The common thread running just beneath Cassie and the national measures of public corruption, released in a study this week by Professor Dick Simpson at the University of Illinois Chicago, would not be immediately obvious. The talking point would not jump out. Most of us would shake our heads. Focus on the numbers. Not look out our window and see Cassie walking by. After all, no politician directly harmed Cassie.
The common thread Cassie and the study runs deeper than that.
A member of a very small group, universally respected former Chicago Alderman, Professor Simpson measured the corruption conviction rate of politicians across the country. Between 1976 and 2010, Chicago clocked in at 1,531. To not one single Chicagoan’s surprise: We won! Most corrupt place ever! Woo!
So perhaps a city shrugs its shoulders and wonders what’s on TV tonight? Or is there more? Is there a connection to Cassie walking past the Mayors' house?
What could this study possibly have to do with the woman in the dirty brown down coat with the tattered shoes, pulling the shopping cart behind her like some ancient boulder of shame? How could political corruption possibly touch or relate to the woman who never lifts her eyes from the street? Her head always hooded through both bitter cold winds or sweltering blankets of wet heat. Sure, she walks past the Mayors house or a parallel street every day. In the mornings she walks north. At night she goes south. Where she goes, sleeps, or eats, I don’t know. I don’t even know her name. That’s why I call her Cassie. Because doesn’t everyone at least deserve a name?
But measures of corruption? The common thread is not obvious. The Simpson study didn’t measure all those who did not get caught. Or suburban corruption. Or police corruption.
But that is not a criticism. It’s a call for more study.
Because isn’t measuring corruption a bit like approaching an elephant with a tape measure, stretching out the tape as far as your hands can reach, putting your hands on the side of the elephant, and then reading the length of your reach?
And once you’ve recorded how far your arms can stretch, what’s next? Could the number you come up with somehow touch Cassie’s walk? Change her route? Help fight back the demonic strain of thought floated by so many that somehow Cassie’s eternal walk is her fault?
A second story will draw the picture of the common thread.
In this story, Sun-Times political reporter Fran Spielman detailed a common thread that runs at the very heart of corruption. That thread is access.
That thread is access. Pure and simple access.
Cassie will never have a conversation with the Mayor of Chicago. It will not happen. She has no access. At all. Corrupt officicial have purchased access. Cassie has not.
And the access needed for Cassie's survival? That torn bleeding “safety net” that is somehow supposed to help?
Fran Spielman gives a clue as to why that won’t help either. Why Cassie will keep walking.
The clue is in a February 8th article titled. "Rahm’s Inner Circle.” It details exactly whom the Mayor speaks with regularly. Who DOES get the access? The names of those with access in politics, labor, business, African American issues, city council and inside his own administration.
Notice anything missing on that list?
Human Services is missing. Not one name.
Who’s the safety net czar? Where’s her seat in the circle of power? Where’s the person who has the access to help Cassie?
There isn’t one.
Look hard enough beneath any story on corruption and you will find the common thread of access. Access to power. Money. Anything you need. Anyone you want to talk to.
Corruption is access gone wrong. Which is not to say that the mayor’s inner circle is corrupt. It is to say that they too have their own access problem. A closed loop of power. No one gets inside.
There is no one charged to talk to Cassie. Not anyone with access to power.
The access problem doesn’t just touch Cassie. It touches me too. The last time I was without a full time job, doing contract work as I am now, I somehow on a fluke because I have no access, got an interview in a nice building on West Chicago Avenue, where Mayor Daley consolidated all the human services functions. There was a federal monitor in the interview. It went well. We all understood that I was a serious candidate for the job, my resume was nice, and I mastered all of the interview questions. I was more than qualified.
And as the interviewers all marched out of earshot at the end, the Federal monitor whispered to me, “That was great. You even had me interested. And I do this all day.” And then he looked at me and said “Sorry.”
Because we both knew I wouldn’t get the job. I have no access. That common thread that runs just below the headlines and the back room smoke of all corruption is access. Or lack thereof.
The story is told by the respected Judge Abner Mikva. The punch line is so good that it’s a book title by the distinguished political scientist, the late Dr. Milton Rakove.
Rakove titled his book after the single most important truth in the access problem that runs beneath all corruption and keeps Cassie on the street.
In the book, young Abner Mikva, a future advisor to presidents, looking for his first political job, bounds into a local ward office and says, “I’d like some work. I can even volunteer.”
The ward boss takes his cigar out of his mouth and says, “Who sent you kid?”
Mikva answers, “Nobody sent me.”
To which the ward boss utters those immortal words that still grace Chicago politics as a foundational truth:
“We don’t want nobody, nobody sent.”
And nobody sent Cassie. So she keeps walking. While corruption stays safe inside the warm halls of power.
Till something like the Simpson study comes along and says to the world, "Wait. Let's talk. This access problem. It hurts all of us."
Not just Cassie.