RSS FeedFacebookSearch
Gary Younge
Pressure grows on Chicago's Teflon mayor

Another candidate also performed well in an interview for the post of equipment dispatcher in the city. Once again there was a snag. On the day of the interview he was dead.

A judicial inquiry into the hiring practices of Chicago city council has unearthed several examples of fictitious interviews leading to dubious appointments made solely on the basis of political patronage.

The scandal, which suggests corruption in city hall, has gradually inched its way towards the door of the Democrat mayor, Richard Daley.

Already 30 people have been charged in the investigation and 22 have pleaded guilty and are cooperating. The outcome threatens to bury Mr Daley's 16-year reign over America's third largest city in a pit of ignominy and remove his once unshakeable grip on local power.

The chairman of the city's Republican party has offered a $10,000 (£5,750) bounty to any whistleblower offering information leading to Mr Daley's indictment and conviction.

Almost every day, local journalists ask him whether he is preparing to stand down.

"He is in more trouble than he has ever been and politically he's facing a greater challenge than he ever has," says Dan Sprehe, the chief investigator for Chicago's Better Government Association. "It seems never-ending. Every week it seems more indictments, more guilty pleas and more cooperating witnesses are announced."

With rumours mounting that Jesse Jackson Jr may challenge Mr Daley for Chicago's top job, it also raises the prospect of a dynastic battle between two of the city's most famous political names.

Between the mayor and his father, the Daleys have run Chicago for 37 of the past 50 years; between Mr Jackson, who is a congressman, and his father the Jacksons have been among the most prominent black figures in the city for a generation.

Salim Muwakkil, a Chicago-based senior editor at the magazine In These Times, said: "Jackson Jr would have to show that there is a total separation between him and his father - that he isn't carrying all of that baggage.

"But If Jesse did make a run he would definitely be in with a chance. Either way it would be a very sexy story." A Chicago Tribune poll in May, before most of the serious allegations came to light, put Mr Daley and Mr Jackson neck and neck, with 23% of voters undecided.

At the heart of the scandal is the brazen manner in which city jobs are doled out to those with political connections, regardless of their qualifications. Describing the situation to prosecutors, one city employee explained how "typically prior to any interviews being conducted", a colleague would tell them "who was to receive the jobs ... The individuals who conducted the interviews understood that the interviews were a sham, and that the winners had been pre- selected. The interviews and/or oral exams would be scored in such a fashion as to guarantee that the person pre-selected for political reasons would win the promotion".

The scandal has already forced Mr Daley to fire two of his closest personal and political allies - Robert Sorich, who is accused of telling officials whom to hire based on their political allegiance, and Patrick Slattery, who allegedly carried out his instructions.

According to sworn affidavits presented to the district court, when one manager complained that the political appointee foisted on them was "a drunk", Mr Sorich replied: "Do the best you can with him."

Mr Daley says he knew nothing about this and would have put a stop to it if he did. "I have 38,000 people. I don't micromanage them," he told Time magazine. "I don't feel personally responsible."

The mayor's critics find this defence astounding.

Mr Daley has a reputation as the kind of mayor who would call the sanitation department if he spotted an overflowing bin on his way to work.

"It's hard to be a detail mayor and a hands-on mayor, which is what he has a reputation for being, and then to say he knows nothing," says Mr Jackson. "Which raises the question 'Who's running our town?'"

Mr Daley had close ties to Mr Sorich and Mr Slattery. Both men hail from the Daley family's political powerbase in the south side area of Bridgeport.

Mr Sorich's father was an official photographer for Mr Daley's father. Mr Sorich used to ride to work with Mr Daley's brother John, who is also Bridgeport's Democratic party ward leader. Mr Slattery is married to one of Mr Daley's personal secretaries.

"You can't get much closer to the mayor than this," says Steve Rhodes, a senior editor with Chicago magazine.

Mayor Daley's problems are compounded by the resolve of Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor leading the investigations.

Mr Fitzgerald, a Harvard-educated son of a Brooklyn doorman, is simultaneously leading the investigation into the leaking of the identity of a secret agent, Valerie Plame, which has put a New York Times reporter in jail and Mr Bush's righthand man, Karl Rove, under intense scrutiny.

"His tenacity has made a big difference," says Mr Sprehe. "He starts with small low-level people and then works his way up the food chain."

Whether Mr Fitzgerald will get all the way to the top is another matter.

Mr Daley was re-elected in 2003 with 79% of the vote and remains extremely popular.

The city's murder rate is at a 30-year low, schools are doing well and his large civic projects, such as Millennium park, have been hits.

Chicagoans also have a sneaking regard for his underhand ways and there is still two years before the next election, though the race has already begun.

"We have a higher level of tolerance for corruption than other towns," says Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois and author of Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps, a history of Chicago city politics.

"Our political culture makes an allowance for corruption because it's our tradition."

The Tribune poll in May gave Mr Daley an approval rating of 53% - his lowest ever and yet still remarkably high for a mayor in his 16th year.

"I don't know anybody that's prepared to count him out yet," says Mr Sprehe.

Indeed, Mr Bush, in the area to sign a transportation bill on Wednesday, hailed Mr Daley as a man "you want on your side".

"Corruption by itself will not cause a mayor in Chicago to be defeated," says Mr Simpson.

"It has to be coupled with other issues like poor services or high tax increases ... It also depends on whether there is a quality candidate to oppose him. Daley runs a presidential-style campaign and can raise $7m (£3.7m) without breaking a sweat."

But, this time, the stain of scandal has finally stuck to the man once called the "Teflon mayor".

"People used to give him the benefit of the doubt," says Mr Rhodes. "But for the first time his survival is a serious question."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Dispatches From The Diaspora
latest book

'An outstanding chronicler of the African diaspora.'

Bernardine Evaristo

 follow on twitter
© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc