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Chicagoans Expect Bad Behavior From Pols « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/12/blago-jburwen.jpgFlickr: jburwen

They’re saying Chicago is at it again.

The reactions of pundits, legislators and local news anchors to headlines that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was caught on tape spewing profanities and looking to make money by selling President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat have ranged from disappointment to frustration. But no one has been surprised.

Does Blagojevich’s alleged political-corruption crime spree, as prosecutors describe it, symbolize how the rest of the country views Chicagoans? More important, do we perceive ourselves this way? Do we expect our politicians to behave badly?

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Well, yes.

We’ve heard it all — Crook County, City on the Take, etc. Living and dealing with political corruption, large and small, is part of our culture, as much as deep-dish pizza and looking forward to the Cubs’ next season. The city’s long history of organized crime, greased palms and backroom deals has inspired filmmakers — and generations of dirty politicians.

Chicago also boasts a more recent and colorful history of pols convicted of lying, cheating, bribing or doing whatever they please. Throughout, taxpayers seem unaffected by their greedy leaders dabbling in pay-to-play schemes. It isn’t because we’re ignorant, or profiting in some way from our politicians’ graft. It’s because we’ve come not to expect too much of our easily tempted lawmakers.

Still, most Chicagoans maintain their pride in their city, spending more time defending it from outside critics than calling for reforming it. Former Mayor Richard J. Daley, an intimidating figure surrounded by a wide-reaching bribery investigation, called Chicago “The city that works.” It’s a place that will welcome you to stay as long as you pay your dues, and where it pays to be scrappy. It’s a place where if you work hard, even at a low-paid blue-collar job or as a small-time community organizer, you will pick up experiences that will set you on a path to something better. It’s a place where success stories are born.

In 1991, the Chicago Sun Times (the newspaper Blagojevich wasn’t interested in gutting) published what many would consider a non-story. No local alderman had been convicted of political corruption that year, a fact that the newspaper deemed worthy of front-page treatment. Since 1972, nearly 30 aldermen had been convicted of various crimes. A year free of such scandal was not only a cause for celebration but maybe cause to speculate whether the newspaper reporters had really done their homework. Many of us Chicagoans had begun to expect political scandal.

Since that year, we’ve endured the trial, conviction and sentencing of former Gov. George Ryan, a rare Republican in this traditionally blue state. He’s now serving six-and-a-half years in prison for misusing state funds and for his role in allowing unqualified truckers to receive driver’s licenses through bribes. I remember running into Ryan’s entourage while covering another story in downtown Chicago. I hung back and watched the beaten man step out of a black Lincoln on his way to court that day in 2005. Curious onlookers felt sorry for him, despite the fact that his inaction in investigating bribery in his administration led to the deaths of six children in a 1994 Wisconsin crash caused by a trucker whose driver’s license was obtained through bribery. I remember one local man, who was snapping photos of Ryan, say that Chicago would behave for a while following the scandal, but once the media hype settled down, it would be business as usual.

Chicagoans admit they live with a sense of inevitability when election season rolls around. The city is run the way it is because there is no other way, so why vote for an underdog when the winner has already been chosen?

We daily accept what we’re told. It takes a long time to fill potholes and get permits to do just about anything because our heads of state have certain rules in place that everyone must follow, unless you learn that you can pony up cash to the right friendly face for faster service. We notice that family members of pols and alliances of powerful people receive preferential treatment — but isn’t it about who you know everywhere? And as the effects of a crumbling public transit system begin to show, and an Olympics bid takes precedence over assisting Chicagoans as they cope with a doule-digit sales tax, factories shutting down and union strikes, who takes the blame? Most, including many in my immigrant family, will point their fingers at the federal government, which they criticize for taking our money to ply a far-off war. Why attack a city that welcomed us onto its broad shoulders with open arms?

To give Chicagoans some credit, a history of corruption cannot be overcome by one honest governor — which Blagojevich had always purported to be — or an ambitious prosecutor. Chicagoans view themselves as a separate entity from the rest of the state. One honest governor would need several terms in office to take on the city’s politicians. Unfortunately, the trend among them has been to work Chicago politics to their advantage rather than denounce it.

In the wake of the startling revelations of Blagojevich’s alleged trespasses, people around here are looking sheepish, even embarrassed by the now commonplace descent of national news media asking us for our reactions to another politician’s shortcomings. But they reserve their shock for why it took so long to catch Blagojevich doing something worthy of arrest. Some say that they saw it coming, or ask when Mayor Richard M. Daley will be woken up by FBI agents some weekday morning.

Our latest blemish comes at a time when we were getting used to patting ourselves on the back for our role in Obama’s rise to the presidency. We were getting more positive media coverage for our handling of Obama’s huge Election Night rally and general goodwill than those “First Cities” of Los Angeles and New York. We’ve been eating up the photos of Obama with his children on the south side of the city and his trips to restaurants that we’ve eaten at.

Then this had to happen, and “our boy” is forced to distance himself yet again from a broken system and Chicago politics. Those in my district may be at least momentarily distracted by rumors that its was Obama’s chief of staff — and our congressman Rahm Emanuel — who tipped the Feds off to the whole Blagoevich mess.

It’s time now to heave a deep collective sigh and look up, specifically at the banners on light posts throughout the city’s downtown, to America’s agent of hope and change, our Obama. Although we know Blagojevich may not be the last local boy to go bad, we can still ask our last great hope, “You’re still on our side, right?”

*Agnes Jasinski is a freelance journalist in Chicago, her hometown.

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