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The Nation : Rostenkowski's Last Race: The Death of the Old Machine

November 13, 1994|Ben Joravsky | Ben Joravsky, a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, is writing a book based on the movie "Hoop Dreams."

CHICAGO — Chicago's great Democratic Machine died last week when Rep. Dan Rostenkowski was ousted after 36 years in Congress.

When the polls closed, a breathy TV reporter predicted we'd be up all night, waiting for results. But it was over early--and wasn't even close.

Rostenkowski--the Polish kid from Damen Avenue who chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, wrote tax laws and made favor-seeking rich guys wait in his outer office--lost to a Republican. And it wasn't even a charismatic Republican, but a pudgy little guy named Michael Patrick Flanagan, who nibbles at the end of his mustache like a mouse.

The voters, experts said, were tired of Rostenkowski's arrogance and embarrassed by his recent 17-count indictment, alleging he stole almost $700,000 in taxpayer and campaign money. "You can't expect people to elect a guy with so many flaws." one ward committeeman said.

Oh, I don't know. Old Mayor Richard J. Daley got voters, dead and alive to elect some of the world's sleaziest ruffi-ans.

No. Rostenkowski lost because the machine that produced him has gone the way of its counterparts in Jersey City, Boston, Kansas City and Baton Rouge. Many of its leaders jumped ship and became Republicans after Harold Washington, a black Democrat, got elected mayor. Its army of precinct workers is low. "You can't make them care if the party loses," one committeeman lament ed. "Thanks to civil service they're not dependent on us for jobs anymore."

There is a fine tradition in Chicago of insurrections against the machine. They're usually led by a motley bunch of misfits--anarchists, Republicans, socialists, starry-eyed college kids, renegade regulars bearing a personal grudge. They agree on one thing only: They despise the incumbent. Ah, what thrilling escapades their campaigns are: good vs. evil in a door-to-door war waged in the streets. The machine goes down fighting--slashing posters, smashing windows, knocking pregnant women to the ground.

Flanagan's forces faced nothing like that. He shouldn't even get full credit for his victory--an asterisk should follow his name, like there was for Roger Maris, who beat Babe Ruth's home-run record by playing in more games. Flanagan's no giant killer. He beat a tired old man.

When enough votes were counted, Flanagan waddled before the cameras and promised to trim taxes. You call that a big-city congressman? I want my congressman to go out and tax rich suburbanites and spend their money filling my potholes and paving my streets. I want my congressman to walk with a swagger and call people "pal."

Rostenkowski once called me "pal." In 1983, I approached him at a political rally and asked if he was going to endorse Washington for mayor. After all, they were both Democrats. "I don't think so, pal," he said, slapping my back. "I need Harold in Washington."

A year later, I covered a protest of factory workers outside Rostenkowski's Damen Avenue office. It was a rainy day in late fall. The organizers hoped for 100 protesters but with the rain, only 30 or so showed up. They walked in a circle and waved their signs, while their leaders bellowed incomprehensible declarations of defiance over a bullhorn that cackled and snorted. They were worried because a local auto-parts factory, which once employed 10,000, might close. Its work force had been halved, wages frozen and plans were afoot to move more operations to factories in Tennessee and Mexico.

Rostenkowski and the company's CEO, it turned out, were golfing buddies. The protesters wanted Rostenkowski to use his influence to persuade the CEO to keep jobs in Chicago. Alas, they walked in the rain for an hour before a baby-faced aide came out. "The congressman's not here--he's in Washington," the aide said. "But you can make an appointment to meet with him through me."

Then and there, I should have recognized the signs of Rostenkowski's ruin. The machine that elected him was rooted in stable, blue-collar communities. When the factories left, the communities shriveled and the machine lost its base. You can see the results in row after row of desolation--vacant lots, boarded-up buildings, dope dealers on the street.

I guess Rostenkowski forgot his place was on that picket line with those workers and not with the rich guys waiting in his outer office. Years in power must have turned his head. He forgot he was just another Polish kid from Damen Avenue. Just another cog in Daley's machine. The CEO may play a great round of golf--but he didn't vote in the district.

Rostenkowski never did meet with those protesters. A few years later, the factory closed and most of its workers are still unemployed. The factory itself was recently cleared to make way for 200 or so upscale townhouses. They're being marketed to young singles, junior partners who want to live closer to their downtown offices.

Maybe Flanagan will get their votes, but not many more. His support remains weak. On Election Day I bumped into an old friend named Rich, who's about as liberal as they get.

"Who did you vote for?" he asked, as I emerged from our polling place. "the crook or the fascist?"

"The crook," I said.

Rich shook his head. "I voted for the fascist," he said. "I figure he'll be in office for two years and then we'll vote some Democrat in."

Rich may be right. Already several prominent local Democrats are whispering about their 1996 ambitions. I can see them now, going to the townhouses where the factory had stood, and promising voters to trim taxes. Not a one of them can fill a pothole or pave a street.*

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