Grafters and Goo-Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003

By Lester, Richard D. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

Grafters and Goo-Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003


Lester, Richard D., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Grafters and Goo-Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003. By James L. Merriner (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Pp. xix, 302. Illustrations, index. $29.50).

In this lively narrative history, journalist James L. Merriner, also author of a biography of former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, argues that corruption and reform have long been strangely interdependent in Chicago politics. Some Chicago politicians simultaneously played the roles of "boss" and "reformer." Reformers made morally questionable compromises with urban bosses or bent the rules to bring them down. Reforms often created new opportunities for corruption. Merriner also emphasizes how battles over municipal corruption reflected broader class and ethnocultural tensions.

Merriner's narrative highlights the persistence of corruption and the failure of reform. Chicago began as a wide open frontier town that tolerated saloons, gambling, and vice. The enforcement of morals ordinances was selective and rare, and city officials speculated in urban real estate while in office. During the late-nineteenth century, political decentralization promoted the rise of ward-based party organizations, which collected payoffs from saloons and organized vice in exchange for not enforcing moral's laws. Reformers, generally from the city's business elite, advocated a more centralized, efficient city government. During the Progressive Era, the Municipal Voters' League achieved some short-term gains through a strategy of getting enough reform aldermen elected to block "boodle ordinances." Bosses nevertheless proved adaptable and structural reforms of city government ultimately failed. By the 1920s, national prohibition, another Progressive reform, had the unintended consequence of increasing organized crime's influence on Chicago city government.

During the early 1930s, Anton Cermak unified Democratic ward organizations into a citywide, multiethnic machine. Ironically, in the postwar-era, this machine, under Richard J. Daley, finally centralized municipal government operations, a goal long sought by reformers. By the 1970s, however, U.S. Attorney James R. Thompson prosecuted many Daley associates and sent them to prison. As the new prosecutorial model of reform became institutionalized during the 1980s and 1990s, Chicago politics became a seemingly endless series of scandals, federal investigations, and FBI "sting" operations. Meanwhile, Harold Washington, Chicago's first African-American mayor, introduced another variety of reform, which linked fighting corruption with providing more equitable access to city jobs and services to all Chicagoans, regardless of race, gender, or ward. Nevertheless, Merriner concludes, reformers' goals still remain elusive. Despite the proliferation of government ethics rules, city officials and contractors continue to find new, often quite legal, ways to profit from manipulating government programs.

Incorporating some primary source research, Merriner provides a useful overview of a side of Chicago history examined mainly in more specialized works. His book is generally readable and engaging. Merriner is especially good at painting vivid portraits of the personalities who shaped Chicago's politics, finding telling anecdotes, and underscoring how corruption was fostered by morals' regulations which lacked broad public support. He highlights his story's contemporary relevance, suggesting that "good government" reform may be the ancestor of our current tendency to scrutinize public officials' conduct minutely for any ethical lapses. …

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