Chicago’s Political History: Blago’s in Jail, Who’s Got Next?

Rod Blagojevich, the fourth Illinois Governor to go to prison in the past 40 years, said goodbye to his family today.  Perhaps best known for calling an open senate seat “(explicative)…golden,” many people think of Blagojevich as the most egregious display of political corruption that Illinois (and the nation) has ever seen.

Most Illinois’ residents won’t miss a beat or bat an eye today.  Unfortunately, politicians serving time is considered par for the course.  Instead we go on with our lives and maintain two basic  expectations for our political figures:  1) To ensure the garbage will be picked up daily and 2) To ensure that the snow will be removed during the winter.

We expect that power will continue to be fought over…by those in power.

We look to solve the most immediate problems in our neighborhoods ourselves.

And we wait until the next breaking news story that will tell us which of our politicians will be going to jail next.

A Brief History of Chicago Politics

In the early 1800’s when Chicago was first (re)discovered, the city quickly became a booming metropolis because it acted as a fur trading post on the coast of what was then considered the emerging Western Frontier.   Initially, its proximity to the Great Lakes allowed for increased commerce between New York and the developing Midwest.  However, with the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canals, the potential of commerce increased exponentially because goods were able to go from New York to Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico.  Soon thereafter the steam locomotives and intercontinental railroads – all connecting through Chicago – solidified the city’s place as the transportation hub of the country.

The massive volume of commodities sold led to the establishment of the first futures and options exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade in 1848.  In short, by the beginning of the 20th century, you couldn’t do business in the United States without going through Chicago (literally) and thus its place as a major player in the world of politics was born.

As the metropolis grew, factories came and immigrants followed.  This led to segregation along ethnic lines as Irish, Polish, and Italians established their communities and their political and economic agendas.  Yet, in the face of the Great Depression, these disparate ethnic groups made a decision that would permanently impact the political infrastructure of Chicago. They consolidated themselves into one group, the Cook County Democratic Organization, more infamously known as the Chicago Democratic Machine.

How the ‘Chicago Machine’ Operates

The ‘Chicago Machine’ modus operandi could be summarized by the following:

  1. To merge the collective interest of the three largest ethnic groups in the City;
  2. To use its voting base to guarantee political representation;
  3. To ensure political participation (and order) through a highly regimented and organized system of neighborhood ombudsmen (also known as ward bosses, committeemen, and councilmen)


African-Americans and Latinos were begrudgingly brought into the organization in the 1930s and throughout the following decades would splinter off to develop their own ‘sub-machines’ to represent issues of race and urban renewal.  Yet, no matter how polarizing the topic, both African-American and Latino Democrats had to continually support the greater organization to retain its own clout.

Clout Street

It’s important to understand the history of Chicago and thus the history of ‘The Machine’ in order to understand the concept of clout and why it keeps putting politicians in prison.

Chicago prides itself on being a city of immigrants and of neighborhoods....neighborhoods where people look out for each other, take care of each other, and have each other’s back.  You take this notion of loyalty, expand it to include one’s access to political power, jobs and government contracts, sprinkle it with a pinch of undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder and you have yourself a Chicago politician.

Pay for Play

Many people hear the term, ‘Pay for Play’ and assume that it is always an overt attempt to bribe someone for political access.  While we see from Rod Blagojevich’s indictment that those egregious examples of greed exist, it is important to understand that a Pay for Play scheme rarely results in the direct exchange of cash for a favor.

Unbeknownst to the average citizen, ‘Pay for Play’ is seen most commonly through the allocation of city, state, and federal contracts.

In the early days, a small business owner from the neighborhood would visit his ward boss and ask for help to get an additional permit that would help his business.  The neighborhood mothers would complain about the lack of snow removal during cold winter months.  The ward boss would make a call and both problems would be resolved.

Now, developers/trucking companies /vending companies/churches/not for profits look to receive millions in yearly federal grant dollars without submitting applications and without going through a fair and transparent process. Unfortunately, so many of our politicians – stuck in the culture of loyalty and patronage that is as inherent to our city as hotdogs and deep dish pizza, not only succumb to this way of providing leadership but are quickly enamored by the power that it brings and the financial gains that it affords.

“If your friends can’t get it for you, then money can…”

When it’s all said and done, it’s difficult to foresee if the way things are done will change much in this city.  Geographically located to broker commerce, demographically suited to maintain its formidable political identity, and forever tied to its legacy of patronage, most are not waiting in expectation for the city to become a poster child for a transparent government.


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    Kay S

    Kay Smith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and blogger who focuses on race, politics and urban culture. Having worked on public policy at the state, regional, city and community level, her opinions have been featured in the Chicago SunTimes and a host of news websites (under very mysterious sounding pseudonyms). Follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith or contact her at

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