What Drives Political Corruption?

Measuring public corruption is useful. But so is looking out your window. And if the Mayor of Chicago were to look out the window of his home at around 7:30 on any even given morning. Or perhaps walk one block west to Ravenswood Avenue. He’d see Cassie. She walks by my house too.

The connection between Cassie and the national measures of public corruption, released in a report this week by Professor Dick Simpson at the University of Illinois Chicago, would not be immediately obvious. The talking point would not jump out. Most of us would shake our heads. Focus on the numbers. Not look out our window and see Cassie walking by.

A former Alderman, Professor Simpson measured the corruption conviction rate of politicians across the country. Between 1976 and 2010, Chicago clocked in at 1,531. To not one single Chicagoan’s surprise: We won! Most corrupt place ever! Woo!

Then a city shrugs its shoulders and wonders what’s on TV tonight.

What could this study possibly have to do with the woman in the dirty brown down coat with the tattered shoes, pulling the shopping cart behind her like some ancient boulder of shame? How could political corruption possibly touch or relate to the woman who never lifts her eyes from the street? Her head always hooded through both bitter cold winds or sweltering blankets of wet heat. Sure, she walks past the Mayors house or a parallel street every day. In the mornings she walks north. At night she goes south. Where she goes, sleeps, or eats, I don’t know. I don’t even know her name. That’s why I call her Cassie. Because doesn’t everyone at least deserve a name?

She shuffles past the Mayor’s house. Her back bent as if she is part of the street itself. The waves of sadness reverberating out like someone just banged a weeping gong.

But measures of corruption? The connection isn’t clear yet. The Simpson study didn’t measure all those who did not get caught. Or break down the numbers to the type of corruption. But that is not a criticism. It’s a call for more study. Because isn’t measuring corruption a bit like approaching an elephant with a tape measure, stretching out the tape as far as your hands can reach, putting your hands on the side of the elephant, and then reading the length of your reach?

And once you’ve recorded how far your arms can stretch, what’s next? Could the number you come up with somehow touch Cassie’s walk? Change her route? Help fight back the demonic strain of thought floated by so many that somehow Cassie’s eternal walk is her fault?

Do the numbers justify blaming the victim? Tying up the problem with a nice little solution bow? Convene a roundtable on how the market will handle human pain?

Or could he real value in the number simply a way to start a conversation that could lead you back to Cassie?

The Simpson political corruption study made the national news cycle. And tomorrow it will fade into the ether where old news stories go. But Cassie will still be walking past the Mayor’s house.

Cassie probably didn’t catch another recent story, one that touches on what’s behind the corruption. And that leads back to her.

In this story, Sun-Times political reporter Fran Spielman offered a clue. That clue involves a thread that connects those who get caught, those who don’t, those who make legal deals and even includes Cassie.

That thread is access. Pure and simple access.

Cassie will never have a conversation with the Mayor of Chicago. It will not happen. And the access needed for her survival? That torn bleeding “safety net” that is somehow supposed to help? Because of course the Mayor doesn’t have time for every homeless person.

Fran Spielman gives a clue as to why that won’t help either. Why Cassie will keep walking.

The clue is in a February 8th article titled. “Rahm’s Inner Circle.” It details exactly whom the Mayor speaks with regularly. Who DOES get the access. The names of those with access in politics, labor, business, African American issues, city council and inside his own administration.

Notice anything missing on that list?

Human Services is missing. Not one name.

Who’s the safety net czar? Who takes care of Cassie? Where’s his or her seat in the circle of power? Where’s the person who has the access to help Cassie?

There isn’t one. And that’s the connection between Cassie and the corruption study. There is a closed loop of power. Access to power. And there is no one to take care of people. The Mayor reaches out to a huge constiteuncy. He has lots of advisors. Some of them return phone calls. Some don’t. But only if you are in that loop of power as well.

The last time I was without a full time job, doing contract work as I am now, I somehow on a fluke because I have no access, got an interview in a nice building on West Chicago Avenue, where Mayor Daley consolidated all the human services functions. There was a federal monitor in the interview. It went well. We all understood that I was a serious candidate for the job, my resume was nice, and I mastered all of the interview questions. I was more than qualified.

And as the interviewers all marched out of earshot at the end, the Federal monitor whispered to me, “That was great. You even had me interested. And I do this all day.” And then he looked at me and said “Sorry.”

Because we both knew I wouldn’t get the job. I have no access. That common thread that runs just below the headlines and the back room smoke of all corruption.


The story is told first by the respected Judge Abner Mikva. The punch line is so good that it’s a book title and perhaps the single most important truth in the access problem that underlies all corruption and keeps Cassie on the street. Young Abner Mikva looking for his first political job bounds into the ward office and says, “I’d like some work. I can even volunteer.”

The ward boss takes his cigar out of his mouth and says, “Who sent you kid?”

Mikva answers, “Nobody sent me.”

To which the ward boss utters those immortal words that still grace Chicago politics as a foundational truth:

“We don’t want nobody, nobody sent.”

And nobody sent Cassie.

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3 Responses to “What Drives Political Corruption?”

  1. Paul Haider Says:

    I know that human greed drives corruption, but who’s gonna drive Cassie home tonight? “Drive” by the Cars is my girlfriend’s favorite song, and it makes me think of Cassie in this context because she is homeless. It isn’t that bad for us without access to powerful connections compared with Cassie, who does not have access to shelter from the storm. “Everybody needs a place to rest; everybody wants to have a home.” Sweet home Chicago is our home because we’re #1 in more ways than this dubious one; we take care of our own.
    Paul Haider, Chicago

  2. Ted Schneider Says:

    Kind of reminds me of how other things work like when you can only get a job based on certain experience but if you can’t get a job you can’t get the required experience. Similar to getting in the Screen Actors Guild – you need to have been in a film or something along those lines but if you need to be a SAG member to get in a film how do you get access? It also reminds me of flying coach versus first class – only a small group is admitted to the first class club but if something occurs on the plane everyone will be affected so why the artifical separation? At some point access needs to be granted to a larger group versus a small segment of the population. Ted

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