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How Chicago's political machine endures corruption: One voter's story

December 12, 2008 |  7:04 am

Chicago's Near North Side residential lakefront and Oak Street beach

This is a true story about Chicago's Democratic machine politics, an urban brand that has produced President-elect Barack Obama, White House chief-of-staff-designate Rahm Emanuel and now, notoriously, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, accused of selling his nomination to a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

From a distance many observers might not understand how the state's Democratic political organization keeps getting elected for generations, when what all those people elsewhere ever hear about are corruption scandals in the Windy City or Land of Lincoln, as The Ticket detailed here Thursday.

Why wouldn't Chicago voters ever rise up and toss the rascals out?

This story concerns a young woman named Cindy. It occurred some years ago but could have happened yesterday given the constant internal regeneration of the Cook County machine, currently under the command of Mayor Richard M. Daley and about four dozen loyal aldermen, each with their own longstanding loyal organizations.

Cindy was working her way through college in night classes. After school late one evening, she went grocery shopping and was walking home on a deserted residential street on Chicago's North Side carrying two bags.

Suddenly, a disheveled man waving a kitchen knife jumped out of the bushes. He knocked her down, grabbed her purse and ran off.

Shaken, Cindy later reported it to the police, who were ...

... sympathetic but offered little hope of catching the likely drug addict.

The next morning on her way to work Cindy walked passed the crime scene, hoping perhaps to retrieve at least her discarded purse. She found nothing but approached a nearby city garbage crew working its way down the miles of back alleys that honeycomb the Windy City.

Had they by any chance seen a new, red suede purse?

Yes, said the city worker. In fact, he'd just dumped it in the truck. He'd wondered why anyone would throw such a nice thing into a garbage can. Cindy said she'd been mugged the previous night and knew the money was gone but wondered about recovering her purse.

The garbage worker told his driver, who ordered bIllinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, president-elect and former senator Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, all Democrats, in happier less legally-entangled daysoth of them into the cab. While driving to his sanitation yard, he radioed the precinct captain to explain the situation.

The captain met the crew and Cindy at the yard. He ordered the truck dumped until the purse fell out. He waded into the stinking garbage and recovered it.

Then he drove Cindy to a dry cleaners near her apartment, paid in advance for the cleaning, gave Cindy the receipt and drove her downtown to work.

There, he asked to speak to her supervisor. He explained the circumstances and asked Cindy's boss to please excuse her late arrival, which the man readily did.

The precinct captain returned to his city job.

Cindy and her boss told that story often over time. Chicagoans nod their head. People elsewhere shake their heads.

But that's not the end. Several months later, on a Saturday afternoon, the precinct captain appeared at Cindy's apartment door. He was pleased to learn that Cindy got her clean purse back and all was well. He hoped she'd vote in the election coming in 10 days.

Cindy did indeed vote in that municipal election. She enthusiastically cast her ballot to reelect the man who was mayor the awful night she got mugged.

And in Chicago that makes perfect sense.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Photo credits: Windy City Guide (top); Associated Press (Blagojevich, Obama, Mayor Richard M. Daley).

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