In a city notorious for corrupt politicians, the constituents of Chicago’s South Side and southern suburbs have endured more than their share. The latest evidence comes tomorrow when they head to the polls to pick party nominees in a special election for the seat of disgraced former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
Those voters haven’t had representation since Jackson went on medical leave in June. Constituents of his wife and co-defendant, former Alderman Sandi Jackson, have been doubly short-changed: Election rules gave Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not voters, the power to select her replacement.
With the fall of the Jacksons, who pleaded guilty last week to fraud, 10 percent of Chicago aldermen taking office since 1981 have been indicted for corruption and replaced by mayoral appointment. That has undercut democracy in the third-most-populous U.S. city, said Dick Simpson, a former alderman teaching political science at University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Appointments create a rubber-stamped city council without a legitimate legislative process to conduct checks and balances,” said Simpson, who has done studies measuring political corruption’s financial costs. “There’s an ongoing struggle to create a more democratic process in Chicago.”
The federal judicial district that includes the city is the most crooked in the U.S., judging by the 1,531 public-corruption convictions since 1976, according to a February 2012 report by Simpson. Per capita by state, only Louisiana has more such convictions.
Chicago is struggling with pension costs projected to reach $1.2 billion a year by 2016, which would eat up 22 percent of its budget. Perceptions of corruption and mistrust could further deter investors, said Richard Ciccarone, managing director at McDonnell Investment Management LLC.
“Chicago risks getting that emblem of corruption, which could come with a price in the marketplace,” said Ciccarone, of the Oak Brook, Illinois-based firm. “The more you have an unsecured debt situation, you risk placing the trust factor in jeopardy when you have repeated influences of corruption.”
The vote to replace Congressman Jackson, 47, scion of the iconic civil-rights family led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, recalls the 1995 special election in which the younger Jackson filled a vacancy left by Mel Reynolds, who was convicted of bank fraud and sexual assault. Out of prison since Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2001, Reynolds is now one of 16 Democratic candidates on the ballot in tomorrow’s election.
Chicago’s city council has an even bigger gallery of rogues than its congressional delegation. Since Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, was first elected in 1989, about 40 percent of Chicago’s aldermen have been appointed, not elected, according to city data. Daley named 36 of the 91 aldermen who took positions under his tenure from 1989 to 2011, filling vacancies after resignations, health concerns or corruption charges.
Almost 20 percent of aldermen have been found guilty of crimes since one of their colleagues, Fred D. Hubbard, was convicted in 1973 of embezzlement, according to Simpson and city records. Sandi Jackson’s replacement, Natashia Holmes, is the first aldermanic appointment by Emanuel.
“It’s going to strengthen his control over the city council if he continues to make appointments like this,” Simpson said.
These episodes evoke the unofficial motto of local political pragmatists espoused by Alderman Mathias “Paddy” Bauler in the middle of the 20th century: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.”
That remains true today, by some measures. Earlier this month, the city council rejected a proposal by Emanuel that would have allowed the city’s inspector general to investigate anonymous complaints against aldermen.
Appointments that bypass elections aren’t the only hindrance to the democratic process in Chicago, said Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based group that tracks corruption. The almost nine-monthlong vacancy left by Jackson Jr. since he took medical leave in June has cut the Second District out of legislation, he said.
“Nobody has been representing them in the corridors of power in Washington, where dollars are parceled out,” Shaw said. “There’s no mechanism for getting representation when a congressman goes down like Jesse Jackson Jr.”
The election in the district will cost the city $1.5 million, even after Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill in December that made the general election coincide with local municipal voting on April 9, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.
In the special election Jackson Jr. won in 1995 to replace Reynolds, only 18 percent of voters participated, according to the elections board. The congressman before Reynolds, Gus Savage, was found by a House Ethics Committee to have made improper sexual advances on a female Peace Corps volunteer.
Still, Jackson’s case stands out amid Chicago’s rich history of malfeasance. In his guilty plea on Feb. 20, he acknowledged misusing $750,000 of campaign contributions to buy 3,100 personal items, including a $43,000 Rolex watch, a hat that belonged to the late pop singer Michael Jackson and $15,000 in dry cleaning.
Tomorrow’s winner in the largely Democratic district will be the presumed victor over the Republican opponent in the April 9 general election. Eighty-one percent of the district’s voters backed President Barack Obama in 2012. The new contest, which marks an opportunity for a clean slate for the district, hasn’t been short of controversy.
It has drawn attention and money from outside Chicago, with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s political action committee targeting Debbie Halvorson, a leading contender who has a top ranking by the National Rifle Association. Halvorson, a former congresswoman, is opposed to an assault-weapons ban.
Bloomberg’s super-PAC, Independence USA, has spent more than $2.2 million on the race, according to the committee’s filings. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News. Halvorson had raised $98,000 as of Feb. 6, according to federal records.
Another top contender, Robin Kelly, came under scrutiny last week after the Chicago Tribune reported alleged ethics violations by her while she worked for the state treasurer. The office’s chief investigator said she improperly reported time off from her job while chief of staff in 2010, according to the Tribune. The Kelly and Halvorson campaigns didn’t return e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
The allegations of Kelly’s phony timecards, though, are small-time next to the history of one of her rivals.
“It’s a very interesting campaign,” Reynolds said of his participation in the race. “I’m running for re-election because I think 18 years is long enough to pay your debt back to society.”