Though unnamed in real estate developer Charles Cui’s recent indictment in an alleged bribery scheme, longtime 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke seems to be facing mounting pressure about the case. But will the latest allegations, combined with Burke’s Jan. 3 indictment for attempted extortion, be enough to sway voters from reelecting the city councilman in office since 1969?
Not likely, according to Chicago Republican Party Chairman Chris Cleveland. During an interview with Chicago City Wire, Cleveland blamed a deeply ingrained system of quid pro quo for keeping politicians like Burke in office decade after decade.
“The Chicago machine is a system by which politicians get reelected,” Cleveland explained. “They do things for people who can contribute, including the unions and [real estate] developers, and in turn the developers contribute back.”
Chicago Republican Party Chairman Chris Cleveland
Cleveland said the patronage system of rewarding precinct workers with politically appointed jobs also helps keep leaders in place year after year.
“All these people in turn reelect the aldermen and the people who get hurt are the voters, who are not part of the system,” Cleveland said. “This is the way the Chicago machine works.”
But beneath the surface-level world of financing campaigns, paying for advertising and buying the loyalty of groups that need aldermanic assistance, Cleveland blamed a very primitive motivation: fear. Political power in Chicago flows through a loose hierarchy of fiefdoms that leverage control over voters, according to Cleveland. They accomplish this by managing the purse strings for everything from pothole repair to building permits to liquor licenses.
“I frequently hear from voters, ‘Well, I contributed to the alderman because I have to,'” Cleveland said. “So, it’s fear. You get on the wrong side of the machine and you’ll lose. And it’s in a hundred different ways.”
Cleveland believes one of the best ways to end such political gamesmanship is to initiate local legislation similar to the federal Hatch Act, prohibiting government workers from campaigning on behalf of political candidates.
“You should be removing from aldermen some of the power and privileges they have over local homeowners in exchange public support,” he said. “We should reduce the size of city council. And we just need to elect better people – like more Republicans.”