How did Chicago get to be so corrupt?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 8 2006 7:24 PM

Why Is Chicago So Corrupt?

And how do you measure corruption, anyway?

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Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan received a sentence of six and a half years in prison on Wednesday, after being convicted on charges of racketeering, mail fraud, filing false tax returns, and lying to investigators. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that in the last three decades, at least 79 local elected officials have been convicted of a crime, including three governors, one mayor, and a whopping 27 aldermen from the Windy City. What makes Chicago so corrupt?

City government experts point to a political culture that's been in place for more than 100 years. This culture dates back to the late 19th century, when a gambling-house owner named Michael Cassius McDonald created the city's first political machine. Under machine-style rule, those in power would hand out contracts, jobs, and social services in exchange for political support.

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Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

Chicago's large immigrant population made it easier for political machines to grow in power. Poor ethnic communities could be played off against one another and manipulated with petty gifts. In exchange for political support, ethnicities would be given virtual fiefdoms within city government; the Irish, for example, were given police work, and the Italians jobs at the transit authority.

Of course, none of this was unique to Chicago. New York City had large immigrant populations and the notorious political machine at Tammany Hall. But machine politics faded away in New York, due in part to external pressure from former New Yorker Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected president in 1932.

In Chicago, corruption persisted, to some degree because the city never had the benefit of a reformist mayor like New York City's Fiorello LaGuardia, who had political ties to FDR. Instead, Chicago moved towards a one-party system that made it even more vulnerable to corruption: The city's last Republican mayor left office in 1931. Today, not even the Democratic primaries are competitive—for the most part, once you're in office, you stay there. The weak campaign finance laws in Illinois probably helped to stave off competition in recent years.

The star power of Chicago politicians may also contribute to the city's continuing problems with corruption. Incumbents tend to be big personalities who get celebrity coverage in the local papers—which sometimes translates into ethical leeway from voters. (In cities like Los Angeles and New York, local politicians take a back seat to the media celebs.)

Bonus Explainer: How do we know that Chicago's so corrupt? The most straightforward way to measure corruption is to check the number of convicted local officials. Between 1995 and 2004, 469 politicians from the federal district of Northern Illinois were found guilty of corruption. The only districts with higher tallies were central California (which includes L.A.), and southern Florida (which includes Miami). Eastern Louisiana (and New Orleans) rank somewhat further down the list.

But a high conviction count doesn't necessarily mean more corruption. It could mean that a district happens to have very strict transparency laws or a zealous and effective federal prosecutor—like Patrick Fitzgerald in Chicago. You might try to measure corruption by checking the number of city employees per 1,000 people. (Bigger governments suggest patronage-style politics.) Or you could check to see how long it takes to acquire a construction permit through legal means. (Long delays may reflect a system of rampant bribery.)

Public perception may be the most useful measure. If the inhabitants of a city view corruption as a given, they'll be more inclined to forgive politicians who have already been tainted by scandal, like Chicago's current mayor, Richard Daley.

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Explainer thanks Ester Fuchs of Columbia University, Michael Johnston of Colgate University, Mike Lawrence of Southern Illinois University, Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois, and Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association.