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“I wish I was that smart”

Bill Cellini, Springfield's politics pro

Illinois Times

July 17, 1981

Bill Cellini—elected official, a businessman, and as the leader of the local Republican Party organization—was a legendary figure in the Springfield from 1963 until federal authorities convicted him on dubious charges in 2011 that resulted from his being an Illinois politician of the old-fashioned type. (I wrote about his trial here.)


Everybody in town had an opinion about Bill, some of which were informed. Just about everybody liked him too, including me. He was a pianist and band leader on the side when he was young; he and my musician father worked together, and I’d known him since I was a kid. As a kid who came from the wrong side of town as Cellini had, I knew something of what he was up against, and had always sympathized with him.


This piece did not examine the merits of the controversial General Assembly bill that occasioned it. But if it is common practice to arm the chairs of elected boards with the power to veto the decisions of directors, it has escaped me in forty years of writing about public affairs.


You could smell the cigar smoke as far away as Seventh Street. Late at night on July 1, as the chaotic 82nd General Assembly was stumbling toward adjournment, Doug Kane, Springfield’s estimable Democratic representative, called his sleepy colleagues’ attention to an unnoticed addition to a conference committee report of a law enforcement bill. If adopted, the measure would strip the chairman of the Springfield Metropolitan exposition and Auditorium Authority (SMEAA) of the power to veto board decisions.


There was some confusion about who was responsible for inserting the measure, although it was later speculated that no less august a personage than the Speaker of the House ordered it. But there was no confusion about who would benefit from it, Kane explained. That was Springfield businessman Bill Cellini.


As State Journal-Register columnist Al Manning would note, there is no direct evidence that Cellini "wired the conference committee." But this one time, appearances may not be deceiving. I should explain that Cellini is negotiating a lease with SMEAA for a $17 million hotel to be built on the site, that SMEAA’s 1ong-time attorney reportedly has been inquiring into the fine print of that agreement, that a majority of the SMEAA board—all of whom are beholden in some way to Cellini, mainly for government jobs—had voted to fire the attorney, and that the chairman of the board vetoed that dismissal, using the seldom-used authority which the surprise House measure was intended to revoke.


I suppose I should have gotten angry at this apparent appropriation of the political process for private ends. But since January I’ve become hopelessly confused about where public policy ends and private interest begins. Besides, I’ve come to admire Cellini. He’s got chutzpah, if one can apply that word to a nice Italian Catholic boy from the north side. He is the eminence grise of Illinois Republican politics, a man who has at least the ear of the governor and (judging from the events of July 1) somewhat more of the speaker. He is the executive director of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association. But that title, like Henry Kissinger’s when he was national security advisor, only hints at the dimensions of his influence. Indeed, I have come to regard him as a force akin to gravity, one which exerts itself everywhere and which affects the motion of all things.


There’s a lot of Horatio Alger in Cellini. He is intelligent, a political ecumenist, has a sense of humor, and works, if anything, too hard. His reputation for influence is often exaggerated—his man for both mayor and streets commissioner lost in the last city election, to pick just one example—but it is an impression that Cellini is careful to not correct. He knows that in politics, a reputation for influence is influence.


Traveled by the usual routes, it’s about four miles and three generations from the working-class bungalows of North 19th Street where Cellini grew up and the exclusive retreat near Washington Park where he now makes his home. But Cellini eschewed the usual routes. He was trained as a schoolteacher, but that career offered insufficient scope for a man of his ambition. He was elected Springfield streets commissioner in 1963, becoming at once the youngest person (twenty-nine) and the first Italian-American ever to sit on the city council. By 1963 he was already being listed in the press among Illinois’ "prominent Republican politicians." By 1967 no one even dared to run against him in the city primary, in part because of a series of palace coups by which he and his fellow "Young Turks" had won control of the local party apparatus. In 1969 he was named to run Gov. Richard Ogilvie’s public works department, and later was named to head its successor, the new Department of Transportation.


For all its speed, Cellini’s rise was not easy. There were ethnic slights to overcome, and the political serfdom in which the largely WASP establishment then held Italians. There were social snubs while campaigning on the west side, where wops from the north side were tolerated only as gardeners. The anti-Catholic virus was still alive too; in 1963, the rumor that Cellini wanted to change the name of South Grand Avenue to Kennedy Avenue in honor of the slain President drew angry phone calls from people who challenged Cellini’s "religious motives."


Cellini was hardy alone in the obstacles he faced, of course. The rungs of Springfield’s social ladder in those days were crowded with the sons and daughters of the city’s elites whose only claim to superiority was that their fathers had gotten off the boat fifty years before Cellini’s had -- a considerable handicap in a city in which, as one writer has phrased it, "the first-family feeling . . . is almost Bostonian."


Cellini has always been disliked and a little feared by certain segments of this class, perhaps because they recognize in him something which had been bred out of them. In any event, the ruling elites did and do rely on an old boy network to sustain themselves. Its loci include the Sangamo and the Illini clubs, and it is nourished by the profits from law, insurance, banking, and land. It is interbred, insular, self-perpetuating; like the graduates of English public schools, its members work very hard to see that fellow alums do not fail.


Such sinecures were closed to Cellini, of course. Like any ethnic outcast, he had to find other paths to success. (Local Jews, for example, had taken refuge in retailing, since WASPs found it less distasteful to sell money than to sell dry goods.) Cellini turned to politics. Barred access to Springfield’s old boy network, he created his own new boy network of political contacts, complete with its own clubs, its own hierarchies, and its own exclusionary rules.


And its own sources of capital. Cellini is a master at what might be called grant capitalism. Cellini learned early that you don’t get rich in politics. So, using his political connections, he unlocked a trove of public money with which to underwrite hotels, apartment complexes, prison guard training schools, and senior-citizen high-rises. Rent subsidies, low-interest loans, UDAG grants, industrial development bonds. All perfectly legal, mind, imaginatively packaged and aggressively marketed. An ex-reporter I know—a man not disposed to be admiring of either politicians or sharp real estate developers—said of Cellini, "Look, I wish I was that smart."


There are those who find all this a little dishonest. When I was younger, I would have agreed. But it’s getting harder and harder to know who the villains are. Yes, Cellini is using public money to amass a private fortune. But what about the developer who taps into a sewer line at the end of a new highway that cost millions in tax money so he can buy a cornfield and sell it as house lots for a king’s ransom—lots, by the way, which will be paid for with tax-subsidized mortgages? Yes, Cellini has installed allies on key boards. But interlocking directorships weren’t invented on North l9th Street. Yes, Cellini manipulates the political system for his own ends. But are there not a hundred unions, trade associations, and corporations in this state who arm their representatives with expense accounts to do the same thing for the benefit of the same people who condemn Cellini? Who is the greater threat to the public weal? Cellini? Or the lender who refuses to make loans in central city neighborhoods and thus consigns them to ruin to protect his profits? You tell me.


Four years ago, Cellini was paid a back-handed compliment by the leftish People’s Institute when he was listed with the town’s biggest publisher, land developer, and bankers among the local "power elite." It was a notice to the larger world that he had arrived, and reminder that in Springfield, business is politics and politics is business. To complain that Cellini is corrupting the system is to hold a higher opinion of the system than it deserves. Influence is the system, and in his unblinking recognition of that fact lies one of the keys to Cellini’s success. Dishonest? Cellini may be one of the few really honest men in Springfield. ●




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