SPRINGFIELD – Several boxes of old index cards turned up the other day that demonstrated politics in the 1980s and 1990s 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.
It seems political angels such as Paul Simon and Jim Edgar, as well future inmates such as 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.
Admittedly, things aren’t as bad as they once were.
Back when I first started covering Illinois politics in the 1980s, state prison guards, secretaries, laboratory technicians and a whole host of run-of-the-mill state jobs were hired in part through the offices of a local GOP county chairmen.
It was a bad practice that made for a worse workforce.
Job applicants felt compelled to give money to politicians. State workers felt compelled to continue to give once they had their jobs. And working for the local political party, rather than doing good work, was seen as a way to advance in your government job.
Even today, politicians largely are dependent on government workers to do their political bidding.
Last year, the Better Government Association investigated who was passing nominating petitions for Madigan. It found 17 of 30 people who passed petitions worked for government, and another 12 had at one time worked for government.
That’s right, 29 out of 30.
Political patronage remains a pernicious problem in the Land of Lincoln.
It’s time our state leaders consider hiring and promoting the best people rather than the most politically subservient.
It won’t happen just by changing laws, but by changing the political culture that dominates Springfield.
And that will be a tough row to hoe.
• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.