Stand Up Guys

Safety specialist Frank Coconate (left) says he was punished by the Department of Water Management supervisors after he ran for office as an independent Democrat. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

Safety specialist Frank Coconate (left) says he was punished by the Department of Water Management supervisors after he ran for office as an independent Democrat. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

Sleet fell throughout the cold morning of Nov. 2, but the five guys handing out campaign literature outside St. Juliana school couldn’t think of being anywhere else on Election Day. Pacing next to the walkway leading into the school, 7400 W. Touhy Ave. on Chicago’s far Northwest Side, they tried to catch everyone headed inside to vote. They pressed three-inch-square sheets that said “PUNCH #49 for Ralph Capparelli” into hands that could not help but take them. They politely requested support for the entire Democratic ticket.

One of them, a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver who’d identify himself only as Ray, bounced up and down to stay warm while declaring he would do “whatever they need” to help out.

“They need their foot soldiers,” added a guy in a Bears cap standing next to him.

In the indirect, slightly boastful talk of precinct workers, the two went on to say that “they” meant their leaders in the Democratic Party, particularly Capparelli, the longtime Democratic committeeman of the 41st Ward and a state representative from the 15th District who had relinquished that seat to challenge Republican incumbent Michael P. McAuliffe in his 20th District.

Leading up to the election, “they” sometimes asked the guys to register voters, round up petition signatures, pass out campaign fliers or knock on doors to make personal appeals. This day was about bringing the vote in. So far, it was going well: At just after 9 a.m., three hours into the election, turnout was strong—though Capparelli would eventually lose, capturing just 41 percent of the ballots.

While Ray was the youngest of the group—he appeared to be in his late 20s—he was a veteran of the previous three elections, his political career starting right after he’d been hired at the CTA.

“I’d never really been into voting before, but now I see the importance of it,” he said. “It’s understood that, if you get help from somebody getting your job, it’s understood you need to be out there helping them out.”

But the other men outside St. Juliana agreed with Ray. They all had positions with the CTA or the city of Chicago. They all were expected to do some electioneering. And, because they all wanted to keep their jobs, they refused to name names, including their own.

“Politics makes the world go round—that’s how it works. You’ve got to know somebody to get in,” said the Bears fan. “Very few people get called for an interview with the city. That’s why people do this—standing in the rain like this. You know—one hand washes the other.”

It’s against the law for public employees to do political work on government time. But, when the men were asked if they’d taken the day off to help with the election, they started laughing.

“Some do. Some don’t,” said the man in the ball cap.

When asked about mobilizing city workers, Capparelli also laughed.

“I don’t control one job,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do for anyone. I really don’t have any workers. The CTA? Forget about it. I couldn’t get you a job at the CTA. Find one guy, and I’ll give you $100. No, I’ll give you $200.”

For generations, it was known that Chicago’s Democratic Party thrived on a system of political patronage. Under the “Machine” perfected by former Mayor Richard J. Daley, anyone who wanted a job with the city was expected to work for the party’s candidates; those who had not demonstrated their loyalty and work ethic were not going to get a second look.

The city was supposed to be different after a series of legal battles led to the Shakman consent decree in the 1970s and 1980s. Covering most of the city’s 38,000 jobs, the decree made it illegal for city employees to be required to engage in political work, and, with a few exceptions, for the city to hire people based on patronage.

But not everyone has let laws get in the way of politics.

Payroll data obtained by The Chicago Reporter show that thousands of city employees have missed work each of the last three election days, accounting for absentee rates higher than most other days of the year.

And hundreds of employees were hired only for the two-week pay period including the 2003 municipal election. The workforce then slimmed down to its previous level for the next pay period.

City employees get two to five weeks of vacation a year, depending on their experience. And many city workers are more than happy to use their time off helping local political candidates.

Across Chicago on Nov. 2, though, many city employees said their supervisors and political sponsors expected—and sometimes pressured—them to do campaign work. Punishments for refusing could include demotions or terminations, they said.

Their accounts are virtually identical to charges laid out in the Dec. 16 federal grand jury indictment of Donald Tomczak, the former first deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Water Management. It accuses Tomczak of doling out city jobs, promotions and overtime in return for campaign work for candidates he supported. The candidates are not named in the indictment.

Activists believe the knotting of politics and city work has helped stifle the prospects of independent candidates, who typically have no way to match the troop strength and fundraising acumen of Democratic incumbents. The situation, they say, partly explains why Mayor Richard M. Daley has coasted to easy victories in his three elections and faces little opposition from the city council.

The Reporter’s findings also come at a time when city workers say they’re being squeezed by the Daley administration, which has slashed some jobs, privatized others and demanded contract concessions to balance the budget over the last few years.

“City workers—they’re scared,” said Frank Coconate, a 26-year veteran of the Water Management Department and frequent critic of the Daley administration. “It’s like the mob—if you don’t do it, they’ll get you. There’s a master sheet downtown of who’s in and who’s out.”

The mayor’s press office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment, eventually referring questions to the city’s Law Department.

Jenny Hoyle, the law department’s spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail that the city abides by the Shakman decree.

“The fact that employees may be using vacation days to do election work indicates that there is no mixing of government business and politics; in fact, it demonstrates that employees are appropriately separating their personal activities from their work activities,” she wrote. “Based on the size and diversity of the City’s workforce, it is not surprising that some employees would be involved in political or social organizations in their free time.”

Hoyle also wrote that the figures showing a payroll increase for the 2003 municipal election were false, even though they came from the city. “Political workers were not added to the payroll for that time period,” she wrote. She did not provide new numbers.

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Election Day, the city’s fleet yard at 4900 W. Sunny side Ave. is full of trucks.

Twenty-four hours later, the trucks are gone, presumably out on the street as they are on most work days. (Photos by Mary Hanlon)

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Reporter obtained a database of the number of employees who were absent from the city’s largest departments—except fire and police—from Jan. 1, 2003, through Dec. 7, 2004. The database also shows the number of employees on the payroll for much of that time. The information does not specify whether employees were gone for vacation, illness, personal days, or some other reason.

In many of the 41 departments, the days of the 2003 municipal election (Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2003), the 2004 primaries (Tuesday, March 16, 2004), and the 2004 general election (Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004) were typical: About as many people missed work as usual. Nearly 11 percent of city employees are gone on a given weekday.

But the departments of Transportation, General Services, Streets and Sanitation, Aviation, Water Management, and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events had nearly twice as many absent workers as usual on the days of all three elections.

The same was true at Fleet Management, Planning, Zoning and the Office of the Mayor for the municipal election; Fleet Management and the Office of Budget and Management for this year’s primary; and the Department of Housing for the general election in November.

And, in a few departments, the municipal and primary election days were among the leading days off. For example, about a third of all employees in the Department of Streets and Sanitation were absent from work on the municipal election day, tops for the department during the period analyzed. The absentee rate was more than triple what it was the days before andafter the election. Typically, the department goes without 10 percent of its 4,100 workers on weekdays.

In the Aviation Department, which provides workers for the city’s two airports, the most absences came on the day of the February 2003 municipal election, while the March 2004 primary finished fourth—behind the days after Christmas and Thanksgiving in 2003. The municipal and primary election days were also among the most-missed in the General Services, Fleet Management, Transportation and Water departments, according to the data.

Election Day is “an excused day off,” said Pasquale Messina, who drives a truck at O’Hare International Airport for the Aviation Department. On Nov. 2, Messina, a 41st Ward precinct captain, stood under an umbrella outside the Norwood Park fieldhouse at 5801 N. Natoma Ave., handing out palm cards advising voters of favored candidates.

“You can play hooky from work, and they don’t yell at you,” he said.

But Messina, 27, denied that he was required to do political work. He said Capparelli, the ward’s committeeman, is a family friend, and Messina simply enjoys being involved in politics. That’s why, for weeks leading up to each election, he and other precinct captains get together for breakfast on Sunday mornings to discuss strategy.

He admitted, though, that others may feel they have no choice. “There will be some people who tell you, ‘We need you to do this,'” he said. “I’d say it’s pretty widespread. Jobs are scarce with the city.”

Later that afternoon, a man named Jesse shivered outside the door of the Crow Bar, a tavern and polling place at 106th Street and Avenue C on the Southeast Side. The City of Chicago baseball cap and Fire Department jacket he wore weren’t enough for the plunging temperatures.

He’d borrowed the jacket from his brother; Jesse worked in Streets and Sanitation, and the hat was his. With no hot races in the 10th Ward, he was in the cold gathering signatures for a petition to block new landfills from the area. Jesse didn’t know who had proposed the petition, or why. “They just told me about it this week,” he said. He wouldn’t identify “they,” but noted that for years he had worked on elections across the city, wherever he was needed. It was always fine with his supervisors at work, he said.

Many departments also had more workers than average available at the time of the 2003 municipal election, the Reporter’s analysis shows. The Department of Transportation went from 1,314 employees during the pay period ending Feb. 15, 2003, to 1,659 the next two weeks and then back down to 1,407 for the March 15 payday. Over the same time, the Aviation Department grew from 2,004 to 2,639 before falling to 2,014. But these increases were modest next to Water Management’s. That department’s payroll exploded from 2,802 employees to 5,175, then back to 2,732.

For Aviation and Water, the Feb. 28, 2003, payroll was the largest of any pay period studied by the Reporter. Tom LaPorte, Water department spokesman, referred payroll questions to the Law department.

“We have no indication that the city payroll ‘swelled’ for the pay period of the last municipal election,” Law department’s Hoyle wrote. She said the large jump in Water department employees might have been due to the fact that the Water and Sewer departments merged during that time. But that merger was effective Jan. 1, 2003, and Hoyle didn’t explain why the error did not show until late February, or why it only appeared for that particular pay period.

Hoyle also noted that the Shakman decree prohibits the city from using political affiliation as a basis for hiring and that the decree outlines procedures to ensure that political affiliation is not part of the hiring process. City employees who feel they are pressured into political work should file a grievance with their union or the city’s inspector general, she added.

Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez was unavailable for an interview, said spokesman Matt Smith. In an e-mail message, Smith went on to say that his department followed the law.

“The Shakman decree does not require the City to limit its hiring to people who have no political interests or involvement in political organizations,” Smith wrote. “In fact, it would be a violation of the Shakman decree to use a job applicant’s political activism as a basis for not hiring that person.”

But Jay E. Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, a watchdog group, said he is not surprised to hear city employees say they’re expected to do political work. Patronage and bare-knuckles politics are Chicago traditions, he noted. “It is understood that, if you go above and beyond the call of duty, you’ll be rewarded.”

Other analysts react similarly, saying government employees have long made up the majority of Chicago’s Democratic campaign armies. They emphasize that nothing is wrong with city workers spending their free time electioneering—as long as it’s really free.

It is a line in the sand that Mathias W. Delort believes most politicians now respect. “We don’t quite see the level of intertwining of politics and city work we used to,” said Delort, a Chicago attorney who has represented independents, Republicans and regular Democrats in election disputes over nearly two decades. “In my experience dealing with elected officials as political clients, there’s a lot of sensitivity to this.”

Most volunteers are just interested in helping their candidates win, he said. “Almost every elected incumbent has a crew of people around them because they really like that person. Maybe it’s because they got a job from them, but they want to be there. It’s a political town, and some of them really enjoy it.”

Others, including Stewart, are skeptical. “It does strain credulity to think that so many city workers are political junkies.”

Carl Segvich does not need to be convinced. In the 2003 city elections, the lifelong Bridgeport resident took on Daley-appointed Ald. James A. Balcer and a supporting army of 11th Ward workers. Segvich lost by 70 percentage points.

Segvich, a conservative Republican, jumped into the race knowing he’d need a miracle to win in a ward controlled by John P. Daley, the 11th Ward Democratic committeeman, a Cook County board member and the mayor’s brother.

Still, collecting the signatures to get on the ballot was surprisingly easy, he said: While a few people refused to sign, telling him they were afraid of losing city services or imperiling their city jobs, many others announced that they wanted to challenge the mayor’s allies.

Segvich is a salesman in the private sector, but his father was a city worker, and he estimates that most of his close friends and family members are as well—that’s how it is in Bridgeport.

And so once he’d made it onto the ballot, many friends and relatives told him they couldn’t display his signs, attend a fundraiser or do anything that could be seen as supporting his candidacy.

“It was heartbreaking—so many people said, ‘Carl, we’re going to vote for you, but we can’t put your sign up,'” he said.

One night, Segvich said, a brick was thrown through a window of his car, which had a campaign sign posted in it. He believed it could be an intimidation tactic, but he had no proof. “I’m not scared of anybody, but I felt like people were treating me as if I had leprosy,” he said.

On Election Day, Segvich and his handful of volunteers were overwhelmed by his opponent’s “well-oiled machine.”

At least four city workers were posted outside each of the ward’s polling places, handing out palm cards, some of which were “accidentally” left in voting booths, he said. Segvich said friends of his who work for the city told him they were forced to take time off to help with the election. “If you want to get a raise or a promotion, you’ve got to get out there,” he said. “Even if you want to get in the door.”

Balcer reacts indignantly to the charges. He said Segvich should have filed a complaint with election officials last February if he had evidence that laws were broken. “We abide by the rules,” Balcer said. “I’d never tell anyone to intimidate anyone. –¦ I don’t support anyone throwing bricks.”

Balcer said city workers do volunteer for his ward organization, but he didn’t know what portion of his campaign team they account for. “If someone wants to volunteer, they can volunteer,” the alderman said. “I would never pressure anyone to be involved in politics. If they work for the city, fine. If not, that’s fine, too.”

Nick Valadez is a Democrat, but that did not help him fend off city worker-led campaign teams in two bids for alderman in the 10th Ward.

In 1999, Valadez faced a first-time candidate, mayoral aide John A. Pope, who used dozens of election workers from the Hispanic Democratic Organization. The HDO is run by current and former City Hall operatives, including Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez, who lives on the Southeast Side. Its rank and file is composed largely of city workers, according to political activists. Valadez said he knew that many of the people who campaigned against him were city employees because they were old friends and acquaintances.

The HDO-backed campaign was organized and effective. For example, Valadez said, on Election Day, a van pulled up to a polling place in the 8900 block of South Buffalo Avenue. Then some men jumped out, opened the back doors and lifted out a senior citizen wearing socks but no shoes. They then carried him inside to vote. “At that point, I said, ‘I’m in trouble,'” said Valadez, who now practices law in south suburban Oak Forest.

“I know a lot of these people work for their candidates because they want to,” he added. “But the problem is that usually they’re not volunteers.”

Pope said his campaign team was made up of more than city workers and HDO members. “We involved a lot of people, including city employees, people who weren’t city employees, males, females, whites, Hispanics, young and old,” he said.

The alderman stressed no one was forced to volunteer. And Valadez and other 10th Ward candidates also had support from city emploees, Pope said, arguing that they are typically more involved in politics than other people. “They’re closest to the issues in their daily lives. They take a natural interest.”

When lifelong 11th Ward resident Carl Segvich ran for alderman, he was crushed by a political organization that he believes was mostly made up of city workers. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

In the heyday of Richard J. Daley’s administration, government and politics were often indistinguishable. According to political veterans, court records and news reports, anyone who wanted a city job was supposed to see his committeeman or alderman. If the person was a relative or friend of someone already involved in Machine politics, he might be sent to City Hall with a recommendation.

Otherwise, he needed to make a name for himself. The best way was by earning a reputation as a “stand-up guy,” someone who put in time knocking on doors, registering voters, selling fundraiser tickets, handing out campaign literature or doing anything else the party needed. He knew that, by taking a city job, he’d be expected to “volunteer” his time for a few weeks every campaign season.

Employees clearly had a vested interest in seeing their bosses re-elected. But critics charged that the patronage system undermined the democratic process and ensured government waste and corruption.

“There certainly was a time when government in the city of Chicago and Cook County was run strictly for the benefit of the politicians and their friends, with any public service being purely accidental,” said Richard K. Means, an Oak Park election lawyer who has represented clients in and out of government for more than 35 years.

The system was supposed to be destroyed under Shakman, a series of legal agreements that forbade government firing and hiring “upon or because of any political reason or factor including, without limitation, any prospective employee’s political affiliation, political support or activity, [or] political financial contributions.” Only a few employees of the city, Cook County and the state were made exempt from the rulings. Since then, Means said, the city has had to do business differently. Jobs are supposed to be posted before people are hired for them. The law backs employees who don’t want to get involved politically. Professional positions, such as attorneys and engineers, are rarely filled by people who lack proper credentials.

But that doesn’t mean the old patronage system is dead. Many of the city’s entry-level, low-skill jobs may still be doled out as rewards, Means said. “It’s not heavy handed, but for the people with the lower-level jobs, it’s pretty clear,” he said.

Others say Shakman has only succeeded in making sure that political hiring and firing is done quietly. One Democratic organizer, who has been involved in party politics for more than 30 years, since Richard J. Daley was at the helm, said City Hall has a tighter control over jobs and political outcomes than ever before.

“It’s easy to get around Shakman,” said the organizer, a longtime city employee. “Don’t pay attention to Shakman.”

The organizer, who didn’t want his name used because he still works with prominent Democrats, said hiring in Streets and Sanitation and other departments is only done with the approval of top mayoral aides. They maintain lists of which employees have helped at election time, he said. “Whatever they’re assigned to do for the elections, they do.”

While those who’ve pitched in get promotions and overtime, according to the organizer, the others get lousy jobs or badgered into quitting.

City workers know that, if they do not show up to do their part on Election Day, life at work will be miserable, said Coconate, the water department veteran. “If you’re north, they’ll send you south. –¦ They do not want any kind of independent out there.”

Coconate, a safety specialist, said he did campaign work for mayoral allies for years, until he went against their wishes and ran for the state House in 1998, 2000 and 2002. He was the runner-up in the Democratic primary his first time, and won his second bid. After that, hundreds of city workers showed up in his Northwest Side district to work against him in the 2000 general election, removing his yard signs and handing out palm cards that included state representative McAuliffe, his Republican opponent, as part of the endorsed Democratic ticket. Coconate lost, 62 percent to 38 percent.

As a safety specialist, Coconate spends many of his days inspecting Water Management Department work sites. But, a few weeks after the 2000 election, supervisors started excluding him from safety meetings, and at one point his desk was removed from his office, he said.

Coconate proudly declares that he refused to learn his lesson. In 2002, with even more city workers in his district, he didn’t make it out of the primary. The next year, he campaigned for a challenger to a Northwest Side alderman. At work, he was assigned to more than two months on “bug patrol”: dropping tablets of mosquito larvae repellent into sewer locations on the South Side. “It had nothing to do with my job,” Coconate said.

Water Department’s Tom LaPorte said the assignment wasn’t connected to Coconate’s political activity. “What I can tell you is that quite a number of employees from different bureaus participated in the West Nile Virus program,” he said.

Coconate’s desk might have been moved during an office reorganization, he said. “We don’t make staffing decisions based on people’s politics.”

Still, many political volunteers hope their efforts will win them rewards.

By 5 p.m. Election Day, Eric White had to take a break. After 11 hours of handing out literature outside the polling place at Thorp School, 8914 S. Buffalo Ave., he sat on a fire hydrant. He said he volunteered to work because he believed in democracy. But he also hoped his efforts might get caught by someone’s eye.

“I’m just trying to meet people and shake hands and make some friends along the way, and hopefully something might turn out for me,” he said.

It might take a couple of years. Insiders say jobs only appear for people who have proved themselves over several elections. “Loyalty is No. 1,” said the 30-year Democratic organizer. “If you’ve got somebody who works for two elections, you know it’s a decent guy.”

On Nov. 2, a man named Rick worked the sidewalk outside the Edison Park Lutheran Church, 6626 N. Oliphant Ave., four days after his job with Department of Transportation had been turned over to a private company. Clad in a cement workers union jacket, He said city jobs “are all political,” so he was out doing “favors,” assuming they would be noticed. “I’ve got to,” Rick said. “This is one way to keep my options open.”

Mark Anderson, Efren Arcos, Juanita Barajas, Josh Kantarski, and J. Diamond Weathersby helped research this article.

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