Gangs and Politicians in Chicago: An Unholy Alliance LAWBREAKERS, LAWMAKERS: In some parts of Chicago, violent street gangs and pols quietly trade money and favors for mutual gain. The thugs flourish, the elected officials thrive—and you lose. A special report. By David Bernstein and Noah Isackson A few months before last February’s citywide elections, Hal Baskin’s phone started ringing. And ringing. Most of the callers were candidates for Chicago City Council, seeking the kind of help Baskin was uniquely qualified to provide. Baskin isn’t a slick campaign strategist. He’s a former gang leader and, for several decades, a community activist who now operates a neighborhood center that aims to keep kids off the streets. Baskin has deep contacts inside the South Side’s complex network of politicians, community organizations, and street gangs. as he recalls, the inquiring candidates wanted to know: “Who do I need to be talking to so I can get the gangs on board?” Baskin—who was himself a candidate in the 16th Ward aldermanic race, which he would lose—was happy to oblige. In all, he says, he helped broker meetings between roughly 30 politicians (ten sitting aldermen and 20 candidates for City Council) and at least six gang representatives. That claim is backed up by two other community activists, Harold Davis Jr. and Kublai K. M. Toure, who worked with Baskin to arrange the meetings, and a third participant, also a community activist, who requested anonymity. The gang representatives were former chiefs who had walked away from day-to-day thug life, but they were still respected on the streets and wielded enough influence to mobilize active gang members. The first meeting, according to Baskin, occurred in early November 2010, right before the statewide general election; more gatherings followed in the run-up to the February 2011 municipal elections. The venues included office buildings, restaurants, and law offices. (By all accounts, similar meetings took place across the city before last year’s elections and in elections past, including after hours at the Garfield Center, a taxpayer-financed facility on the West Side that is used by the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.) At some of the meetings, the politicians arrived with campaign materials and occasionally with aides. The sessions were organized much like corporate-style job fairs. The gang representatives conducted hourlong interviews, one after the other, talking to as many as five candidates in a single evening. Like supplicants, the politicians came into the room alone and sat before the gang representatives, who sat behind a long table. “One candidate said, ‘I feel like I’m in the hot seat,’” recalls Baskin. “And they were.” The former chieftains, several of them ex-convicts, represented some of the most notorious gangs on the South and West Sides, including the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Black Disciples, Cobras, Black P Stones, and Black Gangsters. Before the election, the gangs agreed to set aside decades-old rivalries and bloody vendettas to operate as a unified political force, which they called Black United Voters of Chicago. “They realized that if they came together, they could get the politicians to come to them,” explains Baskin. The gang representatives were interested in electing aldermen sympathetic to their interests and those of their impoverished wards. As for the politicians, says Baskin, their interests essentially boiled down to getting elected or reelected. “All of [the political hopefuls] were aware of who they were meeting with,” he says. “They didn’t care. All they wanted to do was get the support.” Baskin declined to name names, but Chicago has learned, through other sources at the meetings, the identities of some of the participants. They include: Aldermen Howard Brookins Jr. (21st Ward), Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), Willie Cochran (20th), and Freddrenna Lyle (6th). Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) attended a meeting; upon realizing that the participants had close gang ties, she objected but stayed. Also attending were candidates who would go on to win their races, including Michael Chandler (24th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th). Darcel Beavers, the former 7th Ward alderman who would wind up losing her race, and Patricia Horton, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District who lost her bid for city clerk, also met with the group. Chandler, Brookins, and Burnett told Chicago they did not attend such a meeting. Sawyer and Horton did not return several calls seeking comment. A spokesman for Dowell confirmed that she attended the meeting after she objected. Beavers, Cochran, and Lyle, who was recently appointed as a Cook County judge, said they attended but were not told beforehand that former gang chiefs would be there, nor that the purpose involved gang-backed political support. “It, basically, was no different than sitting in front of any other panel that asks you questions relative to constituent issues,” said Cochran. During the meetings, the politicians were allotted a few minutes to make their pitches. The former gang chiefs then peppered them with questions: What would they do about jobs? School safety? Police harassment? Help for ex-cons? But in the end, as with most things political in Chicago, it all came down to one question, says Davis, the community activist who helped Baskin with some of the meetings. He recalls that the gang representatives asked, “What can you give me?” The politicians, most eager to please, replied, “What do you want?” Street gangs have been a part of Chicago politics at least since the days of the notorious First Ward bosses “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who a century ago ran their vice-ridden Levee district using gangs of toughs armed with bats and pistols to bully voters and stuff ballot boxes. “Gangs and politics have always gone together in this city,” says John Hagedorn, a gang expert and professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s a shadowy alliance, he adds, that is deeply ingrained in Chicago’s political culture: “You take care of them; they’ll take care of us.” To what extent do street gangs influence—and corrupt—Chicago politics today? And what are the consequences for ordinary citizens? To find out, Chicago conducted more than 100 interviews with current and former elected officials and candidates, gang leaders, senior police officials, rank-and-file cops, investigators, and prosecutors. We also talked to community activists, campaign operatives, and criminologists. We limited our scope to the city (though alliances certainly exist in some gang-infested suburbs) and focused exclusively on Democrats, since they are the dominant governing party in Chicago and in the statehouse. Moreover, we looked at the political influence of street gangs only, not of traditional organized crime—a worthy subject for another day. Our findings: • While they typically deny it, many public officials—mostly, but not limited to, aldermen, state legislators, and elected judges—routinely seek political support from influential street gangs. Meetings like the ones Baskin organized, for instance, are hardly an anomaly. Gangs can provide a decisive advantage at election time by performing the kinds of chores patronage armies once did. • In some cases, the partnerships extend beyond the elections in troubling—and possibly criminal—ways, greased by the steady and largely secret flow of money from gang leaders to certain politicians and vice versa. The gangs funnel their largess through opaque businesses, or front companies, and through under-the-table payments. In turn, grateful politicians use their payrolls or campaign funds to hire gang members, pull strings for them to get jobs or contracts, or offer other favors (see “Gangs and Politicians: Prisoner Shuffle”). • Most alarming, both law enforcement and gang sources say, is that some politicians ignore the gangs’ criminal activities. Some go so far as to protect gangs from the police, tipping them off to impending raids or to surveillance activities—in effect, creating safe havens in their political districts. And often they chafe at backing tough measures to stem gang activities, advocating instead for superficial solutions that may garner good press but have little impact. The paradox is that Chicago’s struggle to combat street gangs is being undermined by its own elected officials. And the alliances between lawmakers and lawbreakers raise a troubling question: Who actually rules the neighborhoods—our public servants or the gangs? The police officers were in a squad car in October 2007, patrolling a section of Uptown some call a walking pharmacy, where drugs are sold openly. When they saw a silver Chevy Cavalier roll through a stop sign, they ran a check on the plates and discovered that there was a warrant for the arrest of the owner. They approached the car. One passenger turned out to be Rahiem Ali, a 29-year-old Gangster Disciple with a criminal record dating back to 1995 and a rap sheet with nearly 40 arrests. Ali and his twin brother, Rahmon, were well known to police. The two ran a lucrative Uptown drug spot and were notorious for being among the biggest, baddest gangbangers in the neighborhood. According to the officers’ report, they saw Ali shove a hand into his pants pocket and pop something into his mouth. When they ordered him out of the car, Ali shoved the police aside and ran. It took four officers to subdue him. One suffered a cracked tooth when Ali hit him with his elbow. Two officers doused Ali with pepper spray before he coughed out two plastic bags filled with 23 smaller bags containing what was suspected to be crack cocaine. Later, at the police station, two lawyers arrived to see Ali. In any other neighborhood, the officers might not have noticed them. But not in Uptown, not when one of the lawyers was Brendan Shiller, the son of Helen Shiller, the 46th Ward alderman. The 46th Ward is one of Chicago’s most diverse communities, home to the well-heeled and the downtrodden. Throughout her career, from 1987 until she stepped down last year, Helen Shiller was known as a fierce advocate for the latter. Few aldermen on the City Council have been more resistant to gentrification or more likely to embrace social welfare programs. In Uptown, large public housing complexes were a source of pride for Shiller, who trumpeted how they added diversity to the ward and provided a rare commodity on the North Side’s lakefront: affordable housing. Her critics, meanwhile, argued that the complexes bred and fostered a criminal population, and they accused her of not doing enough to stop the drug and gang violence that dominated specific buildings. During meetings with the police department’s command staff, says a high-ranking police source, Shiller “never [made] a big push to go after any kind of organized narcotic operation.” Officers working in the 23rd District say Shiller and her chief of staff, Denice Davis, frequently came into the station after certain Uptown residents were arrested to try to defuse things. Police say Davis’s interference on behalf of gangbangers and the Alis—whose mother, Aqueela, was part of the alderman’s political organization—had a chilling effect on their policing efforts. What was the point of making an arrest when it brought trouble from the alderman’s office? “Certain officers would get the message: ‘Maybe I shouldn’t make this stop’ or ‘Maybe I shouldn’t investigate this,’” says Joe Cox, a veteran officer from the district who retired in 2010. Shiller says she “didn’t have a relationship” with either of the Ali twins, nor did she offer any assistance to them. “My relationship was with their mom. I knew she had sons that had difficulties. I didn’t interact with them. I didn’t know them.” As the Ali brothers collected thousands a week running the drug spot around Lawrence Avenue and Sheridan Road, word spread among the police to treat the two with kid gloves. A police source says that during arrests, the twins would say, “I’ll have your job. Do you know who my lawyer is? Do you know who his mama is?” The source adds, “They would mention the alderman by name. They would mention Brendan Shiller by name.” Police and Shiller’s political opponents suspected that the alderman deliberately turned a blind eye to gang activity in order to bring the gang element into the fold and build up her voting base. “It’s what I like to call the exchange game,” says Sandra Reed, who twice lost elections to Shiller, in 1999 and 2003. “She protects the kids, even when they are doing wrong. She helps the parents. They think she is going to protect them, so they all work for her.” Some speculate that Shiller helped Aqueela Ali fend off multiple attempts to have her and her sons evicted from their apartment at 920 West Lakeside Place, where rules prohibit criminal behavior by residents. (Shiller acknowledges she helped Ali with “housing issues.”) While it’s not entirely clear what her role was in Shiller’s political organization, Ali served as a poll watcher, an election judge, and a Shiller campaign worker since at least 2002, campaign records show. Records also show that she gathered petition signatures to get Shiller on the ballot in 2003 and 2007. But it may have been Ali’s choice of residence that provided her with the most political firepower. Her building is one of the largest Section 8 facilities in Uptown, home to between 800 and 1,000 residents. Ali had clout and the ability to sway public opinion. She was the leader of the building’s tenants’ association board and, perhaps most important, the mother of Rahiem and Rahmon. “You’re talking about the mother of the most well-known gangbangers in the neighborhood,” one officer says. “When she knocks on someone’s door, do you think those people are going to say no?” (Ali did not respond to requests for comment.) In a ward where the difference between winning and losing can be a few hundred votes, an election can turn on a campaign’s ability to win particular blocks or buildings. For example, when Shiller was first elected alderman in 1987, she won by just 498 votes. In 2007, her last election, she beat the challenger, James Cappleman, by a mere 700 votes, fewer than the number of residents living at 920 West Lakeside. Rahiem Ali died on March 23, 2010, after ingesting a plastic bag of narcotics during an arrest and falling into a coma. (As he lay in the hospital, Brendan Shiller represented him in court on charges of aggravated battery to a police officer and resisting arrest.) Ali’s death was ruled an accident by the Cook County medical examiner. Helen Shiller, still the alderman of the 46th Ward, reached out to the family, giving $200 to his mother the day before services were held at a West Side funeral home. The official record categorizes the expenditure as “community outreach–funeral expenses” from Citizens for Shiller, her campaign fund.