The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Welcome To The Machine or, The Glorious Coronation of King Todd

For some background, see the post right below this one, and this Chicago Tribune article.

The current president of Cook County is John Stroger. He's a fixture of machine politics down here. Many county employees are Stroger friends, relatives, or the friends and relatives of Stroger's cronies, or business partners, etc. Most of these employees are also purportedly incompetent. What's important to note is that if a non-Stroger won the presidency, many people would stand to lose their ill-gotten jobs. Fortunately for Stroger, this machine is of the well-oiled variety. He's got the Mayor on his side, which is worth its weight in gold, and the large number of connections that Stroger has accumulated over the years gives him a large built-in constituency. Add this to the fact that Stroger is black, and a Democrat, and he is almost unbeatable in the Chicago metro area.

But this time was going to be different. John Stroger was actually challenged in the Democratic primary by a non-machine Democrat named Forrest Claypool. Claypool and Stroger were running neck-and-neck as the primary drew near. A few days before Chicagoans everywhere went to cast their largely meaningless primary votes, an interesting thing happened.

John Stroger had a stroke.

How bad was it? No one knew.

You see, Stroger's campaign sealed off his hospital room. Every so often one of his cronies would appear and offer assurances that the old man was OK. They would claim to have just spoken with him, and claimed that he was in good spirits, and would likely make a full recovery. It sounded as if Stroger was perfectly fine, and completely capable of staying in the race. However, despite the testimony of his cronies, no reporters ever interviewed Stroger. They were turned away at every advance.

Stroger made no appearances even as the primary approached. Election day arrived, and still, Stroger kept to himself in his hospital. Despite this uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), Stroger narrowly defeated Claypool to gain the nomination. As this is Chicago, shenanigans were suspected. It is very likely that had Stroger's true condition been disclosed, it would have meant victory for Claypool.

As it turned out Stroger was in no condition to run or govern. The logical next move would have been for the Dems to select Claypool, who was quite popular, but instead they selected John Stroger's son Todd. I'll let the Tribune Editorial Board explain:

Remember how Chicago's Democratic bosses lied to voters earlier this year? Remember their assurances that John Stroger would return after his stroke to lead the Cook County Board? Once the deadline for other candidates to file papers for Stroger's seat passed, the bosses did what they'd plotted all along: They put Stroger's lightweight son, Todd, on the ballot to cement their control of county jobs and contracts. But it turns out that wasn't the end of their disdain for voters--especially African-American voters:

The Tribune's story Sunday about 11th-hour efforts to mobilize black turnout for Todd Stroger and Gov. Rod Blagojevich included a revealing quote from a Democratic strategist: "You don't have to do anything but get them out, and the time to get them out is the weekend before the election."

Here's what that strategist means: Black voters won't protest the long waits to see a doctor and all the other shabby service people get from Cook County. If we just wind them up and point them toward the polls, they'll do whatever the Democratic Party tells them to do.

This is the essence of machine politics, and relying on the built-in coalition.

Todd Stroger was opposed in the general election by a fairly credible Republican named Tony Peraica, but the already arduous task of winning in Cook County as a Republican was made that much harder by the underhanded tactics of Tuesday evening. These included a delayed delivery of votes, (As of 9:00 this morning, 75% of the districts in the entire state of Illinois had reported their results. In Chicago, only 61% of districts has reported by that time. Someone is going to have to explain to me how an entire state can report faster than a lone city, especially when the state in question contains the city in question.) as well as questionable access to the county building that was granted to the Stroger campaign in the middle of the night, and which prompted a 1:00 am raid by the Peraica campaign.

In the end Stroger easily defeated Peraica, which is no surprise to anyone who followed the race. The fix was in months ago. The Strogers will now get to keep their incompetent cronies in place in their wasteful county agencies. The machine will press on, and Todd Stroger will likely remain the County President until the day that he suffers a stroke and is forced to put his son in his position, King Todd II.

Long live the king. I'm going to go back to plowing my field.

(For more on machine politics, see this Slate Explainer:

City government experts point to a political culture that's been in place for more than 100 years. This culture dates back to the late 19th century, when a gambling-house owner named Michael Cassius McDonald created the city's first political machine. Under machine-style rule, those in power would hand out contracts, jobs, and social services in exchange for political support.

Chicago's large immigrant population made it easier for political machines to grow in power. Poor ethnic communities could be played off against one another and manipulated with petty gifts. In exchange for political support, ethnicities would be given virtual fiefdoms within city government; the Irish, for example, were given police work, and the Italians jobs at the transit authority...

In Chicago, corruption persisted, to some degree because the city never had the benefit of a reformist mayor like New York City's Fiorello LaGuardia, who had political ties to FDR. Instead, Chicago moved towards a one-party system that made it even more vulnerable to corruption: The city's last Republican mayor left office in 1931. Today, not even the Democratic primaries are competitive—for the most part, once you're in office, you stay there. The weak campaign finance laws in Illinois probably helped to stave off competition in recent years.

The star power of Chicago politicians may also contribute to the city's continuing problems with corruption. Incumbents tend to be big personalities who get celebrity coverage in the local papers—which sometimes translates into ethical leeway from voters. (In cities like Los Angeles and New York, local politicians take a back seat to the media celebs.)


  • Thanks for the article. It's a very interesting saga.

    Large cities do seem to report more slowly than the rest of the state. Here the two big cities were among the last to get things counted, which allowed the Senate candidate to rapdily make up ground from midnight to 2am.

    By Blogger Scott H, at 9:37 PM  

  • Have you ever watched the Wire on HBO? I think you would like it, especially season three, which deals with the corrupt politics of Baltimore.

    By Anonymous Phil, at 12:22 PM  

  • No HBO, but I've heard nothing but good things, but I've also heard that if you haven't been in it from the beginning that it's tough to catch up.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 2:27 PM  

  • netflix!!!!

    By Blogger ahren, at 3:27 PM  

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