Little surprise that President-elect Obama named David Axelrod to be his Senior Adviser in the White House. Axelrod has been a fixture around Chicago politics for over two decades, spending much of that time serving as chief political consultant to Mayor Bill Daley.
Mr. Axelrod has expressed support for political patronage as a means of running government. In a Chicago Tribune op-ed, Axelrod drew lessons from corruption convictions of Daley staffers who awarded city jobs based on political favors. Political reporter, Steve Rhodes published this op-ed, removed from the newspapers archives, on his NBC Channel 5 blog. For those looking for insight into how an Obama administration will run Washington, DC, this is must reading.
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
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?
Now there is a political slogan that wouldn’t have gotten Obama very far: Support my judge and you get a bridge.
Can you hear the stump speech? “The American people are tired of business as usual. They want change in Washington. They want a President who makes deals with legislators for political favors. We don’t want the best person for the job, or the most worthy project to get your hard earned tax dollars. We want those tax dollars given out to districts where Washington insiders know how to play the game. That’s the change we need!”
Why am I not thrilled?