May 16, 2012


Certain innocuous words and phrases are deemed racially inflammatory. One is "plantation," which emblemizes systematic black subservience in the slave-holding antebellum American South.

Add to that another word, politics -- as in "Plantation Politics." That phrase resurrects memories of racial subjugation on Chicago's West Side during the period from roughly 1930 to 1970. That's when white Democratic political bosses were the unchallenged "masters" of black-majority wards and, as committeemen, controlled patronage jobs, picked the alderman and delivered near-unanimous votes for the Democratic ticket.

There was Eddie Quigley, Chicago's sewer boss, who ran the 27th Ward, in the predominantly black Garfield Park area, which didn't get a black alderman until 1971. There were Jake Arvey, Arthur X. Elrod, Sidney Deutsch and Izzy Horowitz, who successively kept control of the once-Jewish Lawndale 24th Ward as it became black; it didn't elect a black alderman until 1958. There was Bernie Neistein, the debonair attorney and state senator who ran the Austin-area 29th Ward, which got a black alderman in 1967. None of those wards elected a black committeeman until the 1980s.

Harold Washington's mayoral triumph in 1983 eradicated "Plantation Politics," but now it's back on the West Side, and the new "masters" are Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, the state Democratic chairman, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and state Senator and Oak Park boss Don Harmon. They, like their predecessors, deliver votes, but their methodology is not turkeys at Christmas and bail bondsmen at the ready. Instead, it's money. They lavishly fund black candidates in West Side and South Side wards and legislative districts. That money begets paid precinct workers, mailings, literature, ads, lawn signs and election day "street cash."

"When black voters see a lot of literature, mailings and workers for a particular candidate, they get a clear message: That candidate has power," said Tom Simmons, who got 11.9 percent of the vote in a losing 2011 aldermanic race in the 29th Ward. "That candidate can help them in the future, so they vote for that candidate."

Hence, the plantation masters' modus operandi is to turn on the dollar spigot, flood the ward or district with money, and elect compliant black Democrats who will vote as they are told. And if they don't, the money evaporates next time. The "Boys of Springfield" and, to a lesser extent, the mayor of Chicago, expect to get what they pay for.

The current mess in the 10th Illinois House District, on the Near West Side, is a salient example of the new "Plantation Politics." The current boss of Quigley's old 27th Ward, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, engineered the 2011 appointment of his onetime aide, Derrick Smith, to a vacant state House seat. Never mind that Smith had been previously fired for wrongdoing as the 27th Ward sanitation superintendent. Character and integrity matter not. Smith's job was simple: Show up in Springfield and vote as told by Madigan. That's only slightly more difficult than walking while chewing gum.

But then, as they say, the best laid plans often go awry. First, Tom Swiss, the former 27th Ward Republican committeeman, decided to run for state representative as a Democrat. He filed to oppose Smith in the Democratic primary, figuring that if he spent $100,000 he could hoodwink enough gullible voters to win the nomination. Second, Smith allegedly accepted a $7,000 bribe in an undercover FBI sting operation, and he was arrested just 10 days before the March 20 primary.

Nobody could possibly claim that 10th District voters didn't have a clear choice: A white Republican blatantly masquerading as a Democrat in a black-majority district versus a black Democrat who after just a few months in office gets arrested for taking a bribe. In Chicago, that's almost politics as usual.

Not to worry. It's "Moneybags Madigan" to the rescue with wads of cash.

According to state campaign filings, Smith raised nearly $200,000 during the period from January to March, with $65,000 directly from Madigan, $61,600 from unions and political action committees and $31,750 from out-of-district Democratic sources; White's 27th Ward operation spent $38,777. The last-minute message to the voters was blunt: Don't be a laughingstock. Don't elect the white Republican guy. Save Smith now, but we'll get rid of him later. "There was money everywhere," Simmons confirmed.

It worked. In a turnout of 9,440, Smith crushed Swiss 7,247-2,193, getting 76.8 percent of the vote and carrying the 27th Ward 2,081-490. Smith, whenever he's not in federal court or conferring with his lawyers, is in Springfield, doing his job and refusing to resign either his office or his nomination. Although under enormous pressure to quit, his resistance is understandable: He needs the job as a chip for a plea bargain. An indicted office holder, by agreeing to resign, usually gets a better deal and a lighter sentence than an indicted non-office holder.

Smith's intransigence, of course, conflicts with Madigan's agenda, which is to elect a non-controversial, controllable, unindicted Democratic state representative from the 10th District. Madigan's fear is that the Republicans, who have until June 4 to name a nominee (which can't be Swiss), could win in November in a one-on-one race against Smith. So Madigan dispatched his moneybags, lawyers and private investigators to the Near West Side, and he is helping create a new party, with a squeaky-clean candidate. The petition drive will cost about $50,000, and it will set up a three-way election, which will cost Madigan at least $200,000 to win.

Smith is drawing his state paycheck, and he doesn't want to quit too soon. His term ends in January of 2013, so he has to quit while he still has leverage. If he doesn't resign his nomination by late August, his name will stay on the ballot.

Interestingly, the most vociferous critic of "Madiganism" and "Plantation Politics" on the West Side is U.S. Representative Danny Davis (D-7), whose 1979 election as 29th Ward alderman signaled Neistein's demise. Davis, age 70, became a ward committeeman, a county commissioner, and in 1996a congressman. He ran for mayor in 1991, getting 198,815 votes (37 percent of the total cast).

Davis' political base has evaporated. He is well known and well liked in his 55.5 percent black district, which covers the West Side, parts of the South Side and a string of western suburbs, including Oak Park, Maywood, Forest Park, River Forest, Broadview, Bellwood, Westchester and Hillside. However, incredibly, on March 20 Davis lost his bid for 29th Ward Democratic committeeman to Alderman Deborah Graham, who is widely viewed as a wholly owned subsidiary of Harmon. The vote was 3,138-2,977. Graham raised an anemic $8,520, but she got $18,400 in loans from Harmon, and she owes $165,122 to her election attorneys. Davis spent $46,137. As a state representative, Graham was a Madigan flunky, occupying the predominantly black east half of Harmon's Senate district for 7 years prior to her appointment as alderman in 2010, when the incumbent went to jail. Harmon and Madigan generated most of her money.

The "Boys of Springfield" are quietly sharpening their knives, preparing to take out Davis in 2014. In a little-noticed detail in the Madigan-Cullerton remap of Illinois' congressional districts, Cullerton positioned one of his minions, state Senator Kwame Raoul, to be the next 7th District congressman. Raoul lives in Hyde Park, in the South Side 5th Ward, and he succeeded Barack Obama when he was appointed in 2004. Until 2011 Raoul was firmly ensconced in Bobby Rush's 1st District, and he was impatiently waiting for Rush to retire or "move on."

Now, in a miracle of cartography, Cullerton appended Raoul's block, around 43rd Street and King Drive, onto the 7th District and added more South Side territory where Davis has no base. The new district contains all or part of 22 wards, most on the West Side. Virtually every office holder and committeeman in the district is under the thumb of Madigan, Cullerton or Harmon. If Davis does not retire in 2014, he'll have a tough primary.

According to sources, Madigan is grooming Alderman Will Burns (5th), a former state representative and a cog in the Madigan machine, who won Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's City Council seat in 2011, for the Rush succession. Since both Burns and Raoul reside in Hyde Park, and both aspire to go to Washington, Raoul got the short straw. He has to take out Davis. Simmons said that rumors of the "Coming of Kwame" have infuriated West Siders, most notably La Shawn Ford, a youthful state representative from the Lawndale area who thinks Madigan will hand him Davis' seat.

West Siders can look on the bright side. Raoul is from the South Side. During Reconstruction, "carpetbagger" congressmen came from different states and regions, but blacks in general, and West Siders in particular, are being "dissed" -- disrespected. South Siders disrespect West Siders, believing they are entitled to the 7th District seat, and the master manipulators in Springfield disrespect the black community, believing they are entitled to pick their congressmen.

If Raoul and Burns get to Congress, and if Obama and Preckwinkle remain in office, Hyde Park will be the most clout-heavy neighborhood in America.

In the 2012 primary, Davis faced Jacques Conway and got 43,653 votes (86.7 percent of the total cast) in a turnout of 50,352. He raised $214,334 during 2011-12.  Rush faced five opponents, getting 66,068 votes (83.9 percent) in a turnout of 78,729. Rush raised $331,290. Neither is a money machine. If the "masters" spend upwards of $500,000 to defeat them, they're history.