An Axelrod to Grind

Amidst a boisterous exchange between Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod and McCain campaign manager Rick Davis on Fox News Sunday, Davis referred to an Op-Ed that Axelrod wrote in the Tribune in 2005 arguing in favor of patronage.

DAVIS: You even wrote an op-ed saying that you thought that the patronage politics of Chicago was a better model for Washington than the law and order model that we currently -

AXELROD: That is - I never - that is as untrue as everything else that you’ve said here. That is not what I said, Rick.

Is it?

The Op-Ed is no longer available online, but I have retrieved it from a newspaper database in order to take a look. The abstract:

A WELL-OILED MACHINE: A system that works? Political debts contribute to better city services. By David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant whose clients include Mayor Richard Daley.

Fraudulent acts such as test-rigging are one thing. But if hiring of a qualified worker who comes recommended by a politician is treated as evidence of a criminal act, then [U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald]’s approach will ensure that only applicants without political involvement are considered.

Axelrod wrote the Op-Ed in question just a month after Mayor Richard M. Daley’s patronage chief “was accused of systematically circumventing a decades-long federal ban on most political hiring by secretly directing top city managers to hire ‘preselected’ applicants favored by politicians and union officials,” as the Tribune reported.

“Mayor Richard Daley’s administration illegally doled out city jobs to reward campaign workers for the mayor and other politicians in a ‘massive fraud’ that spanned City Hall for more than a decade, federal prosecutors alleged Monday.”

A year later, Robert Sorich and three others were convicted. “I think what we saw in this case was the revealing of the Chicago machine, the inner workings of the Chicago machine,” said S. Jay Olshansky, the jury foreman. “There clearly is one. It has been in existence for quite some time.”

Judge David Coar later sentenced Sorich to 46 months in prison, saying “This offense is corruption with a capital ‘C’. There is nothing good about what you did. Frankly, I don’t give a hoot if this had been going on for the last 200 years - it stinks.”

Here’s Axelrod’s Op-Ed, followed by Obama’s response.


Many years ago, when I was a City Hall reporter at the Tribune, I flopped down in a chair across from an editor I greatly respected to complain about the tawdry state of politics in Chicago.

Disgusted by the excesses I had seen, I argued vehemently, with all the surety of youth, that the best thing for the city would be the complete abolition of political patronage.

The editor, who was no stranger to government, listened respectfully to my fulminations. But when I was through, he surprised me with another view.

“The egregious abuses of the system should go,” he said. “But to some degree, patronage is the grease that makes government work.

“The ability of a mayor, a governor, a president to do favors is one of the political levers through which they get things done. Political organizations provide a discipline that allows you to pass your program. You take politics completely out of the process and you may not like what you see.”

I left the editor’s office shaking my head, shocked that a man of his depth and experience would have kind words for a system I regarded as corrupt and contemptible.

I found myself thinking about that conversation after the tsunami created by U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald’s recent indictments of some mid-level city workers, who were paraded before the cameras as executors of a “conspiracy” to place political workers in city jobs.

No one can or should defend the test rigging, document shredding or some of the other acts alleged in Fitzgerald’s complaint. If proven, they are crimes and deserve to be treated as such, reflecting a system in need of reform.

Better-qualified applicants should not be passed over for lesser, politically-sponsored appointees. Public promotions should not be conditioned on political work. (Nor should well-qualified applicants be excluded because they come recommended by a political figure.)

Indeed, the decades-old Shakman federal consent decree proscribes hiring and firing for political reasons. But as I listened to Fitzgerald’s news conference after the government brought charges against the city workers, I realized he was saying something much more.

Fitzgerald proclaimed his vision of a day when the recommendations of elected officials, business, labor and community leaders will no longer count - a day when we entirely remove politics from government. And he seemed to be declaring his intention to use the criminal code to enforce that vision.

It is this system, free of political influence, I had envisioned as a young man. But after a lifetime of observing government and participating in politics, I wonder if such radical “reform” is really desirable.

The democratic process is often messy. Diverse constituencies fight fiercely for their priorities. Their elected representatives use the influence they have to meet those needs, including sometimes the exchange of favors - consideration for jobs being just one.

When a congressman responds to the president’s request for support for a judicial nominee or a trade deal by replying that he’d like the president’s backing for a new bridge in his district, he’s fighting for his constituents. If the money for that bridge is approved over a worthier project elsewhere, should the deal between the two officials become a crime?

How do presidents, governors and mayors govern without the ability to help those upon whom they are counting to support their programs? Is this a prescription for reform, or gridlock?

It is the meshing of often-conflicting interests through the political process, using the levers of power afforded to elected officials, that has characterized our experiment in democracy for the last 229 years. And, it has worked reasonably well.

Fraudulent acts such as test-rigging are one thing. But if hiring of a qualified worker who comes recommended by a politician is treated as evidence of a criminal act, then Fitzgerald’s approach will ensure that only applicants without political involvement are considered.

No mayor would subject his or her appointees to possible indictment for accepting the recommendation of prospective workers by political, business, labor or community leaders. Unless those workers - even those seeking the most menial of jobs - scored the highest on objective tests, the city would be subject to the charge of political hiring. Even those who did well in subjective interviews or offered some other, compelling qualification would be suspect if they had political ties.

That reality will lead in coming months to radical change. Although the nature of that change will be defined by the city and the courts, the effect will be the same: no recommendations, no favors, no politics.

Now, hiring likely will be up to independent bureaucrats armed with computers who, through some arithmetic equation, will determine the best potential laborers and librarians.

Will that produce a better and more responsive bureaucracy? Will it improve basic services like trash and snow removal?

I hold no brief for politically-connected workers who coast on their public jobs. But there are many others who go the extra mile because they know the quality of services they provide citizens reflects on their political sponsors.

We have an idea of what the alternative looks like. The federal bureaucracy, sheltered from politics by law, has not always been known for its responsiveness and efficiency. Yet that seems to be where we’re headed in Chicago.

A quarter century after my conversation with that editor, we are about to achieve the government I longed for.

Why am I not thrilled?

But what about Obama?

Around the same time that Axelrod wrote his Op-Ed, “Obama nearly ran into trouble with Daley when he hedged on whether he’d support the mayor for re-election in light of the corruption investigations at City Hall,” the Sun-Times once reported.

Asked then if he planned to support the mayor or if the corruption probes might have given him pause, the senator replied, “What’s happened - some of the reports I’ve seen in your newspaper, I think, give me huge pause.”

An hour later, he called the Sun-Times saying he wanted to clarify his remarks. Obama said the mayor was “obviously going through a rough patch right now.” But he also said Chicago has “never looked better” and that “significant progress has been made on a variety of fronts.” The senator said then it was “way premature” to talk about endorsements because the mayor had not yet announced his candidacy.

A year later, Bill Daley joined the Obama campaign as a senior advisor and Richard M. Daley issued a rare primary endorsement in Obama’s favor.

Obama then turned around and endorsed Daley’s re-election bid against an African-American candidate running as a reformer, “asserting that City Hall corruption is being cleaned up.”

At the time, Daley had been in office for 18 years, dogged by a long litany of scandal. And for all that time, David Axelrod had been Daley’s chief political consultant.

Posted in Fake Pols, Presidential Poop, Punditocracy   Tagged: Barack Obama, David Axelrod, John McCain, patronage, Rick Davis, Robert Sorich, The Chicago Way   
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