Growing up in Chicagoland I have had a front row seat at the circus that is Cook County politics. Corruption and nepotism are virtually synonymous with Chicago government and politics, and this has always struck me as simultaneously well deserved and totally unfair. Certainly the city and county have proven time and again that there is no deal too crooked or no alderman's nephew too inept. However, no one has been able to argue that this differs significantly from any other large American city or, for that matter, any small town's politics. You've never seen graft, corruption, abuse of power, and the Old Boys' Network until you've seen them in rural areas. Hell, at least Chicago is big enough that the entire city isn't owned and controlled by one family. How many small towns can say the same?

Local media outlets love pushing these "Look at how corrupt Chicago is" stories because they resonate well with readers. It makes people mad. It gives people something to blame for the government's failures, something to vent their own frustrations at. Consider this Chicago Sun-Times story about County Assessor Joe Berrios, who has 15 relatives either employed by or retired from jobs with Cook County. The headline is well-crafted for maximum outrage: "15 members of Joe Berrios' family on county, state payrolls." What is not explained, however, is how Mr. Berrios is responsible for members of his family who got jobs 30 years before he was elected Assessor, or, more importantly, how this differs from any other job, industry, company, or government in the nation.

People relate to these stories because it allows them to project their own lack of happiness or success on a scapegoat. "I guess you have to be related to someone to get a good job around here!" they say to themselves. And they are, of course, right. We know they are right because that's how the damn world works. Why would it not work that way in Cook County government?

One of the harshest lessons America teaches its young people is that they have been lied to when we told them that our system is a meritocracy. Yes, talent and achievement will help you do better in life, but we find out quickly in adolescence and young adulthood that who you know and who you're related to are pretty significant variables as well. We start working – in any field: public, private, academic, non-profit, military, etc. – and we discover that the world is absolutely full of talentless daughters, nephews, and old college buddies who are doing quite well despite having no qualifications or talent other than the good fortune to know someone powerful. Nowhere is this more obvious, especially to college students who may not yet be aware that life isn't fair, than in the world of Interning. It's truly amazing how often the big D.C. or Wall Street or Madison Avenue internships go to young people who have parents wealthy enough to support them and with family connections. Quite a coincidence, isn't it, that the fratboy whose dad works for Lockheed Martin gets the Congressional internship alongside the talentless children of various campaign contributors. That's almost as amazing as the preponderance of children-of working in any private corporation or family-owned business.

It is very easy to single out someone like Joe Berrios and vent our anger at him for being arrogant and stupid enough to hire his own children after being elected. It is equally easy to pretend that this state of affairs is unique to Chicago or to government in general. Deep down I believe that we all know better, though. We've all had to put up with the boss's son (or some other variant of the friends-and-family system) at some point in our lives. Maybe we are idealistic and expect better of our government, holding it to a higher standard. Or perhaps the government is just a convenient target because information about things like salaries are publicly available. I agree with the Sun-Times that what Mr. Berrios did is unethical, but I have to wonder what we would uncover if we did a similar analysis of the friends, family, and connections of the interns, reporters, editors, and other people working in their own newsroom. Anyone with firsthand experience in the world of professional journalism knows that the odds of finding nepotism at play are holding steady at 100%, plus or minus zero.


  • That is downright honest compared to the Los Angeles County Assessor. During the last election our Assessor was in jail. He was apparently under-assessing the value of property in LA in exchange for half tax savings.

    Looks like he made at least a million, plus all the campaign funds he got from local businesses so that he could get elected and pull of this scheme in the first place. He can't manage to bail himself out(something about using proceeds of a criminal enterprise), but he does still collect an almost $200k salary, while in jail, since he hasn't been convicted yet.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Media lying to get a story that fits sales, expectations, prejudices or party line is at least as common as nepotism in government. Even the story of nepotism in government is a false story advanced by the media to fit the current political lore. Who you know is as common in Hollywood, hedge funds and hotels as in any crooked governmental entity.

    The success of the inept is universal. Look at the NYT editorial writers. Most of them are simple and narrow minded. Their analysis typically false. Their depth non-existent and contribution negligible. How did they make it? I don't know, but it is the rule not an exception.

  • on the one hand, right on, right on, nothing new under the sun.
    on the other hand, excuse me while I hang myself in the garage.

  • Maybe we are idealistic and expect better of our government, holding it to a higher standard. Or perhaps the government is just a convenient target because information about things like salaries are publicly available.

    There is a third factor at work here — paying taxes is compulsory, so we resent that money being spent on incompetent friends-and-family. In the private sector, at least in theory, we can always take our business elsewhere.

    It's not entirely logical — compared to the government, large corporations have at least as much ability to support corruption and nepostism, and a lot more capacity to hide it. But it is understandable.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    When I started at a certain company, which I left a long time ago, the first question people asked me was who I knew to get a job there? When I said, nobody, that I just came in, got interviewed, and got the job, everyone, and I mean EVERYone, said, 'Yeah, but really – who do you know?"

    Young folks reading this:
    It helps to know 'what.' But sometimes, it's more important to know 'who.'

  • Not disagreeing with the point, but lots of Chicagoans get off on propagating the corruption myth too. It's part of the city's identity, and residents wave it around at outsiders like a banner.

  • Sarah Palin gets a lot of airtime by bashing Chicago, but her little rats-nest in Alaska is every bit as corrupt. Her home was built–amazingly enough–with materials that looked JUST LIKE the materials used to build the not-needed mega-hockey-rink…a contract given to a good friend at such a high price it bankrupted the town. The south, where I live, is no better.

  • It's not just that it's government rather than corporations, it's that government jobs are often the best to have: an actual pension, lower pay now but that opportunity for double-dipping later, holidays off, good benefits, and a system where merit may not get you a better job but it won't allow them to make shit up to fire you. There's a lot of desire for that kind of stability and the benefits that come from it, and to hear all the talk about how it goes to family of certain families is par for the course.

    Here in Tucson, the talk isn't like Chicago's so much, but I've heard it enough: they go by alphabetical order, but backwards. In other words, if your name ends with a Z, you're in. Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Nu

  • I once ended an argument with a Tea Bagger (I won't say I won, because you never *win* such arguments) who was complaining, just prior to Obama's first election, that the then-senator was "just another Chicago politician," by saying "Name me one place where there *isn't* wide-scale political corruption." He could not. (And even if he could have, as a Tea Bagger, he was contractually obligated not to, because all government is venal and parasitic.) So he silently fumed and I continued to finish dinner and left the table before his head could explode in frustration.

  • I think Chicagoans tolerate corruption LESS than other places, so that is why so many officials get caught.

    The other fact is the VOLUME of politicians and elected officials, so it becomes a numbers game, more officials, more chances for wrong doing.

  • (The tilde in the enye in "Nunez" must have been like "submit". Anyway, to continue from memory:)

    Gonzalez, Rodriguez, Nu(enye)ez, you know: Those People. That's the city and county. For the University, it's usually the middle-class family connections. That's where those who point at the Hispanics at the city and county can find jobs for connected white people. And what makes things worse for those seeking jobs is that often you don't know if this is an actual job offer or a job description designed for a specific person. There must be interviews, and even if there is a hire already chosen there must be a process where enough minorities, genders, disabilities, experience, and applicants are ensured the opportunity to make sure the EEO knows that that a just wide-enough spectrum of humanity just wasted its time before someone can start the new position.

    Anyway, whatever the percentage for a particular job in government, it's always >50% bullshit criteria and <50% skills and abilities of the applicant pool. They're the jobs worth pursuing in this crappy world, and discouraging others from applying has its own self-perpetuating allure for those who are already in, so expect the talk of family connections, racism, sexism, lookism, blowjobs, frat legacies, big money donors, and everything else under the sun to come up when someone without a job wonders why not even when all the rules were played. Knowing that all those factors are to some degree real doesn't assuage the hard feelings any. I'm absofuckinglutely lucky to have a government job, even as I'd gladly trade it for another one that pays less. Unfortunately, they're all taken by the Wrong People (i.e. Not Me.)

  • This is also why, neither capitalism nor communism are perfect ideologies. Both are prone to corruption. In fact corruption and nepotism just human nature. So contrary to what teabaggers assert, the free market cannot regulate itself, but likewise no single, homogenic group can be in charge of all government.

  • here in Louisiana, corruption is just the way it is. and always has been. so, i am not surprised to hear about courruption/nepotism. and in New Orleans the powers that be, make sure their kinfolk have the jobs. everyone that is in politics/R or D/ is related to/is friends of someone in power. that's where the money is. lol

    in the Red/Rightwing counties across the lake from New Orleans, the office holders never let go until they die. you learn who is the local rep and find their family and friends "own" everthing for ever. teh Sheriffs never "lose" until they die or quit of old age.
    the Good Ole Boy network is what we call it here.

    lol. and all i ever heard was bad things about the Mafia growing up. lol that's what politics is here, our own version, either the local New Orleans version or the Country Redneck version.

    of course our local New Orleans version is storied and infamous. once a crook gets into power…, well, i have often wondered what good government was.

    good government was getting all your friends and relatives in positions of power. who you know and not what you know. and now that Business owns the Government, there is no alternative to Corruption. Now Business just replaces those they "tire" of. the Mafia, different version. lol now we have a "business friendly" form of corruption.

    Gee BB, i get the feeling you don't like Democrats. lol. come to New Orleans if you want to revel in your "Both Sides Do it" thinking. taking sides really does help to diminish corruption, not.(sarcasm) lol. Here there are no "Both Sides", it's all one Side. lol.

    Maybe that's why the South is so corrupt/backward, we have had only one Side since the War of Northern Aggression. Jealousy breeds contempt, you think? Can't have someone we don't "like" or "know" share the wealth?

  • I think BB is just making a jab at Kerry who is an easy target since he married the heiress to the Heinz fortune. I can't imagine Kerry would have become senator but for the massive fortune backing him up.

  • Pretty much any of bb's posts can be reduced to "Oh yeah? I know you are but what am I?"

    Always a pleasure to meet someone who appreciates the classics.

  • Some places are better than others:

    It's true that corruption is widespread and cannot be entirely eradicated. It's not true that corruption is EVERYWHERE, or that it can't be minimized. Some countries do have working systems to prevent most corrupt practices. It's just that the United States isn't one of those countries.

  • It's not what you know, nor is it who you know.
    It's what you know about who you know.

    The current Foreign Minister for Aus. probably more than anyone in government does not want the ATO to start looking at off-shore accounts. Funny how almost all of the major state assets were sold to our major investment bank, he retires from gov't and finds his way into an on premises office as a "consultant". Now he's back in at the Fed. level. Wonder what he'll sell off if he becomes PM…

  • Kerry became a Senator long before he married Teresa Heinz (who he probably first met as the wife of colleague Sen. Henry Heinz, R-PA). Kerry actually came up through the MA democratic party – his family had some connections, but not really in MA. Lost a congressional race, lt. gov. under Dukakis for a few years, won Senate seat.
    He made is own fame in the anti-war movement after he came back from Viet Nam. That's why he had so many old enemies.

  • "However, no one has been able to argue that this differs significantly from any other large American city or, for that matter, any small town's politics. You've never seen graft, corruption, abuse of power, and the Old Boys' Network until you've seen them in rural areas. Hell, at least Chicago is big enough that the entire city isn't owned and controlled by one family. How many small towns can say the same?"

    But – but – but important decisions should ALWAYS be made at the state level, or even lower! NEVER EVER at the federal level! The conservatives say so! And they love America more than I do – they must; they keep saying so!

    And they've been screaming in favor of state-level and municipality-level decisions since 1964!

    Hmm; I wonder what were some of the major controversial government decisions of 1964.

    (Looks up Civil Rights Act)

    Oh dear.

  • @major

    I apologize…I couldn't resist the Kerry bait.

    And you know what you said is demonstrably false to anyone who cares to research the archives.


  • Imma need about another month of detox before I can respond to any margin of error joke with anything other than terrible acid-like flashbacks to things like Chuck Todd saying "The new Gallup poll is out and Romney is up 7; could this be the beginning of the end for the Obama campaign?"

    And bb's right in that Bush and Kerry's Yale undergrad transcripts are pretty similar. But the "C-Plus Augustus" moniker is more about making fun of someone rising to a position for which he is not prepared and hasn't earned and wielding power in an irresponsible manner. In deciding whether that perception is fair it's less important to look at college transcripts than at what happened after college and what happened during Bush's administration. But I won't be ready to do that for another decade at least.

  • Whilst I agree with the premise (and think it's true of any large non-American city as well) I'm not ready to give up the Chicago-is-special badge yet.

    I heard on the news that if Jesse Jackson, Jr. loses his congressional seat (likely when he's sent to prison or a really nice mental health facility with closed grounds) I-shit-you-not Mel Reynolds is interested in the seat.

    For those that don't know / don't remember Reynolds was indicted for sexual assault due to his raping a 16-year old campaign volunteer while running for the House of Representatives. Despite being indicted he continued to run (classic IL), won (because he was unopposed – again, classic IL), was convicted, & sentenced to years of prison (they found some bank fraud issues during the process – classic IL). He ran for a seat in 2004 and lost to Jackson, but now that Jackson's out of the way, why not, right?

    This may not be an 'only in Illinois politics' story but it's uncanny how many of these seem to crop up around here.

  • I have to posit that neither a president Gore nor a president Kerry would have taken us into a mutli-year war aonth other side of the god-damned planet that cost tens of thousands of foreign lives while displacing millions of people; thousands of American lives and thousands more wounded, crippled and/or mentally and emotionally impaired; and a few trillion dollars.

    GWB was worse than a bag of stomped-on shit. No other damned DECIDER in the history of the world EVER went to war [incidentally on totally false pretenses, so he's also an unprosecuted war criminal] and reduced taxes at the same time. That is either grotesque stupidity, or a deliberate attempt to bankrupt the country, to some nefarious end.

    To this day, I have no idea which one is correct.

    And that is how we got to be SF!


  • @Jzb

    that hostility gonna eat you up one day…

    How can you expand my simple equivalence of GWB and John Kerry in the gentleman's C club at Yale as a complete backing, justification and apology for anything Pres Bush 43 ever did? Huh? What?

    Oh and everything jes' been peachy since our dear Leader was anointed, right?

    Repeat again: It's all Bush's fault, etc. etc.


  • Of course, everybody knows, or should knows that "who you know" is the way the world works. But there's a qualitative difference between nepotism in the private sector and the public sector. With government jobs, (a) it's tax-payer money at stake and (b) the mission of government is to serve the public, not private interests. So I think it's important not to lose our sense of outrage when public sector corruption arises – it's a betrayal of the public trust, usually perpetrated by selfish, stupid people, and it usually constitutes a criminal offense. If we are going to start equivocating about the issue – "well, isn't that just how the world works?" – then I think we might as well stop caring about good government or civic life in general.

  • JazzBumpa:
    "No other damned DECIDER in the history of the world EVER went to war [incidentally on totally false pretenses, so he's also an unprosecuted war criminal] and reduced taxes at the same time. "

    Hyperbolic much? I doubt that is true even for contemporary rulers, but definitely not for historical ones. Cutting taxes while going to war on false pretenses is probably an idea as old as the wheel. The easiest example is King Louis XVI of France. Those were simpler times though. Instead of retiring him to Versailles to cut brush, the French just sent Louis to the Guillotine.

  • Au contraire, it's definitely St. Reagan's fault. lol. that is plain and simple. any of those who get into Congress are part of the Elite, Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

    Bush was/is just the poster child for ignorant, dumbing down Rich idiots who want to be "powerful" like Mr. Mitt Rmoney. lol. the destruction of America is done by those Elites who switch partners for the appearance of Change.

    but at least we have our resident "both sides do it" redstater, BB, to keep us grounded in Faith Based "Reality." Gosh just to think we could actually stay on the facts would be too much to "HOPE" for. lol

    As i live in the great state of Louisiana, where we pioneered corruption and Good ole Boy networks. i do forget at times when there are intelligent people making conversation and pointing out the obvious idiocy of having to live under the FAITH of the ignorant Red Staters/Daddy Party. That children, immature Bullies, decide to throw dirt into our faces, since they can't face up to the real world they find themselves in.

    i really was hoping Rmoney would win, so there would be no more talk about Deficits. in Republican theory, Deficits don't matter, so said Dick Cheney/the Dark Lord. Fantasy land is hard to navigate when the Dark Forces continually change the "conversation" to fit their peeved and petulanat whimsies. interesting place full of BS.

    But living in the Red South, i have learned that Fantasyland is the only way the weak and immature have to deal with a world they refuse to grow up in.

    just throw some more mud, that always helps, doesn't it! Facts are such nasty things, i do wish they weren't so incovenient. oh oh, an inconvenient truth.

    there i go again. Facts and Truth. so upsetting.

  • Patrick –

    French and Indian Wars – 1764-63

    Treaty of Paris ends 7 Yr war – 1763

    Treaty of Versailles – 1768.

    Louis XVI lowers taxes – 1774 They had been high, and steeply regressive, because of all these previous wars, you see. Help me out here if I'm wrong, but France seems not to actually have been at war when the taxes were lowered.

    France recognizes American independence – 1778.

    He tried to raise taxes later, but that was a hell of a fight, which he ultimately lost.


  • b.b.

    How can you expand my simple equivalence of GWB and John Kerry in the gentleman's C club at Yale as a complete backing, justification and apology for anything Pres Bush 43 ever did? Huh? What?

    Oh and everything jes' been peachy since our dear Leader was anointed, right?

    I showed that your false equivalence is false. With enthusiasm and real life examples. Not very pretty, is it?

    Now — what the hell does our dear leader have to do with the conversation? You are changing the subject. But you will notice that he has had to deal with the most obstructionist congress in my life time, which includes Truman's do-nothings; we have not gone into a new war, and he's been winding down the ones we have; there have been no scandals; and he has put people in positions of responsibility who actually know what the hell they are doing. That's kind of refreshing. Compare to your impressions of what a prez McCain would have done. (bomb, bomb Iran.) Consider his selection of vacuous know-nothing Sarah Palin as a meaningful data point.

    You might also note that we are doing better than most of Europe, because we have not gone into the austerity madness. Yet. Your guys may still force it, to our detriment.

    No it's not all Bush's fault. A great deal of the blame, as Bernard says, goes back to Reagan. But Bush did enormous damage to this country and Iraq, with his unjustified and unjustifiable war, his tax cuts, his deregulation, disdain for governance, and general blithering incompetence.

    The big problems with BHO are that he has capitulated too easily and too often to the Rethugs who have played him for a sap, and that he has in many ways been far too much like Bush.

    Which is why WASF!

  • Truer words have never been spoken. This exists everywhere but much less so than in government than in private enterprise. Yes, it's not what you know but who you know. Does anyone else want to tax the fuck out of the rich?

  • Kerry didn't have a massive fortune before he joined the Senate. My understanding is that his family of origin was well connected but not wealthy; supposedly, he slept in his office when he was broke after a divorce.

    One of those connections was Senator John Heinz, who was indeed rich (and one of last decent GOP senators IMHO). When he died in a plane crash, Kerry eventually married his widow. I doubt that much of her inheritance became his, although it does allow him a lovely lifestyle.

    That said, he did not make a very good candidate or run a good campaign. Although I worked hard on that campaign—anybody but GW!—I would have much preferred Howard Dean.

  • In my experience, it seems that networking is about 77% of what it takes to get a good job. Who did you fuck/know/frat with/drink with/fuck/related to/fuck is awfully vital.

  • County and state government necessarily encompasses enough jobs that any swingin' dick whose family has lived in an area long enough will have 15 or so relatives somehow employed as public employees.

  • This is a point I try to make regularly here in Chicago. Yes, it's corrupt as hell, but it also *has a lot of media* (and aggressive FBI and US attorney's offices). So the corruption gets a lot of attention, either through investigative reports or prosecutions.

    Not so much in, say, Eastern Kentucky or West Virginia, where there's just not enough capital or audience to support a watchdog media. Or in Dixon, Illinois, where the city treasurer ripped off the town for decades to the tune of $36 million (like, seriously, one of the biggest embezzlement cases in U.S. history) because it's a lot easier to do when you only have one full-time financial employee.

    A big bureaucracy offers plenty of places to stuff money and patronage, but it also means a lot more people to have to hide your sleaze from.

  • Two more words for you:

    Oh, and what are the chances that a babbling dweeb like the Mittster gets a job at Bain and makes a fortune if his last name isn't "Romney"?

  • Townsend Harris says:

    1974: First hear phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you know."
    1981: First hear phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you blow."
    The world moves much faster these days, youngsters.

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