How the Chicago Machine Works

“When the same man, or set of men, holds the sword and the purse, there is an end of liberty.”

–George Mason

Unwritten Rules

The Chicago Machine relies on unwritten rules to recruit new members and control existing ones. The machine’s unwritten rules are very similar to those of organized crime families and street gangs. Machine recruiters don’t hand new members a manual containing the rules. New machine members learn the organization’s customs and norms through their elders or by trial and error.

The machine relies on peer and social pressure to enforce its rules. The machine does not physically beat or murder those who violate the rules. Nonetheless, the machine metes out punishment including excommunication, loss of jobs, loss of contracts, public humiliation, or inspections that lead to hefty fines and loss of income. People who live in Chicago know why you “don’t fight City Hall.” If you dare challenge City Hall, the machine will apply its unlimited city resources to make you pay.

Machine members will tell you the machine doesn’t exist. It’s in the best interest of the machine to make you believe there is no such thing as a political machine. The machine doesn’t want voters like you to know there is a political organization manipulating your vote. The machine relies on votes from the unsuspecting public to manufacture patronage jobs, political power, campaign contributions, and income for members who make the machine’s candidates invincible at the polls.

When people join the Chicago political machine, they aren’t photographed and issued an identification card. The machine doesn’t require its members to periodically receive an updated identification card that says, “Chicago Machine Member since 2003.” The machine has no official dues, no official articles of incorporation, and no official meetings. The closest the machine gets to anything official is the Cook County and State of Illinois Democratic Party. The machine camouflages itself under the false pretense of a political party that exists to serve the public good.

The machine is strictly business. The machine doesn’t sell drugs or weapons. Its stock and trade is political influence and power. The machine has control of city, county, and state taxes and often uses the money it collects as its own. At the very least, the machine’s elected officials trade government services for campaign contributions, which is why Jay Stone has sought a ban on political contributions from companies and people who do business with the city.

Everything the machine does is designed to get its members reelected so the machine can hold on to its political power and control government jobs and the taxes it collects. The machine is easy to get along with provided you play the machine’s game. If you ask members of the machine for help with problems concerning city, county, or state government, you can have it  provided you help enough influential political machine members get what they want. Stone says you already pay your taxes and shouldn’t have to pay again for city service.

Five Unwritten Rules of the Chicago Political Machine

1. The Machine Needs a Boss

The Chicago political machine has always been strongest when it has a boss. Journalist Mike Ryko described the machine’s leadership phenomenon in his book “Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago.” The first Mayor Daley reigned from 1955 to 1975. His son, the current Mayor Richard M. Daley, has been the machine’s boss from 1989 to the present.

There are advantages in working for the boss. The boss provides jobs, city contracts, protection, political influence, and power in exchange for abject loyalty, campaign contributions, and votes.

The perks for being the boss of Chicago are similar to those of a mafia don. The boss always gets a piece of the action, and nobody does anything without first receiving an OK from the boss. The underlings take what boss Daley doesn’t want for himself.

From 1989 to the present Richard M. Daley has been the boss of Chicago. From 1983 to now, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan has been the boss of state government in Springfield. And presently the Chicago machine has the granddaddy of all bosses, Barrack Obama, reigning as the boss of the United States.

Obama first went to Daley for Daley’s blessings to run for president. Once Obama had Daley’s support, Daley’s political outfit and fund-raisers backed Obama. The same financial backers who routinely back Daley donated heavily to Obama.

When Daley ran for reelection in 2007, five contributors who were on the Chicago Olympics bid committee donated $570,000.00 in aggregate to Daley. When Barrack Obama ran for president, Obama received $950,000.00 in aggregate from these same five Daley contributors. In all, the 15 members of the Chicago Olympics bid committee donated at least $2 million to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Given Obama’s quick and easy $2 million haul from the Chicago Olympics bid committee members, is anyone surprised that the president went to Copenhagen to lobby on behalf of a Chicago Olympics?

Besides President Obama and First Lady Michelle, the White House staff and cabinet includes other politicians schooled by Daley. Michelle Obama was a Daley advisor and Assistant Planning Commissioner. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, White House advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan all put substantial time into learning the ropes from boss Daley.

Barrack Obama is the most articulate, charismatic, charming, and intelligent face the Chicago machine has ever had, but in spite of Obama’s vast talents and abilities, he still represents everything wrong about Chicago politics. What Obama has learned from Chicago politics and the Chicago politicians with whom he surrounds himself in the White House has been detrimental to him in governing our country. Unfortunately for America, Obama is running the country like a political boss of Chicago instead of acting like the president of the United States.

2. A Political Sponsor is Necessary to Join the Machine

Each new member of the machine needs an established member to vouch for him or her. This requirement of a political sponsor allows the older machine member to indoctrinate the new member into the machine’s culture and unwritten rules.

Political sponsors are also responsible for the conduct of new members whom they bring into the machine. Political sponsors keep their political proteges in line. The machine’s indoctrination process of having established members groom new members is the same method gangs and organized crime families use. To learn more about how the machine recruits and trains new members, read Milton L. Rakove’s eloquent book “We Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent.”

3. Don’t Snitch or Whistle-Blow

The machine relies on a code of silence to keep its secrets and prevent law enforcement investigations. Machine members hate snitches and whistle-blowers more than anyone and anything else. The machine has a rule against snitching and whistle-blowing because information from these sources can lead to convictions, loss of power, loss of influence, loss of jobs, and loss of money.

Since snitches and whistle-blowers trigger most investigations, they are the biggest threat to the machine. The machine wants to maintain a clean public image, but snitches and whistle-blowers expose the machine’s seedier side. Snitches and whistle-blowers are bad for business. How can the machine’s candidates win elections if voters know what the machine is really doing?

The machine’s unwritten rule of punishing snitches and whistle-blowers is akin to how street gangs and organized crime families punish their so-called traitors. Prisoners behind bars consider a snitch the low life of a prison. How ironic that Chicago politicians hold the same belief as convicted felons. And how ironic that Chicago politicians use the same peer pressure as inmates in a prison to keep snitches from talking.

When former Deputy Water Commissioner Donald Tomczak pled guilty and cooperated with the FBI, Daley publicly held Tomczak in contempt. When Daley’s patronage chief Robert Sorich was convicted and kept his insider’s knowledge of Chicago corruption to himself, Daley called Sorich “a fine young lad.” Daley’s vile reaction to the man who cooperated with the FBI compared to Daley’s praise of the man who maintained his silence is more than enough evidence to prove the machine’s unwritten rule against snitching.

To learn more about how the machine uses peer and social pressure to keep its members from spilling secrets, read Milton L. Rakove’s book “Don’t Make No Waves––Don’t Back Losers; An Insider’s Analysis of the Daley Machine.”

4. Punish Snitches and Those Who Don’t Remain Loyal

What good is it for the machine to have rules without any punishment for violating the rules? It’s easy for the machine to punish city employees for a lack of loyalty, blowing the whistle, or snitching. For example, twenty-seven-year water department employee Frank Coconate lost his job, pension, and health benefits for his family after he appeared on TV wearing a Jesse Jackson, Jr., for Mayor button. Like Stone, the federal court deemed Coconate a civil rights victim and awarded him financial compensation. Coconate lost his job for exercising his right to free speech.

Daley not only punishes dissenting employees; Daley also punishes opposition journalists. When “Chicago Reporter” journalist Mick Dumke asked Daley a question about the efficacy of Daley’s gun-control policy, Daley threatened him with, “If I put this up your butt, you’ll find out how effective this is! If I put a round up your …” What made Daley’s comment to Dumke more demeaning was Daley’s smirking laughter that accompanied his threat.

Daley and his flunky aldermen punished a TV news reporter for an unflattering story. When Andy Shaw, who currently is the Better Government Association Director, was an ABC-TV news reporter, he did a particularly hard-hitting story on City Hall corruption. The mayor and aldermen got their revenge against Andy. They passed a bed and breakfast law purposely to inconvenience and cause financial hardship to Andy and his wife’s bed and breakfast business. Never mind that many other Chicago bed and breakfasts were adversely affected by the law that was intended to punish Shaw.

If candidates run for office against one of Daley’s puppets, as Jay Stone did, non-machine-backed candidates and their supporters face every kind of punishment imaginable. Businesses who donate campaign contributions or display campaign signs for independent reform candidates must watch out. Punitive city inspectors may descend upon them and their businesses.

For example, when Stone ran for alderman, a store owner put one of Stone’s campaign signs in the store’s front window. The day after the election, the ward superintendent came to the store and issued the owner two tickets for displaying products on the sidewalk. The store owner said, “I have had products on the sidewalk in front of my store for seven years. Why are you issuing me tickets now?” The ward superintendent replied, “You should have thought about that before you put Stone’s sign in your window.”

Daley also metes out punishment to keep aldermen in line. In 2006 Alderman Joe Moore (49th) sponsored and passed a big box ordinance that stopped Wal-mart from building stores in Chicago. Alderman Moore also sponsored the foie gras ban that passed the city council with a 49 to 0 vote. One week after Moore’s big box ordinance passed, Mayor Daley and the city council repealed the foie gras ban by a vote of 37 to 6. The repeal of Moore’s ordinance had little to do with people in Chicago eating a delicacy. The foie gras ban had everything to do with sending a message to Moore and other aldermen. If you oppose Daley, you are going to pay one way or another.

5. Ward Bosses Control Their Wards Like Daley Controls the City

As with the mafia, which has one boss in charge of other, smaller bosses, the machine has a similar hierarchy and structure. The big boss is Daley who has a number of other smaller bosses working for him. Daley is the shot-caller for the entire city.

Each of Chicago’s 50 wards has an alderman and a ward committeeman (one person is allowed to hold both jobs simultaneously), both calling the shots in his or her own ward. The alderman’s ward is his or her turf. The aldermen defend their turf with no less vigor than street gangs defend theirs. Each alderman does not dare interfere with what goes on inside another alderman’s ward. There is no written law that states that an alderman must not involve him or herself in another alderman’s business. The custom of an alderman not getting involved with the internal politics of another ward is another one of those unwritten rules.

The existence of small shot-callers is very evident in rezoning cases. The tradition that each alderman is the final arbiter of rezoning in his ward dates back to the days of Prohibition. Aldermen keep their hands off of other aldermen’s rezoning decisions because that has been the tradition  for almost one hundred years. Aldermanic voting to approve rezoning in the 14-member Zoning Committee and 50-member City Council is redundant and unnecessary because rezoning is fait accompli as determined by the alderman who has the final say on rezoning in his or her ward.

In addition to rezoning, Daley and the machine delegate power to the alderman boss and shot-caller over virtually everything else that occurs within the ward that he or she represents.

By letting an alderman call the shots in his or her own ward, it makes it easier for Boss Daley to control the entire city. Instead of Daley controlling every man, woman, or decision in each ward, all Daley has to do is control the alderman. If there is a political skirmish in a particular ward, Daley only has to tell the ward’s alderman to fix the problem.

It’s a lot easier for Daley to rely on one person to put out political fires in a particular ward than it is to rely on many. Daley gives each alderman the rights to his or her turf,  and in return for their fiefdom, the legislators abdicate their duty to check and balance Daley’s executive branch of government.