Chicago's Denizens Spurn Rostenkowski-Style Politics

Congresssman, in legal duress, presides over much-changed district

SHOULD Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) want a keener understanding of why the law has been gunning for him, he need only stroll the streets of his family's gritty political turf in Chicago's 32nd Ward.

From the doorstep of his residence in the 5th Congressional District, Mr. Rostenkowski could listen to how the neighborhood's feisty, Polish-accented English has steadily given way to Spanish.

The congressman need not walk far from the nearby crumbling towers of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church to notice other signs of the severe demographic changes that have undermined the old-style ward politics that have kept him in power.

Across the street from the church in Pulaski Park, African-American and Hispanic students play softball with their white classmates, all dressed in the red and white gym clothes of the church school. On the far side of the park, workmen gentrifying homes for young professionals tear off the roofs and gut the walls of three-story apartments.

Since Rostenkowski left Chicago for Congress in 1958, the 32nd Ward - like much of the congressman's district - has steadily recast its ethnic profile. The northwest side of Chicago is no longer largely made up of white immigrants. Politicians can no longer win over the area by making the easy appeal to common ethnic ties and providing exclusive benefits to an ethnic group. Instead, they must rally the area's ``multicultural'' population around clean government and other universal notions.

Despite the changes just outside his door, Rostenkowski apparently has clung to the ways of the Chicago Democratic machine that have served him so well. But the devotion of the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee to ward politicking has cost him votes among newcomers to the neighborhood.

``Rostenkowski got sucked up with the wrong thoughts and did what he did - he's got to pay for it now,'' says Jose Ibarrondo, standing before his apartment two blocks from Rostenkowski's district home.

Like his father who served as alderman, Rostenkowski rose through the ward ranks by providing favors and jobs for underlings and voters and then marshaling them at election time.

Today, however, many workings in the old system of paternalism and patronage are unlawful. Indeed, the recent indictment shows Rostenkowski that a traditional political machine these days can backfire. He allegedly abused his office and official expense accounts. Yet to voters in the ward more than 20 years ago, most of such wrongdoing was not wrong, it was just the way a ward leader got things done.

``It's likely that the kind of arrogance of power that he is being accused of in Washington has its roots in ward politics in Chicago,'' says Alan Gitelson, professor of political science at Loyola University.

The congressman allegedly bilked the House post office out of thousands of dollars through disguised stamp purchases, spent taxpayers' money to buy furniture from the House stationery store for personal gifts, and put on the office payroll supporters or their relatives who did no work.

``In the old days in Chicago he would have gotten in trouble if he didn't do these things,'' says Paul Green, professor of political science at Governors State University.

Although many voters in the district applaud Rostenkowski's comeuppance, it is easy to find residents who believe he is beyond reproach. Most voters to some degree have skimmed from the congressman's ample pork barrel of federal funding; many of them have turned to him for personal favors.

``I think Rosty's getting a raw deal,'' says Charles Whipple from the top step leading to his two-story brick home a block away from the congressman's residence. A retired worker at the Chicago Rawhide Manufacturing Co., Mr. Whipple has lived in the area for 54 years.

In 1979, Whipple asked the city to repair a torn up curb outside an apartment house he owned on Elston Avenue. The city planned to do a slapdash job. Whipple made a visit to Rostenkowski's district office and the congressman's lieutenants saw that the repair was done right.

During the Democratic primary for Rostenkowski's seat on March 15, many voters like Whipple apparently accepted the implicit deal offered by the old-style ward politician: Vote for me and I will do what it takes to bring home the goods.

Rostenkowski based his campaign on the promise that he would continue his peerless record of bestowing federal pork. Precinct foot soldiers reinforced his message by working the storefronts and front stoops throughout much of the district.

Buoyed by the machine's dogged minions and surefire message, Rostenkowski won with 50 percent of the vote.

The primary ``was a picturebook organization campaign, highly dependent on the old precinct workers - we're just not going to see that again,'' says Dr. Gitelson at Loyola.

The Democratic machine has deteriorated as whites have fled to the suburbs out of hostility toward racial diversity or in search of suburban comfort - opening the way for a politics based on more on race than ethnicity.

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