Metra recently released information contained in several boxes of old index cards, showing that politics in the 1980s and ’90s played a major role in people getting hired by the commuter rail agency.
The Chicago newspapers ran lengthy stories about these records, which date to the era of Bruce Springsteen, the Exxon Valdez and “The Cosby Show.” The cards showed that political patronage was alive and well back then at Metra, where the chief executive quit last year amid a patronage controversy in which House Speaker Mike Madigan was at the center.
Political patronage in Illinois. Imagine that.
The Metra index cards reveal that a wide range of politicians — ranging from political angels such as Paul Simon and Jim Edgar to convicts such as George Ryan and former Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak — were interested in getting Metra jobs for their political chums.
The cards not only listed the job applicant’s name but also his or her political sponsor. 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 — 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 Gianulis, the octogenarian Democratic Party boss in Rock Island County. He had just been hired by Rod Blagojevich to work in his administration.
Gianulis 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 what you know but who you know.
Look no further than the Metra controversy that led eventually to the release of those musty boxes. Former CEO Alex Clifford alleged that Madigan and other political big shots pressured him to hire or promote certain people.
But while patronage persists, things aren’t as bad as they once were.
When I first started covering Illinois politics in the 1980s, state prison guards, secretaries, lab technicians and a whole host of run-of-the-mill state jobs were filled in part through the offices of Republican 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 that 17 of 30 people who passed petitions worked for government and another 12 used to. That’s right, 29 out of the 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 overnight or just by changing laws. We must change the political culture that dominates Springfield.
And that will be a mighty tough row to hoe.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the c, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.