Corruption Hangover Follows Election Night High

Fraud, bankruptcy and strike takes wind out of Windy City's sails.

December 9, 2008, 7:51 PM

Dec. 10, 2008— -- A little more than a month ago, the world stared, transfixed and mostly starry-eyed at a park in Chicago where the city's most famous son -- who had done as good as a local boy can do -- declared victory in the presidential election.

Heady days followed for a city that if not for Barack Obama, would have made headlines this year primarily for its growing rate of gun violence. The president-elect headquartered his transition team in Chicago's Kluczynski Federal Building, the mayor ordered thousands of banners with the president-elect's likeness hung all over town and all the attention buoyed the city's collective hopes of winning the bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Despite -- or more likely because of -- the first family's residence in the Second City, much of Chicago's recent and, much less celebratory, news has also made national headlines.

Last week workers protested upcoming layoffs by taking over a window factory on the city's North Side. On Monday, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, the city's oldest and most storied newspaper, declared bankruptcy. And Tuesday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested and charged with corruption, completing the economics-culture-politics troika of bad news.

To be fair, Blagojevich works from the state capital in Springfield, but according to the Chicago Sun-Times in the last 30 years no less than 79 local elected officials have been convicted of a crime, including three Illinois governors, one Chicago mayor and 27 of the city's aldermen.

For some Chicagoans, this week's news is the little anticipated hangover to an Election Night high, changing the mood of the city from hopeful to downtrodden. But for many other locals, a corrupt politician and struggling economy are par for the course in the Windy City.

"There is this new gloomy sense to things," said Anna Tarkov, 28, who writes a local politics blog called DailyDaley for the Web site The blog is named for city Mayor Richard M Daley.

"People are saying, 'the Tribune declared bankruptcy yesterday, the governor was indicted today, what's going [to] happen Wednesday?' People are feeling different today than they were a week ago. It is different when you read about these sorts of things happening somewhere else, but when it hits close to home it's pretty depressing," Tarkov said hours after the governor's arrest Tuesday.

Chicago: From Camelot to Corruption

Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday on charges that he conspired to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder as part of what federal prosecutors called a "political corruption crime spree."

Federal authorities bugged Blagojevich's home and office telephones and recorded hours of him speaking with advisers, fundraisers, a spokesman and a deputy governor. According to the federal affidavit, the governor engaged in fraud and influence peddling.

Corruption is nothing new to Illinois or to Chicago. In 2006, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan received a sentence of 6½ years in prison after being convicted on charges of racketeering, mail fraud, filing false tax returns and lying to investigators.

"There is a national narrative that Chicago is the new Camelot. We have this sense that the city rose phoenixlike from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire when it hosted the World's Fair" in the 19th century, Tarkov said.

"There is the sense, more from outside Chicago than here, that the city -- especially with the Olympics -- is again going to get another chance to rise from the ashes. But with all that added attention, the spotlight has exposed some things that aren't so rosy. There's more to this city than the Olympics or that the mayor has a green roof," she said.

That spotlight is not just exposing Chicago's seedy underbelly but casting a shadow large enough for the country to see, said Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice.

"Chicago is under the spotlight like never before because the president-elect lives here," Trice said. That added attention gives reports a national urgency that they normally would not have.

"The governor has been under investigation for years. Everything with the Tribune and the Republic employees came to a head at the same time as the governor's arrest, and people outside of Chicago have this sense that things went from euphoric to somber overnight," she said.

"The mood in Chicago, given the economy, is much like the mood in the rest of the country. The truth is, this is pretty typical," she said. "There's a lot happening, but a lot that would have happened anyway. It's just the extra attention and extra emotions around Obama that make everything seem heightened."

Illinois Under the Spotlight

Regular Chicagoans say they are taking everything in stride, following their sometimes disappointing politicians with the same focus they give to following their sometimes disappointing sports teams.

"If we weren't already past the high we were all feeling on Nov. 5, this is going to help," said Sachin Agarwal, 28, president of, a video game auction Web site.

"It's not like Obama was arrested," he said. "No one really liked Blagojevich anyway."

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