'Chicago way' includes going to jail for wrongdoing

June 20, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

"You know, in Chicago, we have a very unusual association with people that work for us."

-- Dan Rostenkowski

I had just finished my freshman year at college and needed a summer job. So I did the usual things: responded to classified ads, went to employment agencies, made phone calls, sent out letters.

There were a lot of kids doing the same thing, however, and I was getting nowhere. But the father of my girlfriend was a community activist who happened to know Marshall Korshak, city treasurer of Chicago.

And in Chicago, if you knew Marshall Korshak, you didn't need to know anybody else. Korshak controlled thousands of patronage jobs and dispensed them the way monarchs dispensed royal favors.

My girlfriend's father wrote me a letter, which I took down to Korshak's City Hall office. Though I was just a kid, he saw me immediately. People who are secure in their power don't have to keep other people waiting.

Korshak asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to work for the Park District.

"You want to be a lifeguard?" Korshak asked, picking up a pen.

As I was a lousy swimmer, I thought that would be a bad idea and asked him what else he had.

"Picking up garbage," he said. "You get a stick with a nail in the end and a burlap bag. But you have to qualify."

How do I do that? I asked.

"You going to college?" he said.

Yessir, I said.

"Then you qualify," he said.

He wrote me a letter and told me to take it down to Park District headquarters next to Soldier Field.

When I got there, several hundred kids were already in line, attracted by news stories about how the Park District was hiring for the summer.

After about 20 minutes of waiting, a clerk walked past me and saw the letter with the city seal on the envelope in my hand. He took me by the sleeve and led me past everybody in line.

"Why dincha say something?" he said. "When you got a letter, you don't got to stand in line."

And so I learned the magic of clout.

I spent the summer picking up garbage and raking tons of dead fish (there had been a huge, unexplained die-off of alewives in Lake Michigan) into stinking pits.

It was one of the best jobs I have ever had. It was not only outdoor work, but I learned about reverse snobbery: My friends would come tothe beach and lie around on towels, while I wore heavy jeans, a sweat shirt and work gloves and rode around on a tractor. I was much admired.

Nobody at City Hall ever asked me for a favor. I never had to buy a ticket to a political event or kick back any of my salary. While it was assumed that I would vote Democratic for the rest of my life, that was assumed about everybody in Chicago.

Years later, after I got a job writing a newspaper column, I began writing on -- what else? -- the evils of patronage.

And I called up Marshall Korshak, who was by then retired, and arranged an interview.

He was proud of his accomplishments. "Over the years," he said, placed thousands of people. Thousands."

He did not remember me, of course. And so I told him I was one of those thousands and, when you got right down to it, the way I got my job was unfair.

Korshak gave me a weary smile. "You did the job?" he asked. "You picked up the garbage?"

Sure, I said. I did a good job.

"So what wasn't fair?" he said. "As long as the job got done, what wasn't fair?"

Which was the Chicago way. Which brings us to Dan Rostenkowski.

Rostenkowski now seems to be claiming that Chicago has a special way of dealing with public jobs: that it is OK to use public dollars to pay workers for private work and that public employees can be "ghostworkers" who never show up at all.

But that's baloney. It was never OK.

You may have gotten your job through clout, but you were supposed to do your job. And you were supposed to do it for the benefit of the public that was paying you.

And if Rostenkowski used public dollars to help himself or to fill his political coffers, he deserves to end up in prison for it.

Because that's the Chicago way, too.

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