My mixed luck with aldermen | Bleader

Friday, January 27, 2012

My mixed luck with aldermen

Posted By on 01.27.12 at 08:00 AM

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David Orr
  • David Orr
In my youth I developed a poor impression of aldermen, and not only from reading Mike Royko.

I grew up in the 23rd Ward, west of Midway Airport. My first alderman, or the first I can remember, was named Frank Kuta. I was 13 when he was elected, in 1967. He went to prison in 1974 for taking a bribe to fix a zoning matter, and for tax evasion. He'd accepted a $1,500 check from a builder in return for not opposing a zoning change—a check he'd neglected to report in his tax returns. "I consider myself guilty only of the sin of being a politician," he told the judge who sentenced him. He got six months.

In the 1971 election, before Kuta's extortion had been discovered, Joseph Potempa unseated him as our alderman. Potempa also went to prison in 1974—for taking a $3,000 bribe to fix a zoning matter, and for tax evasion. He told the sentencing judge he'd been naive and stupid. He got a year. The federal bureau of prisons was probably considering opening a wing for 23rd Ward aldermen.

In my teens I caddied at Ridge Country Club, on the far south side, in Beverly. One of the golfers I caddied for was 12th Ward alderman Donald Swinarski. He was an alderman from 1967 until 1972, when he was elected to the state senate. In 1975 he went to prison for tax evasion—he'd failed to report $7,800 in zoning bribes he'd accepted while alderman. Swinarski "looked stunned and his jaw dropped" when the sentencing judge told him he'd be going to prison, the Tribune reported. He got a year. I know for a fact that Swinarski failed to pass along any part of the bribes to his caddies at tipping time, and that he also was a lousy golfer.

By this point, I was starting to think that city ordinance required aldermen to take bribes in zoning cases. Newspaper stories seemed to confirm this: in the early 1970s, besides the aforementioned, Fred Hubbard (2nd), Casimir Staszcuk (13th), Joseph Jambrone (28th), Thomas Keane (31st), Edward Scholl (41st), and Paul Wigoda (49th) all went to prison for corruption, most of it involving zoning fixes. They gave new meaning to an alderman's "term." Keane was the longtime floor leader for Mayor Richard J. Daley. Matthew Danaher (11th), a protege of the mayor, was charged in 1974 with taking bribes, but died before trial.

Speaking of felonious behavior, if you haven't read Mick Dumke's recent profile of alderman Walter Burnett Jr., I suggest you take the time. It's a revealing portrait of an unusual journey: Burnett was convicted of a felony before he became an alderman, meaning he didn't observe the proper order.

A few aldermen in the era I've been discussing remained unsullied by corruption, or at least went undetected. But that didn't mean they were terrific aldermen.

The only Catholic priest to ever serve in the city council, Father Francis X. Lawlor, had been a teacher at my high school, Saint Rita. He was elected in 1971 in the 15th Ward and served one (non-prison) term. Having taken a vow of poverty, he fixed no zoning cases. His main focus as alderman was "racial stability," meaning keeping the blacks east of Damen.

Though Lawlor was prominent in this effort, he was one among many in the council who worked to keep blacks at bay in their wards. This was the only real essential for white aldermen back then. A white alderman suspected of corruption could still get reelected—but if he were suspected of favoring school desegregation or public housing in his ward, he might as well retire.

In 1979 my luck with aldermen finally changed. By then I was living on the north side, in Rogers Park, which is in the 49th Ward. David Orr, a professor of history and urban affairs at Mundelein College, was running against a candidate backed by the machine. I was so convinced that Orr was a genuine independent that I worked a precinct for him—the only time I've ever done so for a candidate. The city's lousy snow-clearing following a blizzard that January turned voters against the machine. Orr also had a strong organization of young activists behind him; I have fond memories of our campaign meetings at the Heartland Cafe. And Orr was a smart and personable candidate.

He won the race. In his 12 years as alderman—which included a week as acting mayor in 1987 after Harold Washington died—he proved incorruptible and truly independent. When Washington was mayor, he joined the few other white independents, and the African-American aldermen, in fighting Fast Eddie Vrdolyak's bloc of 29, which opposed every reform Washington attempted. Since 1991 Orr has served with distinction as Cook County clerk. I can't think of a finer elected official in Cook County the last 30 years.

So aldermen can rise above their reputations. Others who did so over the years include: Dick Simpson, Leon Despres, William Cousins, Sammy Rayner, Bill Singer, Seymour Simon, Anna Langford, and Martin Oberman. They were thorns in the side of the machine, and strong advocates for the poor. Here's to them.

Read more from Alderman Week:

"Alderman Ed Burke acknowledges the existence of a mere mortal," by Mick Dumke

"Chicago's 50 wards—the jigsaw version," by Ben Joravsky

"Good old Joe," by Kate Schmidt

"Oh, to have those fighting independents back," by Steve Bogira

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