Nepotism -- when the powerful help their relatives or supporters get ahead regardless of merit -- is an age-old practice in business, politics and even religious life. In fact, the word nepotism derives from the Latin for nephew because of the practice medieval Catholic popes had of appointing nephews, or even illegitimate offspring, to prestigious positions in the church.
Illinois has its own history of nepotism, especially in our tradition of supporting political dynasties. For the last 125 years, politics in Illinois have sometimes resembled the intrigue and corruption of the medieval Vatican. Near the turn of the 20th century, the Carter Harrisons -- father and son -- were elected mayor of Chicago for a combined 10 terms. The Adlai Stevensons -- the first, the second and the third -- were influential pols for a 100 years between the 1870s and 1970s. Members of the Cullerton family, who controlled a seat in the Chicago city council for more than 130 years, are now represented in politics by John Cullerton, president of the Illinois senate. And then there's the Daley dynasty, which ruled over Chicago for 43 of the 56 years between 1955 and 2011.
More recently, local political dynasties appear to be on the wane. First, the inept Todd Stroger lost his 2010 re-election bid for president of the Cook County Board. This rejection by the voters occurred despite his family's fifty-year history with the Chicago machine.
Next, the Jacksons were escorted from power. First, Jesse Jackson, Jr. announced his resignation from Congress and then pled guilty to fraud in connection with his use of campaign money. Then his wife, Alderman Sandi Jackson, resigned from the Chicago City Council and pled guilty to filing false tax returns. Both are likely to go jail. To his credit, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to appoint Sandi Jackson's chief of staff as her aldermanic successor. The nascent Jackson dynasty -- started in the 1980s by the charismatic civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, Sr. -- is now dead.
The Madigan's long reign over Illinois might be the next political dynasty to expire. Yesterday, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan unexpectedly announced that she would not run for governor of Illinois. This announcement was surprising, as was her rationale. "I feel strongly that the state would not be well served by having a governor and speaker of the House from the same family and have never planned to run for governor if that would be the case," Madigan said. "With [my father] planning to continue in office, I will not run for governor." Madigan's statement, which signaled her belief that nepotism is not in the public interest, may be the clearest indication that old-school bloodline favoritism is on the way out in Chicago and the rest of Illinois. If so, then her father's way of doing business -- using public office for personal advantage while Illinois becomes the worst-managed state in the nation -- may also be on the way out.
There is an upcoming test case which that help to determine whether nepotism is actually dying in Illinois, or if it is poised to come roaring back. This pass/fail test is for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Who will the first-term mayor pick as the replacement for Dick Mell, the alderman who has announced his retirement from the Chicago City Council? Mell -- a wheeler-dealer, self-interested pol for the last 40 years -- is best known as the political patron and father-in-law of Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois who is now in prison for attempting to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama became president. Mell is also known for his unequivocal support of patronage, the questionable practice of giving taxpayer-funded city jobs to political supporters.
Mell is backing his daughter Deb as his replacement in the city council. This is not a big surprise coming from the man who helped bring to power a son-in-law who would become one of the worst governors in Illinois history. Due to its stench of nepotism, Rahm Emanuel should unreservedly reject Deb Mell's application. When running for mayor in 2010, Emanuel campaigned on an ethics and good government agenda that promised to eliminate "business as usual" in Chicago politics. By July 24, he will have a chance to use his executive power to show he means to live up to these promises. If Rahm Emanuel picks a qualified, independent candidate, he passes the test; if he picks Deb Mell, he fails.
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