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The Good Wife
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Cary's Corner Pay for Play

Posted on Mar 5, 2012 10:53am

It's been a disappointing week at work. I was given an order with which I deeply disagreed. I performed it, and I stood behind it as my choice, but the whole incident left a bitter taste in my mouth and has forced me to reassess people for whom I have, up until now, had great respect. Jake Arvey, the Chicago Democratic machine boss of the 1950s, had a revealing quote: "There are definitions of politics: the art of compromise, the art of the possible. But to me, politics is the art of putting people under obligation to you." I get it. Patronage is what makes politics work. Calling in favors is a way to get things done, get legislation passed. If it's done to achieve something we believe in – think LBJ's civil rights legislation – we can point to that as a positive result of patronage. Barack Obama leaned heavily on it while trying to push his health care plan through Congress. It's an inextricable part of the political process. But in Chicago, the city that invented patronage, it's been taken to a whole different level. In 2006, Daley deputy Robert Sorich was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for his dispensing of patronage. Sorich actually kept something called the "Clout List" – a list of 5,000 political supporters whom he recommended for job vacancies in different city agencies when they arose. Over 100 people from the list receiving jobs were felons, many with convictions for illegal influence peddling. The corruption goes beyond the gift of the job itself. When someone is installed as a political favor, the person who deserved the job but didn't get it is wronged. The city and its constituents lose the benefit of having the best possible person in that seat. Injustice has already occurred, and that's before factoring in the day-to-day decisions and actions of a patronage hire, who is at best unmotivated and at worst incompetent. Furthermore, once installed in a position, the supporter owes the benefactor, making him or her more susceptible to corruption and influence. (That's why the "Clout List" also noted each person's political sponsor.) Swing a dead cat in Chicago and you'll hit an example of the damage a corrupt person in the wrong job can do. In 2007, bribery of a plumbing inspector led to the cover up of a contaminated water leak at a Chicago grade school, endangering the 1,100 children who attended. Another example is Governor George Ryan's scheme to sell truck operator licenses to unqualified drivers in exchange for political donations. This corruption came to light because of a resulting fatal truck accident that killed six children. Yep. That's Chicago. Can a politician in this city – or anywhere else, for that matter -- navigate such a landscape in a way that doesn't ultimately compromise his decisions? I used to believe it was possible. Now, I'm not sure what I think…