When "justice" means a fairer distribution of spoils
January 29, 1987
The grubby reality was cloaked in the elevated language of civil rights, but the injustice that plaintiffs in the Springfield voting rights suit in the 1980s really wanted to remedy was unequal access to patronage. The suit was successful and Springfield government became both better and worse. In Illinois, that’s the only choice you get.
"Hiring is done on a patronage basis [in Springfield], is that right?"
"And there's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"No . . . . Well, there's something wrong if you're not getting it."
That exchange during the recent Springfield voting rights trial between defense counsel Bill Hanley and plaintiff Frank McNeil makes one wish that all interviews with politicians were done under oath. It was only one of many indications that while the law's ambitions may be satisfied by a government's representativeness, the ambitions of the people who run it focus on jobs. In his opinion, Judge Harold Baker inferred that the 1,800 jobs which the present city council members control were "the real political reason" for their fight to keep the commission government. True enough. Those jobs were the reason for the fight to overturn the commission government too.
Ask anyone who knows Springfield, and he will explain with a wink that boodle is part of government. I cannot dispute that. I do dispute the near-universal assumption hereabouts that patronage is the point of government. The plaintiffs' views on this question are instructive. Their insistence that elections to the new city council be conducted on a partisan basis may reasonably be read as an attempt to make explicit (and thus indirectly to sanctify) party affiliation as a condition of access to the system, not just on the council but anywhere in city hall.
I am reminded that the motives of the plaintiffs are incidental to the legal issues raised by the suit, and that the fair-minded man does not lumber a cause with the failures of its supporters. But while the motives are not legally pertinent, they mean everything politically. The plaintiffs spoke for the broader political culture of Springfield in this case, if not in their preferred means of local government then certainly in their views on its proper ends.
The city's seventy-six-year experience with the commission confirms that the structure of government matters less than the uses to which it is put. Politics in Springfield has had little to do with representation over the years but much to do with power. Good government in the capital has always-meant "good for me." The impending structural changes may make it easier for new voices, new ideas to be heard, at least for a while; new governments are a lot like new marriages, and the city's last happy bridegroom was Progressive utility commissioner Willis Spaulding. Whether those voices will be heeded seems much less likely. Springfield's government will be changed, but Springfield won't.
Springfield has grappled with the issues of race and representativeness before, when it adopted the commission form. Those who were present at the trial tell me that Judge Baker was impatient with testimony drawn from historical example. That is too bad. (Only brief mention has been made of the fact that the 1908 race riots occurred when Springfield was run under a mayor-aldermanic government, perhaps because that fact is subject to such contradictory interpretation; plaintiffs could argue that it proved the city's inveterate racism, the city could claim that an alder-manic government was obviously no palliative to racism.) The commission government was adopted early in 1911 after a campaign by progressive reformers to destroy the partisan ward system then in use because it was inefficient and corrupt. Payrolls were thick with patronage workers while essential city services such as water supply went untended. City contracts and franchises went not to the highest bidder but the highest briber in a council which saw more deal-making than debate. The new at-large, nonpartisan commission system was to sever the twin roots of corruption—a ward system which encouraged, indeed demanded, bloc-making and the payoffs which accompanied it, and party control which saw the purposes of government and those of party hopelessly muddled.
The reform did not accomplish these miracles, of course. Officially nonpartisan, the government which evolved after the reform is more accurately described as bipartisan. Patronage remained integral to its ethic and operation. Congressman Dick Durbin has recalled that the price expected by local party chiefs for their backing in a talked-about Durbin mayoral bid was his pledge to proffer patronage jobs to both camps.
The reform did accomplish some changes, few of them worthy. The switch to at-large voting did indeed dilute the black vote. Were the conditions of local blacks thus worsened? They were according to some standards. Rebecca Seneschal, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Virginia who studied the 1908 race riots and their aftermath, notes that the change of government had a "significant impact" on Springfield blacks. She offers as evidence the decline in patronage jobs awarded to blacks in the decade after 1911.
A more pertinent question is whether the interests of those blacks who were not patronage workers fared better or worse after 1911 than they had before. The desperate conditions which a national social survey found a few years after the reform on the east side—high death rates among children, primitive sanitation, bad housing and streets, overcrowding—clearly reflected decades of neglect. That neglect was amassed under the same system of government which today's plaintiffs insist is needed to rectify many of those same, sadly persistent ills.
Ironically, if patronage is accepted as the test of representativeness, a case can be made in favor of the commission government. The unofficial bipartisan system meant that winners entered offices bearing IOUs to both parties, whose loyalists thus benefited from a kind of political affirmative action program. It was all very ecumenical, with Democrats (including black Democrats) working on the same street crews for example as Republicans. In a city in which 1) most blacks are Democrats and 2) most city office-holders under a partisan system would probably be Republican, this is arguably a happier situation for blacks.
But of course the suit sought to expand blacks' rights to give patronage as well as receive it. We have heard all manner of novelties proposed as alternatives to the illegal commission government, and will probably hear of more. It was significant and predictable that neither the plaintiffs nor the city council would suggest installing a city manager government. That opinion would seem to offer the best of both worlds—a ward-based legislative council and a professional with administrative responsibility (and thus control over jobs) for city departments. It was significant and not predictable that so few members of Springfield's good government constituency would speak up for it for those reasons.
I recall hearing former mayor Nelson Howarth—a friend to the plaintiffs' cause but also a foe of patronage politics—halloing from the hinterland where intelligent opinion dwells in this town, arguing in favor of a city manager. He had little company. The assumption is general that professional government can't work in Springfield. Northern Illinois University political scientist James Banovetz resorted to a stock phrase when he insisted recently that the city is "too political," that a city manager would be unsupported by a council whose priorities would be favors rather than facilitating.
The assumption is that this asymmetry of means and ends makes a city manager government inappropriate. It certainly would make it inefficient. But I am persuaded that that which governs worst governs best. Nothing will keep the boodlers and hacks from pocketing city hall as dependably as wedding to the political culture a government structure uncongenial to it. We owe our freedom as a nation to just such a mismatch, for it is only the necessity of trying to govern ourselves as a representative democracy for 200 years which has confounded Americans' natural tendency toward fascism.
The synonymous use of the terms "political" and "patronage" reveal that corruption in Springfield is unconscious as well pervasive. (We are talking about a practice which in most circumstances is illegal.) Whether professional politics suits Springfield better than professional government is arguable, but there is no doubt that it suits its professional politicians. The results may be seen in the frolics of the Sangamon County Board. Alone among local governments, the board seats are filled on a geographic basis in partisan elections. Black voters are not submerged, and regularly send black representatives (including McNeil) downtown.
The county board meets the test of representativeness, but seldom that of government. The members are those wonderful people who brought you the Sangamon County jail and who oversee a county government unique among Illinois metropolitan counties for the primitiveness of its public services. Including services to blacks. The board is representative less of the voters in any neighborhood in fact than of the party factions to which its members owe allegiance. Indeed, the board members function as delegates of Neil Hartigan, Jim Thompson, et al; "policy" consists entirely of contests over control of county patronage jobs. At its best it is inefficient, as its worst embarrassing, a reminder that the more perfectly representative government is in Springfield the more venal, short-sighted, and stupid it must be.
It is typical of Springfield to move toward a style of government which is being discredited elsewhere. Even in Chicago, the courts have ruled repeatedly that patronage is illegal. I await with particular interest the suits which are certain to be filed against the new city hall by disgruntled workers fired because of their political ties; if there is a god, a few of them will end up in Judge Baker's court. Meanwhile Springfield, as ever, prepares to step into the future backward. While we wait, we can all contemplate a state of affairs in which "justice" is so widely assumed to mean the more perfect distribution of corruption. □