field. It made us feel a little notorious ourselves.

A public parade of weasels, grafters and bullies
In our hearts, though, we knew we were wannabes and Hollinger was a bush-leaguer, compared with the weasels, grifters and bullies playing an entirely different game in Chicago and throughout Illinois. According to Fitzgerald at Tuesday's news conference, Blagojevich's political corruption crime spree "has taken us to a truly new low.'' If so, he had his work cut out for him, undercutting some of the scoundrels who preceded him through Springfield. These were men who started out as a boy's classic role models, then morphed into characters more responsible for inspiring a journalism major:

Otto Kerner: The governor of Illinois from 1961 to 1968, Kerner built his reputation on economic development and initiatives on jobs and housing. He was appointed by LBJ in 1967 to chair the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and, after leaving office, he became a U.S. Court of Appeals judge. But Kerner's reputation tumbled after he was convicted in 1973 on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy and perjury. He served three years in federal prison and became the butt of jokes before his death in 1978. Heading up Kerner's prosecution: James R. Thompson, who would parlay that career move into his own 14-year gubernatorial run (1976-90).

The most outrageous aspect to Kerner 's fall: The manager of Arlington Park and Washington Park horse racetracks – who had bribed the governor to get choice racing dates and two expressway exits near her businesses – unwittingly exposed the scandal by listing the value of the racetrack stock used for bribes right on her federal tax forms. Her theory? Paying off politicians was a normal cost of doing business in Illinois.

Paul Powell: Powell was a lifelong Illinois Democrat, eventually becoming Kerner's secretary of state. He was investigated for corruption while in office, though no charges stuck. When Powell  died in 1970, though, investigators found approximately $800,000 in the hotel room in which he had been living, stashed in a "shoebox" that became fodder for Johnny Carson's monologue. Also found in storage space Powell had been renting: 49 cases of whiskey, 14 transistor radios and two cases of creamed corn. His estate, when settled in 1978, was estimated to be worth $4.6 million, including $1 million in racetrack stock. All off a government salary that reportedly never topped $30,000.

Dan Walker: Walker came to the Illinois governor's office in 1972 with a reputation as a squeaky-clean reformer. He had been head of a Chicago committee that deemed law enforcement actions at the 1968 Democratic Convention as "a police riot.'' During his campaign, he made like Honest Abe, walking nearly 1,200 miles across and around the state to gain popular support. But he clashed from the start with Daley, throttling his own ability to lead. After his lone term, Walker's business interests led him post-politics into the chicanery so many of his peers embraced while active: He finagled more than $1 million in fraudulent loans for his string of oil-change franchises and for repairs on his yacht, the Governor's Lady. For using the First American Savings & Loan as what the judge termed his "personal piggy bank," Walker was sentenced to seven years in prison and served 18 months at the correctional facility in Duluth. His request for a pardon from President Clinton in January 2001 was not granted.


Public servants, big and small: Big fish like governors provide big targets. But nothing exposed Chicago's and Cook County's culture of payoffs and favors, down to street level, quite like the Sun-Times' 1977 "sting" operation of The Mirage bar. The newspaper opened and staffed the tavern itself, then waited for the crooks to descend. Snared in a 25-part series of articles led by investigative reporter Pam Zekman were a small government's worth of code inspectors, most willing to overlook violations of various severity for cash payments of commensurate sizes: $50 here, $100 there. "Bribes flowed like beer," Time magazine reported. The ruse also implicated numerous accountants and a landlord, but it was the kickbacks to the civil servants that generated the most uproar. Some critics questioned the tactics and accused the Sun-Times of entrapment – the investigation was not rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize – but the journalists involved just smiled at the delicious irony: Everyone expected to find newspaper reporters in bars, but no one expected to find them, y'know, in bars.

George Ryan: Ryan gained national attention from Springfield when he declared a moratorium on Illinois' death penalty in 2000 after 13 inmates were released based on new evidence. Just before leaving office in January 2003, Ryan controversially commuted the sentences of 167 convicts awaiting execution, saying that capital punishment was not being administered fairly. But Ryan's career soon was tainted by charges that he and his administration trafficked in illegal government licenses and contracts. He was indicted on 22 counts of racketeering, money laundering and other charges, and it was Fitzgerald who got Ryan convicted on all counts. Exhausting his appeals, Ryan reported to prison in February and is scheduled for release in July 2013.

Now it is Blagojevich's turn. His arrest Tuesday was the result of FBI wiretaps, which produced a 76-page affidavit and revealed the governor, in the most profane terms, abusing his power to name Obama's replacement. In Fitzgerald's words, Blagojevch "put a 'For Sale' sign on the naming of a United States Senator." In Blagojevich's words, that would be known as a (bleeping) For Sale sign.

Blagojevich also is alleged to have sent a henchman to the financially desperate Chicago Tribune, making it clear to the paper's owners that any help it sought from the state in selling off one of its prized properties – Wrigley Field – would require the termination of some editorial writers who had been critical of Blagojevich's administration. If true, this accusation would expose Blagojevich as too dumb to serve, since bullying a newspaper owner to fire journalists these days is like twisting Keith Olbermann's arm to slam Dick Cheney. Wait a few hours and it will happen naturally, no political influence necessary.

Headlines the latest embarrassment from the Land of Lincoln
These latest headlines are, of course, an embarrassment and an unsavory civics lesson to everyone living in Illinois or with roots there.

The state's political tradition is as inept as the Cubs' championship aspirations, as sordid as the seven bodies left on that North Side garage floor on Feb. 14, 1929. And yet, when you grow up in it and really aren't touched by it (especially as a kid), names like Kerner, Powell, Daley, Walker and, for a new generation, Blagojevich drift and echo through your awareness little different from Capone and Nitti, John Dillinger getting set up by the Lady in Red outside the Biograph Theater or Hizzoner malapropping himself during the 1968 melee at Grant Park into "The police are not here to create disorder. They're here to preserve disorder."

Crooked politicans in Chicago and Cook County may be despicable but they were our despicable, a calling card that shouts "tough" the way New Yorkers own "rude," Los Angeleans claim "mellow" and Minnesotans have "nice.' They're something to shrug our Big Shoulders over, a bit of romance, a pinch of nostalgia, a dash of charm, perfect for Walter Winchell's staccato voiceover to Eliot Ness and "The Untouchables"'

Now if only we had Royko around to keep banging out the narrative.

Steve Aschburner, who has been writing about sports for nearly three decades, writes about sports and other topics for MinnPost.com.

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Comments (5)

What a fine piece. And what a great comment -

If true, this accusation would expose Blagojevich as too dumb to serve, since bullying a newspaper owner to fire journalists these days is like twisting Keith Olbermann's arm to slam Dick Cheney. Wait a few hours and it will happen naturally, no political influence necessary.

Thanks for a great read.

Keith Ford

Great recollections, Steve, and accurate. I grew up in the 1950s and '60s in La Grange, the Chicago suburb just west of Brookfield. I took my driver's test in 1959 -- three times. I flunked parallel parking, which was fatal, and flunked it again a week later. My buddies told me they'd heard (I don't think they actually tried this) that if you handed the examiner in Forest Park a folded $5 bill you'd pass no matter what. I was not about to do that even though a third failure would mean I couldn't try again for some extended time, and my third time was the charm. "Now drive like a gentleman," the kindly examiner said. I was so proud when my license arrived, signed by Paul Powell, Secretary of State.

Appreciate the comments, fellas.

Was moved to respond to Dick's tale: In researching some of this, I learned that, for many folks who paid their driver's license fee, it was common practice to make the check out not to "State of Illinois" or "Dept. of Motor Vehicles" but directly to "Paul Powell." Helps to explain the shoebox of cash.

Nice piece with funny local tie-ins. Just thought I'd let you know I was there the day that picture was taken, cropped out on the right, and they're yukking it up after Blagojevich said "You,President? That's about as likely to happen as me getting nailed for graft."

Thank you for bringing Royko into the story -- I've been missing him terribly during all of this. I believe he was the one who translated the motto of the city of Chicago as "Where's Mine?"