Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

April 25, 2014

Patronage alive in Illinois

SPRINGFIELD — Several boxes of old index cards turned up the other day that demonstrated politics in the ‘80s and ‘90s played a role in people getting hired by Metra, the outfit that operates commuter trains in the Chicago area.

One of the Chicago newspapers ran banner headlines about these artifacts dating to the era of Bruce Springsteen, the Exxon Valdez and The Cosby Show. The cards showed that political patronage was once common in Illinois.

No kidding.

It seems political angels like Paul Simon and Jim Edgar, as well future inmates like George Ryan and Chicago Alderman Ed Vrdolyak were engaging in political patronage. These men and a host of others used their political clout to get people government jobs.

The cards not only listed the job applicant’s name but also their political sponsors.

It was an era when political patronage was out in the open.

Today, of course, this type of patronage is illegal.

But it’s still common.

Frankly, it’s part of the unseemly political culture that is Illinois.

In the decades I’ve covered Illinois government, I have seen more cases of patronage than you can shake a time card at.

A few years ago, long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice illegal in most instances, I was chatting with the late John Gianoulis, the octogenarian party boss for Rock Island County. He’d just been hired on by Rod Blagojevich to work in his administration.

He rather unapologetically told me he was going to head up patronage for the governor.

And to a large extent, in Illinois, if you want to get hired or advance in your government job it’s not so much what you know, but who you know.

Look no further than the latest Metra controversy. Former CEO Alex Clifford alleges that House Speaker Michael Madigan and other political big shots pressured him on a host of personnel issues.

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