Machine Machinations


WORD CAME DOWN from the fifth floor that morning. All the unions had to be there that night--the quotas would be filled, and no excuses. It was drizzling that Thursday early last month, and the "Old Man" wanted the "regulars" out there, rain or shine, hell or high water. This was to be a glorious night for the machine and for Jimmy Carter.

"The Old Man wants at least a hundred thousand out there tonight," the portly precinct captain said, "so you better have five bodies, plus your own ugly face, out there on Michigan Avenue tonight. We're taking a head count at the lot, and don't try to leave before Carter speaks because Tommy will be at the lot." The captain smiled, exposing tobacco-stained dentures as he banged his fist on his fleshy palm.

The city worker he grinned at, also a precinct captain in the mayor's own 11th ward, returned his smile. He knew tonight was important. Mayor Richard J. Daley wanted this to be the largest parade ever held for a single individual. It would be bigger than the torchlight parades he organized for JFK and LBJ. The mayor is no Carter fanatic, but he needs a Carter victory to help carry his gubernatorial candidate, Michael J. Howlett, into office. So for Daley, control of the state is at stake; control means patronage, and patronage is power.

Daley didn't become so powerful or win a 730,000 vote plurality by flashing his Ultra-Brite teeth or by claiming virility and experience as his major assets. Daley is strong because the Cook County Democratic organization (more commonly referred to as the "machine") functions so smoothly. But machines break down without fuel, and that fuel is patronage and other material inducements.

In Chicago, patronage means thousands of city, county and even state jobs. Even after progressive reforms, civil service and an era of investigative reporting, patronage in its crudest form still exists. It is not, as optimists might have it, an extinct product of the "old politics."


Most Chicagoans realize that patronage exists--what the hell, rewarding political cronies and using your "connections" is as American as smoke-filled rooms. But Chicago patronage is so pervasive and blatantly practiced that even many Chicago Democrats would be shocked to learn how deeply rooted it is in the governmental system. They would be angered to discover how many $30,000 salaries are paid to city workers whose main duty is to serve as caretaker of the Democratic machine.

This summer I worked as a planning intern in City Hall, where I befriended some of the cigar-chomping politicos who make the place their ward headquarters away from home. The following description of the Chicago patronage system was provided by men who admit they owe their livelihoods, and often their social lives, to the machine. All the detailed information was necessarily supplied by well-connected precinct captains, and as usual, the names are changed to protect the guilty.

Patronage jobs doled out by the city and county number not in the hundreds, but in the thousands and probably the tens of thousands. Johnny, a precinct captain in the mayor's ward, estimates that of the more than 35,000 employees the city hires directly, 80 per cent got their jobs through political connections. This figure does not include another 33,000 policemen, firemen and Board of Education personnel, many of whom also got their positions through a "sponsor." Even though I was only a summer intern in City Hall's "cleanest" department, seven fellow workers asked me who my "sponsor" was. Although I had none, I had to admit it didn't hurt any being related to Howlett.

Most city job seekers have to be sponsored, which means they better have a letter from their ward office when they report to personnel. This infamous "letter," signed in most cases by the ward committeeman, states that the applicant has been faithful and useful to the ward organization (the Democratic one, of course) and is thus recommended for a position the committeeman knows is his to give out. Hiring is not automatic, though. If the applicant is totally unqualified for the job, the ward may be told to sponsor someone else--but this is far rarer than are incompetent employees.

You see, if patronage, contracts, legal fees and other material incentives are the fuel the machine requires to function, then the regular Democratic ward organizations are the engines which use that fuel to keep the machine running strong. They are the base the machine rests on. The city is broken into 50 wards, each with its own boss, the ward committeeman, who is elected in the party's mayoral primary. Committeemen choose the man who will run for alderman or for the state legislature from their area--subject to Daley's approval naturally--and they often pick themselves. Since Democrats usually win the general election, the main battle is during the primaries, and to keep control of the party, the machine has used patronage to cultivate a virtually unbeatable advantage.

To ensure that advantage, jobs and other benefits are not given out piecemeal, but are used as "organizational cement." According to Johnny and Peter, who is also an 11th ward precinct captain, each ward is given a certain number of city and county (and state, when it is under regular Democratic control) jobs to hand out as it pleases. Tommy Donovan, the mayor's administrative assistant, is in charge of patronage for the city. He knows which jobs are open and who controls them. Since different positions carry different salaries and prestige, Donovan makes sure that the actual job distribution matches the relative merits, the political needs and the socio-economic characteristics of each ward.

This system is so organized that certain desks throughout City Hall are said to be "owned" by a given ward. Let's say Johnny is a planner level two, a job he got through the 11th ward, and he wants a promotion to a recently vacated planner-three position. To obtain it he has to go through his ward committeeman, Richie Daley, the mayor's son. If Johnny has been delivering his precinct, Richie will bargain with whomever "owns" the planning job, and he may be forced to trade a plumbing inspectorship to get it.

Machine patronage is becoming a matter of increasing frustration to the city's growing minority population. Minority groups compose at least half of Chicago's population, yet they have been virtually starved of the ripest fruits the machine has to offer. Such a disgraceful percentage of high-ranking fire and police officers are white (and most of these Irish) that the courts were finally forced to interfere with city hiring policies.

The abuses of patronage extend even beyond this wholesale job distribution and discrimination. Often unnecessary job titles are created when more patronage is needed. Many city workers have been found working other jobs, or more frequently, laboring at the party offices, while supposedly occupying a desk in City Hall. And this month extended sick leave (with pay) will be awarded to deserving city workers needed to campaign for the Democratic ticket.

Along with the privileges of patronage, however, go a few drawbacks. For example, most patronage workers must donate a certain portion of their salary (usually about 4 per cent) to their local ward office. This duty is often fulfilled by attending functions like $500-a-plate fundraising dinners. All patronage workers also face the possibility that the machine will be turned out of office. Precinct captain Peter lost his cozy $25,000 state job when independent Daniel Walker was elected governor in 1972 and fired hundreds of Daley people in a futile attempt to build his own political machine to rival Daley's.

"Idealists say patronage is wrong, but patronage workers fulfill a purpose. Even if they are not as competent in their jobs, they make it possible for power to be centralized in a chief executive who knows what needs to be done," Lewis W. Hill, whose list of titles includes Commissioner of Development and Planning and Commissioner of Urban Renewal, said early last month. Many City Hall insiders say Hill is the second most powerful man in city government and a possible successor to Daley.

If Chicago were governed without patronage. Hill said, power would not be centralized, and Chicago would deteriorate to the economic or social chaos of a New York City or Detroit. Chicagoans must know the machine is tuned-up by corruption, but they give Daley landslide approval--because his machine keeps their city running smoothly.

Hill sees nobody with the prestige or the organizational genius of Daley emerging to take his place, and he says Daley would be unlikely to anoint his own successor. "Men of power rarely create their successors--like some medieval kings who would kill their sons to preserve their power and reputation," Hill said. This could mean trouble for those who depend on a "Boss" for their livelihoods.

Lest you think that the repercussions of Chicago (and other local) patronage and corruption don't affect our whole political system, then look back at JFK's timely "miracle" in Illinois in 1960--and keep your eyes open on November 2. As a religious man, Jimmy Carter may not like Daley's purported power to make voters rise from the dead on Election Day, but as a politician, he may figure that a spare miracle might come in handy if he needs to be "born again."