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The difference between us and them? Merely clout

Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by MARY MITCHELL SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

What really burns me up about the patronage scandals swirling around our local government officials isn't the clout factor. What burns me up is there are two sets of rules -- one for them and one for us. Under the rules for us, someone with a minor criminal past can't even sweep the floors at a public hospital, nursing home or in an empty school building. But under the rules for them, a man who served 30 months in a federal prison for soliciting a murder for hire can get out of prison and land a $68,000 a year job as an administrator at Stroger Hospital.

Under the rules for us, a person with a criminal past never gets a fresh start. But under the rules for them, an ex-convict can run for public office.

As outraged as some of us are over allegations of alleged test-rigging, fake interviews and political hiring the feds have uncovered at City Hall, most of us understand clout. In both the corporate and private world of business, the wheels turn a little faster when you know someone.

But the story about Tom Hendrix takes the cake, and shows that the thems don't have to worry about being discovered.

Apparently they can use their political clout and sashay into a $68,000 a-year-job just as Hendrix appears to have done. I say "appears" because on Monday afternoon, a spokesman for Cook County Board President John Stroger wouldn't verify whether the Tom Hendrix on the county's payroll is the the same Tom Hendrix who went to prison for soliciting murder.

"Based upon the issues raised and the Chicago Sun-Times story, this matter has been turned over to the Cook County Inspector General's office. It is their duty and responsibility to ensure that an independent investigation takes place," said John Gibson.

I've always suspected that many of the jobs companies dutifully post are already spoken for.

Indeed, the recent revelations of hiring shenanigans haven't fazed a lot of Chicagoans. Were we actually supposed to believe that the same campaign workers who wore their shoes out during an election campaign were just lucky when they leap-frogged over the masses to land on the city's payroll?

Yet in the world most of us live in, one mistake of a criminal nature can ruin a person forever.

For instance, last week the Board of Education fired 20 low-wage workers who were employed by a private janitorial company when criminal background checks revealed the employees had been convicted of crimes.

Bill Winters, the owner of Total Maintenance, complained about the practice of firing employees for a relatively minor crime that happened a decade ago. One of the employees terminated never came to work late, never had any disciplinary problems and was a model employee, Winters said.

"How in the world does our society expect anybody to support themselves if they cannot get one of the lowest-paying jobs? [Some] people [who were fired] have worked for 36 years. This is something that America has got to address," Winters said.

Background checks were redone at three private janitorial companies in June, said Sandy Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for CPS.

"We found that the company's background check wasn't thorough enough," she said.

Of the 600 employees screened, 20 of them were let go because of things found in their background checks. The most common problem was employees falsifying information on the application, which resulted in an automatic termination. But most ex-offenders take a chance that their past won't be uncovered. They know if they tell a potential employer that they were convicted of a crime, they won't get the job.

Yet someone like Hendrix doesn't have to jump through those same hoops?

In the glare of the fed's spotlight on patronage, Daley -- and now Stroger -- are treating Chicago's citizens as though they are morons. Not even Daley's most loyal supporter could really believe that a mayor who has been in control at City Hall for 16 years could be clueless about how the patronage system works.

So here's an idea for Daley and Stroger.

Since they turned a blind eye when friends of cronies, precinct captains and political operatives were ushered to the public trough, and since they claim to have no idea how these employees got there -- now is a good time to open their eyes. It is time to clean house. It is time to get rid of the somebodies that a lot of somebodies sent.

Because it's just wrong. There shouldn't be one set of rules for Hendrix and another set for ex-offenders who are just as desperate to provide for their families.

Worst yet, Chicago's political patronage system has divvied up jobs and contracts to a handful of African Americans (the same African Americans, I might add) and a handful of Hispanics and Asians, and the same good ol' boys (and girls), while the people who really needed the jobs weren't given a fair chance.

If the patronage system isn't dead yet, political leaders ought to finally put it out of its misery.

Because really, it is giving off an awful stench.



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