If Donald Trump did nothing else in 2016, he introduced the country to the concept of a government run by thieves. As the Washington Post put it in a recent headline about the president elect’s conflict of interests running a government that’s also supposed to regulate his holdings, “Welcome to the Trump kleptocracy.”
At the risk of sounding like a Windy City booster, let me just say that Chicago and Illinois were into kleptocracy long before Trump made it fashionable. Hell, if the Donald wants to know about running a government riddled with conflicts of interest, shady slush funds, and out-and-out piracy, he could learn a thing or two from Chicago.
Let’s run through just a few of this year’s greatest hits:
In the annals of crime, this was the year that former alderman Sandi Jackson got out of federal prison. In 2013, she and her husband, former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., pleaded guilty to filing false income tax returns. It was part of what the Tribune called “a bizarre crime spree in which they looted about $750,000 from his federal campaign treasury and spent the money on,” among other things, “two mounted elk heads.”
Those elk heads really make a room.
You know, I was hoping we might make it through the year without an alderman getting indicted. But alas, just last week the feds indicted 20th Ward alderman Willie Cochran for allegedly doing a bunch of crooked stuff, including shaking down a local liquor store owner.
This was also the year that former governor Rod Blagojevich lost his appeal to reduce his 14-year prison sentence, after he tried to sell President Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Prison, it turns out, is not “fucking golden.”
And who could forget about former schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s confederates—Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas—who this year pleaded guilty to bribing her for helping them win about $23 million worth of principal consulting contracts? In case you’ve forgotten, Byrd-Bennett said she needed the bribes because “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.”
Finally, this was the year former U.S. House speaker Dennis Hastert went to prison essentially for paying hush money to cover up his sexual abuse of boys on the Yorkville high school wrestling teams he coached back in the 60s and 70s.
Technically that’s not an example of kleptocracy. But I didn’t want to leave you with the impression that only Democrats are up to no good in Illinois.
Nor do I want to leave you with the impression that our local politicians are only engaged in illegal forms of kleptocracy. Around here, there are plenty of perfectly legal ways for politicians to enrich their buddies, if not themselves. In Chicago we call it clout, and technically this form of government is more of an oligarchy—where the in crowd of the few feasts from the bowl of the many.
Like with the city’s tax increment financing program. You know it wouldn’t be a year in review without me ragging on TIFs.
Man, Trump would love TIFs—a secret property tax slush fund that the chief executive controls almost unilaterally.
It was relatively slow in the TIF-outrage department this year, especially considering parents and teachers finally caught on that this is money that would otherwise go to the schools, and Mayor Rahm finally took my advice and dipped into the TIF fund to resolve the city’s contract dispute with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Still, our intrepid mayor got it together to shower about $16 million in TIF money on developers who want to build upscale apartments on Montrose Avenue just a few blocks from the lake.
The mayor also threw $17.5 million at developers who want to build a mixed-use housing complex at Lathrop Homes in Bucktown, axing more than 400 units of low-income housing in the process.
The mayor also geared up to spend unspecified amounts of TIF dollars redeveloping Rezkoville and the Old Chicago Main Post Office.
But apparently we can’t afford to open any new mental health clinics in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods.
Also, let’s not forget the DePaul basketball arena/Marriott hotel that the mayor’s spending hundreds of millions of public dollars to construct in the South Loop.
In November, DePaul sold the arena’s naming rights to Wintrust Financial for an undisclosed bushel of cash. “This is going to be a great opportunity for all,” said Wintrust’s president when announcing the deal.
Apparently, he’s not a student, parent, or teacher in one of Chicago’s dead-broke schools.
Of course, I can’t talk about clout and kleptocracy in Chicago without mentioning former mayor Richard M. Daley—even though he hasn’t been in office in more than five years.
In 2016 the city officially dropped its legal efforts to break the sweetheart deal Daley’s administration signed with the owners of the Park Grill restaurant in Millennium Park. The Sun-Times affectionately calls that consortium of owners “clout-heavy insiders,” including “associates of Daley and one of his cousins.”
Daley was supposed to testify in that case in 2014. But a Cook County judge ruled that the ex-mayor was too sick to testify. So we’ll never know what the mayor knew about the contract or when.
Interestingly, Daley was well enough this year to run a business, Tur Partners, with his son, Patrick Daley. Together they raised money from foreign investors looking to pump millions into an as-yet unnamed skyscraper to be built downtown.
Look on the bright side, folks: at least the building’s not getting any TIF handouts.
Finally, let’s not forget that this was the year Governor Bruce Rauner made another down payment on his purchase of the state’s Republican Party by dumping more than $45 million into various legislative races. With all those donations, Rauner’s making sure every Republican remains a rubber-stamper when it comes to his union-busting legislation.
What’s the point of being a billionaire if you can’t buy your own political party? Although now that I think about it, Rauner’s reign is more of a plutocracy. That is, a government run by the superrich.
Which is very Trump.
Anyway, I’m sure Trump knows all about how we do business in Chicago. In 2010, he donated $50,000 to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign, probably figuring that this was the cost of doing business in Chicago.
During the presidential campaign—after Trump had infuriated Chicagoans with his caustic comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and women—the City Council voted to take down the honorary Trump street signs they’d erected around his tower.
Curiously enough, Emanuel didn’t return the $50,000, even with all the outrage over Trump’s campaign.
Take down the signs, but keep the cash—that’s my city. v