The ascension of Newt Gingrich to speaker of the House is surely the political atrocity of the year–if not the decade. Imagine, however, the competition for this honor had the folks in Virginia given us Senator Oliver North, or Californians thrust Senators Michael and Arianna Huffington upon us! All we could hurl at our fellow Americans was Congressman Michael Patrick Flanagan.

But the connoisseur of local political atrocities still had much to savor this year. With 25 percent of the Chicago congressional delegation running under federal indictment, competition for the Janey Awards for Putrid Politics was fierce, from the primary to the general election and all points between.

This year’s trophies will be inscribed with the immortal words of Ed Bedore, Mayor-for-Life Richard M. Daley’s point man on riverboat gambling, who said in defense of the casinos, “There are ethics you wouldn’t believe.”

The envelope, please.

Reynolds Rap: Mel Reynolds, the distinguished gentleman from the Second District of Chicago, gave us a doubleheader. First, a local indictment for having sex with an underaged campaign worker, soliciting her for child pornography, and obstructing justice in an attempt to cover it up. Then, a federal investigation of his campaign financing activities. “If I were a white congressman with the same background, would this have happened? I think not,” said Reynolds, ignoring all his white colleagues indicted and convicted of similar crimes. Anyone ready to bring back Gus Savage?

Summer Soldiers: In a grandly goofy replay of D Day, the allies invaded Montrose Beach this summer, much to the consternation of the neighboring community. But the allies won again, having forced the surrender of Alderman Helen Shiller, who led the opposition.

Rosty Gets the Bird: In his successful primary battle the chairman claimed to have obtained a helicopter for the fire department as a sign of his ability to deliver the goods. After a dramatic landing for the TV cameras, the so-called Porkchopper disappeared, and it was learned that the helicopter we saw had been here all along. By election time the new Porkchopper had not been delivered. It finally arrived in December, too late to rescue Rostenkowski.

Taking the Fifth: The line formed quickly to replace Rostenkowski in the Fifth District. Notable among the possibilities is David Wilhelm, outgoing chairman of the DNC (Democratic National Calamity), who apparently rose to the level of his total incompetence before presiding over the election that brought us Speaker Newt. Running him for Congress is like bringing back the captain of the Titanic to run the boats on Lake Michigan.

School Daze: If you wonder why Chicago school kids score so poorly, just listen to a major role model, Robert Healey, once a teacher and former head of the Chicago Teachers Union, who endorsed George Ryan in a videotaped commercial by calling him “one of the finest secretary of states.”

Judy Judy Judy: Even the good folk can indulge in a touch of deception, as witness the official-looking window envelopes delivered to state rep Judy Erwin’s constituents with the return address “Department of Elections, IHDM, Springfield, IL” and the imprint “Important Voter Notification.” Something about your registration? Nope. It was a form letter from Senator Paul Simon extolling Erwin’s otherwise real virtues.

The $10 Million Man: Our own Michael Huffington, multimillionaire lawyer Al Hofeld, dropped another $5 million of his personal funds trying to buy the attorney general’s office. A couple of years ago he spent a similar amount trying to purchase a Senate seat. Listen, Al: I know a couple of ward committeemen who will sell you an aldermanic seat outright for that kind of dough.

The Wall Comes Down II: It looked like glasnost and perestroika all over again when the courts made Alderman Bernie Stone tear down the wall he’d erected on Howard Street to protect the 50th Ward from the patrons of a proposed Evanston shopping mall. But Bernie, smarting from the loss of his erection, had Kedzie made a one-way street in order to continue screwing up traffic in the area. Perhaps his creative talents can be put to use in Bosnia.

Oily Mazola: Alderman Ted Mazola of the illustrious First Ward was a man with a mission: destroy the Maxwell Street flea market. When Alderman Dexter Watson of the nearby 27th Ward objected vigorously, Mazola squared off for a fistfight with his colleague, right in the City Council chambers. Sometime later Mazola ordered a police raid on a church party near his home and had some University of Illinois students and a Catholic priest arrested. The chagrined police did the alderman’s bidding, but neither they nor he showed up at the hearing, setting the offenders free. Mazola then made the finest pronouncement of his term: he will not run again.

Pate-Gate: The immortal Illinois senate president James “Pate” Philip stirred the electoral pot with a remark that African Americans “do not have the work ethics that we have.” It was the latest in a long string of comments he has made about blacks, Latinos, Jews, and other undesirables. The press blistered him. Then his constituents gave him 70 percent of their votes. That’s what representative government is all about.

Cussed Kustra: Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra tendered his resignation in order to take a job as a radio talk host. Following Jim Edgar’s heart problem, he reversed his position and stayed on the ballot–promising to serve out his term. Now he is aiming for Paul Simon’s Senate seat. But what if they offer him a cable TV show?

Who’s the Sheriff? The two losers in the Democratic gubernatorial primary outdid each other in silliness on the crime issue. Roland Burris was seen in his TV commercials flanked by a pair of squirrel police from the Forest Preserve, making like a top cop–but you could never be sure whether they were guarding him or arresting him. Richard Phelan was photographed making like Charles Bronson, embracing an assault weapon, a tough-guy look on his face–draped in his Armani suit.

Mayoral Spin: Attorney General Roland Burris gets the award for intellectual contortionist of the year for explaining that he didn’t get a big vote for governor in the African American community because the voters don’t relate to the office of governor. They voted against him, he said, “because they want me to be mayor.” Thus are candidacies born. But how can he be sure they don’t want him to run for president?

The Rich Watch: One of Burris’s prospective opponents–the one who has the job now–continues the great oratorical tradition of his family. Among his finer statements this year:

Discussing casino gambling he noted, “This is about money. Bags and bags of money. Big bags of money!”

Commenting on a city crackdown on restaurant sanitation he observed, “If a rat is on your sandwich, it would help to know it before. If a mouse is in your salad–it’s common sense.”

When County Clerk David Orr and Illinois Treasurer Pat Quinn called for a referendum on casino gambling, Daley branded them the “new Moral Majority” and opined “Pretty soon they’ll be censoring art!” Just for favoring elections?

During the gubernatorial campaign Daley was asked what Dawn Clark Netsch said when he offered to campaign for her. His reply: “It’s a private conversation.” Then, asked if he knew who was sticking their necks out for Netsch, he responded, “Everybody has their neck out.”

Came the Dawn: A special collective Janey Award goes to candidate Netsch and her amok consultants, who collaborated on the worst gubernatorial campaign in memory, one that brought down the entire Democratic ticket and actually lost the Illinois house. She kicked it off by claiming to be more intelligent than Edgar. Then, after failing to respond to Edgar’s initial barrage of ads, the campaign was compared to Michael Dukakis’s presidential effort, whose fatal flaw was its failure to respond to Bush’s initial negative ads. “Oh, no,” said consultant Pete Giangreco, “I worked for Dukakis and we’re not repeating those mistakes.”

Giangreco did not, to be sure, recommend that Netsch ride in a tank. But another consultant suggested she run to the right of Edgar on crime, which gave us the laughable commercial in which Netsch said she would build more prison cells than Edgar because he was too cheap. Then another couple of consultants, Julie Hamos and Marilyn Katz, told Netsch to come forth boldly and confront the question of her less than glamorous looks–now there’s an issue–and gave her the slogan “Not just another pretty face.”

Then her geniuses decided maybe she should try appealing to women–an astounding leap for a Democratic woman–and they made a commercial saying she looked like someone’s Aunt Thelma.

Finally, who should they bring in for another commercial but Geraldine Ferraro, the running mate of the last Democratic presidential candidate who promised to raise taxes. Aunt Thelma’s look-alike lost the women’s vote almost as badly as the men’s.

A separate award goes to Penny Severns, Netsch’s running mate. She began the campaign by saying she didn’t agree with Netsch’s tax plan, and ended it with an excruciating 20-minute, camera-hogging concession speech whose only good lines were stolen from Ted Kennedy’s concession of 1976. If Netsch’s role models were Mondale and Dukakis, Severns’s obviously was Senator Joseph Biden.

Janey’s Janey: The last of this year’s awards goes to their eponymous inspiration, Jane Byrne herself. As we went to press, the former mayor had just backed out of running for alderman of the new 42nd Ward–which is now the home ward of Richard M. Daley hisself. It would have been worth voting for her just to watch that pairing for the next four years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Moch.