Felicia Muftic: Exposed corruption destroys foundation of machine politics
December 28, 2008
I know at least one person who not looking forward toward the New Year ” Rod Blagojevic, Governor of Illinois, who is accused of planning to sell President Elect Barack Obama’s vacated senate seat to the one who would give him the greatest payback. Blagojevic’s alleged plans have gotten him wide-spread condemnation and criminal prosecution. Machine politics have also gotten blamed for providing an atmosphere that condones such behavior.
When I studied political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. many years ago, Chicago machine political system was used as a case study of how local government worked. If you were an ordinary citizen who was not loyal to the machine, alley potholes were not filled, your trash was not picked up, and your brother didn’t get a job with the city. The reason citizens tolerated machine politics was because it worked. They got their services delivered efficiently and the cost to do so was minimal ” votes at election time and campaign contributions.
Machine politics can become the target of reform if 1) services are not delivered, 2) bribery and corrupt practices are exposed by investigative reporters, a hot shot district attorney, or federal prosecutor and the public gets sufficiently disgusted to throw the bums out, 3) “good government” practices are put on the statute books and are enforced.
In Denver, the machine failed to work in the early1980s, paving way for a reform minded new mayor, Federico Pena. An epic blizzard on a Christmas Eve exposed the faults in the system. Then Mayor Bill McNichols decided that his loyalty was to his public works department, which supplied him a great deal of political support, and he wanted to give them a holiday night off.
Unlike most blizzards in Denver, no warming trend followed, and for three weeks Denver traffic was frozen solid in unplowed streets. In the next election, McNichols was defeated, along with machine style politics.
A similar fate befell a Chicago mayor, too, several years later.
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“Good government” reforms written into law this past century have also made machine politics rarer in many of our local and state governments. Career or civil service authorities provided a mechanism to grant government jobs to lower ranks based upon exams and tests. Term limits shortened the time that a politician needed to build a machine. Requiring competitive bids for contracts helped keep the awards from becoming plums given to political buddies.
Essential elements enabling “good government” reforms are mechanisms that let the public know what is going on in smoke-filled rooms and behind closed doors.
Campaign finance reforms mandating disclosure of contributors, sunshine laws giving public access to records and open meetings and rules that require disclosure of conflict of interest are necessary to give John Q Public and law enforcers the ability to blow whistles on practices they believe are either immoral, illegal or unfair and to seek changes in the way their government does business.
Well, you say, that’s big city politics for you. Yes, but some of this “good government reform” is relevant to small towns and counties even where corruption is not suspected. Open meetings and open records laws are sometimes ignored. The informality of local officials masks sloppiness and neglect in adhering to procedure. Time, date, and agendas of meetings where controversy is expected can be moving targets, lowering attendance by dissenting members of the public. Decisions are made informally behind closed doors and presented to the public with inadequate time given for scrutiny of the final product. In contrast, for example, any contract the City and County of Denver has negotiated is published and at least two weeks lapse before final signature, allowing the public time for review, perusal of the fine print, and comment. Not following this procedure puts the amateur public at a disadvantage and creates an aura of suspicion that someone is trying to pull a fast one. If the issue is still very contentious after the ink has dried, then recalls and lawsuits are the only protest tools left in an angry John Q Public’s toolbox.
On the federal level, publication of proposed laws, rules, and regulations, allowing adequate public input, have already been institutionalized. The public seems to accept that political loyalty will be rewarded in the few appointments not covered by civil service. What is so refreshing about Barack Obama is that he has risen to power outside of the ward heeling structure of Illinois politics by using his charisma, political savvy and the Internet. Perhaps his frustrating experience with the political system, as he described in his book “Dreams From My Father”, shaped his reformist bent and that is why he included some people in his list of nominees who did not even support him in the primaries or general election. It is his own brand of a merit hiring system.