CHICAGO – Who you know may not be enough to land a job at Chicago's City Hall anymore.
A federal judge on Monday ended nine years of federal oversight of Chicago municipal hiring, agreeing the nation's third-largest city has put effective mechanisms in place to curb illegal patronage, or the hiring of people based on their political or personal connections.
Landing a job with the help of friends in high places was long part of the way things worked in The City That Works, and it helped Mayor Richard J. Daley, the legendary iron-fisted boss of Chicago from the 1950s until the mid-'70s, assemble his ruthlessly efficient Democratic machine.
It was often said, only half-jokingly, that Chicago officials' attitude about job-seekers was: "We don't want nobody that nobody sent."
But this week, nearly a half-century after a lawyer by the name of Michael Shakman first sued over the use of "clout," as they call it in Chicago, U.S. District Judge Sidney Schenkier decided that the city has begun to change its ways and has earned the right to police itself.
"Changing a long culture of patronage is generally not a revolutionary process; it is an evolutionary process," said Schenkier, one of six judges to preside over the case since 1969. "This evolutionary change has taken a solid footing in Chicago."
Over the years, Chicago has revamped its personnel department and undertaken other changes designed to make hiring more transparent and fair. It has also given its inspector general authority to track hiring practices, investigate allegations of illegal patronage and recommend disciplinary measures.
"The city has systems in place it didn't have before," Schenkier said.
During a three-hour court hearing, everybody from the judge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Shakman acknowledged that the culture that Shakman has battled for so long has not disappeared.
"The people of Chicago are not naive," said the mayor, who was elected in 2011 and has called patronage a "stain" on the city. "They know that attempts to influence city hiring won't magically disappear overnight." But, he said, the public has reason to be hopeful, adding: "Today is your day."
Shakman said the mayor's legacy will depend in large part on whether his commitment to patronage reform remains strong after the oversight ends.
The lawyer challenged the practice during the reign of Daley, whose use of armies of patronage workers to get out the vote was legendary. It was Daley's big-city machine – and probably some corrupt ballot-box tactics – that helped propel John F. Kennedy to a narrow victory over Richard Nixon in 1960.
Patronage has long been a form of currency in Chicago. Far from being just a way to find work for a good-for-nothing brother-in-law or nephew, patronage helped politicians stay in power because those who got hired were expected to do political chores such as raising money or getting voters to the polls, or risk losing those jobs.
In the era of the elder Daley, many patronage hires were classified as temporary employees, ensuring that they took their political duties seriously and kept their family members voting for the right candidates.
"Using jobs to buy or coerce political support provides a highly effective tool to skew elections and secure power," Shakman said at Monday's hearing.
Shakman's litigation led to orders, known as Shakman decrees, for the city to halt politically driven hiring. In 2005, however, a federal judge found that the city under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley – the Boss' son – appeared to be flouting the prohibitions, and the court ordered the federal monitor.
Ever since, a parade of federal judges and a monitor have been working to put an honest hiring system in place. Last month came the breakthrough, when both the city and Shakman asked the judge to end federal oversight.
While Chicago is now off the hook, the state of Illinois is under scrutiny. Shakman recently filed a complaint alleging some workers in Gov. Pat Quinn's transportation department were patronage hires. In response, Quinn said he has "zero tolerance" for wrongdoing.