That Same Old Place, Sweet Home Chicago

The Roland Burris Saga — or Operation Ego Drop, as I like to call it — has once again forced those outside the realm of Chicago politics into a state of confusion and those within the seedy world of Second City politicking to declare this strange affair business as usual. As someone who lived and worked in Chicago politics only briefly, I hope to bring a not-quite-outsider's view to the world of vote-getting (and, occasionally, vote-taking or vote-buying) in the shady city.

Just think of me as the de Tocqueville of de on-the-Takeville, giving a close view of a place as perplexingly crooked as it is delightfully fascinating. Strap yourselves in and hide your wallet as we take the El straight to insight — until we're detoured by another transit cutback caused by the state's power brokers' unwillingness and inability to secure funding for infrastructure projects.

Our journey starts Downtown, in this country's real seat of power: the mayor's office. I won't waste too much time recounting tales of the power of the Daley (really, any Daley) machine. Needless to say, the position of mayor is slightly more powerful than president and slightly less powerful than pope. Whether you're an alderman, a congressman or a clergyman, you're either “in” or “out,” and it's the mayor in the role of Heidi Klum.

Moving out in all directions from City Hall are the many congressional, state legislative and state senatorial districts making up the Chicagoland area. Despite most of these legislators falling under the Democratic label, as with most one-party areas, there are many shades to that rainbow. In Chicago, this mostly breaks down by race and not ideological slant. As you might imagine, younger and more affluent near-Downtown areas (take Lakeview) break down as more progressive than the more rural and suburban areas farther away.

White populations and legislators take the northern edge of Downtown and spread out north and west. Latinos are located primarily west and southwest of the Sears Tower. Anything south of the elevated train ringing Chicago's loop is predominantly African-American until the far-far southern suburbs. These groups caucus together as Democrats, but any affections shared across the lines are due to something else besides party affiliation.

Roughly three hours by car or train (or, if you're the governor, 40 minutes by state jet) is Springfield, Ill. Theoretically the seat of power in the state; the governor, the elected executive officers and a majority of legislators come from the Chicagoland area and spend most of their time in the Windy City. Most politicians commute back and forth between Chicago and Springfield, rather than setting up a more permanent residence as legislators in other large states do.

How state legislators view Springfield can best be exemplified by the living spaces they choose. I once visited the temporary Capitol abode of a state senator who spent the night in a one-bedroom apartment in an old building that would be embarrassingly unadorned even for a college student. A small desk and folding lawnchair hooked up to the printer was the "business center"; the "master suite" consisted of a mattress thrown on the floor (with an air mattress for guests) with hospital-issue white sheets and a white blanket.

What does this have to do with the often-corrupt world of Chicago and Illinois politics? It speaks to a disturbingly imbalanced system of government with power widely dispersed among individuals controlled by a barely elected city mayor and led by an oppressively powerful governor all based in the state's largest city. None of the individual legislators could be too severely blamed for refusing to tussle with the mayor too often, as he and his family have amassed nepotistic powers of appointment, tons of money and so much control it isn't worth bothering with them.

On the other end is the governor, who, once elected, is endowed with appointive powers rivaled only by the mayor and with legislative powers far in advance of most state executives’. The governor gets his way, even when it's a confoundedly stupid way. The "Transit Showdown of 2007" is a great example of how the many parties within Illinois are imbued with power to solve a problem and, at the same time, blocked by this same power to actually do so.

The last major infrastructure bill to pass through the various levels of Illinois governance was Gov. George Ryan's For Infrastructure, Roads, Schools and Transit (FIRST) in 1999. Achieved by an imbalance in the party make-up of the state, the now-disgraced Republican Gov. Ryan was able to work with the Democratic leaders to actually bring about the minimum funding needed to keep the state functioning.

Three years later, Democrat Rod Blagojevich is elected governor on the promise of helping out the working man and reforming the healthcare system. As per usual, most expected the governor would be interested in helping himself out a little, though he'd prove to excel even by Illinois standards. The president of the Senate, Emil Jones, near retirement and excited about the prospect of a Democratic governor (finally!), fell into his camp. Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, sensing the prospect of competition, hedged. This was the start of a fault leading to all sorts of assumed crises. The governor didn't want to raise any taxes, especially a sales tax, and therefore no infrastructure bills could pass.

Rapid growth in the state, coupled with an increase in the cost of building materials and fuel — and topped off with healthcare and pension costs — meant state and local agencies, especially transit agencies, were in a bad way. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), seeing a budget shortfall, threatened all-out collapse in a city heavily dependent on transit. Here's where Democrats in the United States Senate neglected to do their homework.

The CTA (and two other local transit agencies) essentially engaged in a game of chicken with Gov. Blagojevich and lost. They needed either an infrastructure bill or a sales tax increase. They threatened to cut services as the legislative session was beginning (and in areas curiously convenient if you're trying to draw the attention of certain communities and their state reps) but didn't follow through. When the deadline came and nothing concrete happened, the CTA balked. Just like you "don't promise Crazy a baby," you can't win a game of chicken with someone who thinks he’s immortal.

The governor would have let the transit agency die before going back on his promise regarding a sales tax. The CTA caused a few more of these panic attacks but fell victim to the "boy who cried wolf" effect, and public outrage waned. By the time the forces behind the transit bailout got their act together, the regular session was over and a special session was needed. As if getting anything past the governor weren't already hard enough, the rules of a special session required a supermajority to get something time-sensitive passed. This meant Democrats would need votes from the oft-ignored "downstate" legislators ("downstate" being anywhere not within the five-county Chicagoland area).

The mayor was involved though mostly absent from the discussion. He pushed lightly for transit but didn't attempt to showdown and undermine the presumed power he had. Better to save his power for his self-glorifying attempts at securing the Olympics for Chicago before the end of his administration.

Eventually, the governor approved a sales tax increase with the agreement of rate cuts for elderly patrons. It was a way for the governor, more for his own Robin Hood fantasies than anything else, to help out the little guy and lose almost nothing for it.

The greatest tragedy in this whole affair is the citizens of Illinois don't really want this. Individuals in Urbana and Carbondale would rather not live in the shadow of Chicago, and those within the city aren't pleased about the way they are portrayed or led. Sadly, there's not much they can do about it. The problem is systematic, not sociological. There's nothing about the water, the air, the people or the hot dogs that can explain the continued failure of government or the Cubs. At least the Cubs have a curse to blame.

The great mystery of President-elect Obama is how he managed to shrug off, mostly, the corrupt and strange world of Chicago politics in order to arrive where he is today. Should it be surprising his campaign was all about change when he comes from such a flawed place? I think not. Watching U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) out-crazy Gov. Blagojevich at a recent press conference, I was reminded of Obama's unsuccessful attempt to dethrone the congressman. Only in Chicago could someone as strange as Rush defeat someone as savvy as Obama.

Everyone's frustration with the unpopular governor and his reign of hilarious mismanagement is symptomatic of a greater problem with the state's power structure that only a constitutional change can correct. If there's light at the end of the tunnel, it's in the form of the current Illinois Constitution, which puts on the ballot an up-or-down vote on holding a convention to reconfigure itself. Unfortunately, the last one was in 2008 and it only garnered 33 percent of the vote. It's going to take another 20 years before Illinois voters get a chance, but they should strongly consider doing so.

Reviewing the recent events with an old Chicago hand I know, one typically on the outs with the state's power structure, I was surprised to hear how excited he was. His state looked bad, but the dysfunction was sure to cause the kind of churn needed for reforms to occur. If there's a lesson to be taken from “The Blues Brothers,” it isn't of a God who shines down on the state's wicked, but rather of a place where even the wicked can redeem themselves. Come 2028, the far-from-wicked people of Illinois can go a long way by "seeing the light" and pulling the lever for reform.