Leader Blues

Friday, December 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Arkansan key player in machine

Leader editor-in-chief

Back in the 1950s, the Chicago political machine picked a young black lawyer who was born in Blytheville to run for the state House of Representatives after reapportionment gave the city an additional district.

His name was Cecil Partee, who had moved north to attend Northwestern University Law School, graduating in 1946, five years ahead of Dale Bumpers, an amazing accomplishment for a black man from Arkansas whose father was a cotton grader back home.

Partee got himself elected to the Illinois House and later to the Illinois Senate and eventually became its president. He was later Chicago treasurer and Cook County prosecutor. He died in 1994 at the age of 73, having done very well as a key participant in a political machine that handed out jobs and contracts and took kickbacks for every human activity, from fixing speeding tickets to issuing driver’s licenses to anybody who couldn’t pass the exam to paying off building inspectors so they’d look the other way.

City workers openly gave the machine 5 percent of their salaries, creating an enormous slush fund that even let the mob skim from the top. Politicians kept shoe boxes in their closets stuffed with cash because there was so much of it.

Partee’s rise in state politics under the Daley machine made way for other black politicians whose roots were in the South — first- and second-generation northerners who still felt southern decades after they or their families had left Dixie.

They competed with other ethnics for patronage jobs, public-works contracts and power and prestige. Some got caught, like Gov. Rod Blagojevich and about half the Chicago City Council, but most keep their heads down and share in the spoils, out of view of law-enforcement officials.

The ethnic stew that is the main dish of Illinois politics — from Richard Daley (both of them) to Barack Obama, from Jesse Jackson (both of them) to Ram Emanuel, from Michael Bilandic to Harold Washington, from Roman Pucinski to Abner Mikva, from the convicted Dan Rostenkowski to the disgraced Rod Blagojevich, from the felon Dan Walker to the imprisoned George Ryan — why, the state has offered opportunities to ambitious people from every ethnic group since before the great Chicago fire.

Only those from outside Chicago would snigger at a name like Blagojevich — a Serb American whose neighborhood is as much a part of the political mix as the areas populated by Polish Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans and now presumably Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans and groups you may never have heard of.

The faces change, but the rules of the game are the same.

Illinois is not the most corrupt state — according to the New York Times, Florida has sent more politicians to prison than any other state (Arkansas ranks in the bottom third, as it usually does when it comes to rankings).

Blagojevich will leave office and maybe go to jail. He’d be the third Illinois governor in recent memory to serve time in the slammer, but most politicians, of course, will escape prosecution.

Like Cecil Partee, you get in the middle of the action but away from the spotlight where a prosecutor may be watching.