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Could Political Patronage In Chicago Be A Thing Of The Past?


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. In Chicago there are signs that political patronage may finally be a thing of the past. A federal judge today will decide whether to end federal court oversight of the once notorious hiring practices in that cities government. If the judge rules in Chicago's favor it would end a 45 year-long legal battle over the use of patronage to build one of the nation's most powerful big-city political machines. From Chicago NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing in the lobby of Chicago City Hall where for decades just about the only way to get a job here or anywhere else in city government was to have clout. Otherwise you'd probably be told as one ward boss once famously said, "we don't want nobody that nobody sent."

MICHAEL SHAKMAN: People were hired on the basis of politics and on the basis of work in precincts.

SCHAPER: Attorney Michael Shakman is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed back in 1969 that tried to end Chicago's powerful political patronage system.

SHAKMAN: Virtually everyone who worked for the city of Chicago or Cook County had to have a sponsorship - a political sponsor and was only able to get that job and keep that job by doing political work in the precincts and by making substantial, meaningful political contributions.

SCHAPER: That created huge patronage armies working the precincts to support Mayor Richard J. Daley and his Democratic machine backed candidates. And Shakman says it created bloated government payrolls, full of employees hired and promoted not because they were qualified but because of the political efforts.

SHAKMAN: It destroyed a really representative government and it bought the public a very expensive and inefficient employment system.

SCHAPER: Shakman says the patronage system continued to flourish even after federal consent decrees bearing his name ordered systemic changes. Modest reforms reduced the number of patronage employees over time. But the practiced continued in one form or another until aides to Richard M. Daley in 2005 went to prison for creating a sham hiring process designed to get around the court orders. That's when a judge appointed a Federal Monitor to ensure that city hiring was on the up and up, forcing true reforms to slowly take root. Shakman says those improvements have an accelerated since Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected.

SHAKMAN: The people he's appointed are first rate people, who have shown every evidence of really wanting to straighten the system out, putting in place good procedures.

SCHAPER: So much so that 45 years after filing his lawsuit against the patronage system, Shakman and the federal monitor agree that the city is now implemented enough reform and safe guards at its hiring practices to end federal oversight. If the federal judge today agrees it will mark a significant move away from Chicago's old brand of machine politics.

DICK SIMPSON: I didn't think I would get to see the end of patronage.

SCHAPER: Seventy-three-year-old Dick Simpson is a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, who is an independent alderman in the 1970's butted heads with the first Mayor Daley and his patronage machine.

SIMPSON: Harold Washington was wrong when he said patronage was dead, dead, dead in 1983. But it's weak, weak, weak in 2014.

SCHAPER: Other government reformers agree that patronage in Chicago may be on its last legs, but some lifelong city residents aren't buying it.

MAURICE JOHNSON: No, 'cause it's not true.

SCHAPER: Sixty-year-old Maurice Johnson owns a small business selling computer products.

JOHNSON: What's different about the way it was? This is just deeper under the ground or hidden.

SCHAPER: But Barbara Giroux sees improvement.

BARBARA GIROUX: I would say we're headed in the right direction.

SCHAPER: You do see signs?

GIROUX: I do see signs.

SCHAPER: Now patronage at the state level is another question entirely. Michael Shakman is asking the federal court to appoint a monitor to oversee Illinois government hiring practices because of widespread patronage claims there. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.