Chicago scandal takes its toll

Mayor Daley's political future may be in peril, as a city corruption probe begins to yield convictions.

A once mundane, now quickly growing, investigation into Chicago City Hall hiring and contracting practices has become a relentless drumbeat of indictments, convictions, and front-page headlines that threatens to topple one of America's most monarchical mayors.

It's not that Chicagoans are at all surprised about the idea that patronage, money, and political connections influenced who got jobs. No, what's new this time around, they say, is that people are going to jail for it.

"This city runs on back-room deals," says Jim Faye, a chef reading the day's paper outside a coffee shop, expressing a typical sentiment. "It's more of a lounge act in terms of politics."

Even amid Chicago's storied reputation for corruption, this has been an unusually significant and far-reaching investigation involving 30 indictments and 23 convictions. Those charged have included a top official at the mayor's office of intergovernmental affairs and the former deputy water commissioner, who pleaded guilty to taking bribes, shaking down companies for political contributions, and rigging hiring. With a number of cooperating witnesses, including the water czar, the investigation is far from over.

What's remarkable is that for the first time, Mayor Richard M. Daley seems politically vulnerable. His approval ratings are the lowest since he was elected in 1989. Beneath the apparent cynicism over corruption, many Chicagoans seem genuinely to care about the finding and don't accept his repeated statements that he has nothing to do with hiring. One Republican official even offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could provide information leading to Mr. Daley's conviction. The next election is two years away, but the notion of a legitimate challenger and potential Daley defeat - once a laughable premise - is now an open discussion.

"It is a serious problem, and it's sort of at a tipping point," says Dick Simpson, a former city alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. On the other hand, "there has never been a mayor in Chicago defeated on a corruption scandal alone," he says. "It's the political culture here, and we've had machine politics for so long that we rather expect patronage and corruption."

That reputation, left over from days when Al Capone financed politicians, may not be totally accurate these days, but the current headlines have done nothing to dispel it. Even Daley, who long denied patronage still existed in city government, acknowledged in May that political clout may be a problem and has promised an overhaul of city hiring practices.

The probe, still referred to as the "Hired Truck" investigation because of corruption in the way the city awarded trucking contracts, has focused recently on charges that numerous city jobs were filled using lists of people in political favor. The hirings often involved falsified test scores and sham interviews to justify the decisions. Hires included "goofballs," "a drunk," and even a dead man, according to charges brought by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. Since May, seven members of Daley's cabinet have been fired or have resigned.

So far, however, no allegations have been made against the mayor himself. But critics increasingly dismiss his claims that he could not have known what went on.

"It's not all systemic - a lot of it is leadership," says Dan Sprehe, chief investigator for the Better Government Association, a nonpartisan watchdog group begun in the 1920s to counter Capone's influence. A culture of reform, embraced from the top down, has been lacking, says Mr. Sprehe. "There are so many great things in this city that the mayor can take credit for. This is some of the stuff he has to take credit for as well. It happened on his watch."

Many Chicagoans seem to agree. A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll in May showed mayoral approval ratings of just 53 percent - a remarkable low point for a mayor reelected in 2003 with nearly 80 percent of the vote. In a hypothetical contest against US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. - the person most often cited as a mayoral challenger - the poll had Mr. Jackson winning, 40 percent to 37 percent (with 23 percent undecided). Blacks, in particular, seemed to have turned on Daley, with 70 percent saying they would favor Jackson.

"He does some things well for the city, but I think it'd be good to get someone else in there," says Keeley Sorokti, a religious-education director at a Lakeview church who laughs at the idea that the scandal is surprising. "It feels like it's a monopoly of government."

As a man who lives and breathes Chicago, and went from son of its most famous mayor to king in his own right, Daley has always thought in terms of his legacy. His hallmark has been big-city projects and big plans for the future: the 24-acre Millennium Park, now the jewel of the downtown lakefront; a total overhaul of the public schools and public housing; a possible bid for the 2016 Olympics.

On his watch, say Daley admirers, Chicago has become a better city - cleaner, greener, and more livable. While some privately wonder if he will even want to run in 2007, others say the election will still be his for the taking, if the economy doesn't turn. And, in his old Bridgeport stomping ground, Daley's name is still gold.

"He's made the city look so good. In this neighborhood - it'll cost you $225,000 now just to get a piece of dirt," says Tom, a lifelong Bridgeport resident who works for the city and asked that his last name not be used. Nearby, at Morrie O'Malley's hot dog stand, others echo that sentiment.

"He's a great man," says Bob O'Malley, as he slings hot dogs. "The best mayor we ever had - along with his father of course."

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