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Dan Rostenkowski in 2001

David McNew/Newsmakers

Dan Rostenkowski kept the villages under his thumb even after he’d gone off to Congress—and jail. Has his era finally come to an end?

May 8, 2008

For years politics in East Village and Ukrainian Village was dominated by one man: Big Dan Rostenkowski. Inheriting the 32nd Ward Democratic organization built by his father, longtime alderman Joe, he held office—state rep, committee­man, congressman—for more than 40 years.

Even after he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1959, Rosty, as locals called him, kept his thumb on the ward. He took his father’s place as committeeman beginning in ’61, and it wasn’t until the 1980s, when he was chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, that he handpicked an acolyte, 32nd Ward alderman Terry Gabinski, to run the local ward office for him. Gabinski succeeded him as committeeman in 1988.

Rostenkowski and Gabinski control­led their villagers with the stick of brute force and fearmongering and the carrot of services like garbage collection and snow removal. On election day they sent out thick-necked patronage workers to lurk outside polling places, passing out palm cards and intimidating the locals so they wouldn’t stray from the fold. If intimidation didn’t work, there was always the race card. During the 1983 mayoral race, Rostenkowski and Gabinski put their support behind every white candidate who ran against Harold Washington—even a Republican, Bernie Epton. It was their way of letting the little people know they weren’t going to let the blacks take over.

Rostenkowski’s downfall came in 1994, when he was indicted on 17 felony counts, charged with ghost payrolling and embezzling. Undaunted, he continued with his reelection campaign only to be ousted by voters in favor of Michael P. Flanagan, a Republican who lasted all of one term before Rod Blagojevich won the district back for the Democrats in 1996. That same year Rostenkowski pleaded guilty on two counts for improper use of official funds and served 15 months in prison. (He was one of the scores of people Bill Clinton pardoned in 2000 just before leaving office.)

His old organization, however, held on for another decade or so. In the early 90s, during the redistricting the City Council undertakes every ten years, the area had been split into two wards, the First and the 32nd. East Village went into the First Ward, in part because Gabinski didn’t want to have to deal with all the yuppies moving in there. But Ukrainian Village stayed where it was, though it took some gerrymandering to keep it there: the southern boundary was extended two blocks south along Hoyne to hook the area to the rest of the 32nd, which had been extended far enough north to encompass parts of Lakeview and Roscoe Village. (One local wag calls the neighborhood the “balls of the ward.”)

To run the First Ward, Gabinski brought in Jesse Granato, a former aldermanic aide, who won office handily in 1995. But over time East Village residents began showing signs of rebellion. In 1999 community activist Cynthia Soto took on Granato in a titanic aldermanic battle, forcing him into a runoff and losing by only 347 votes despite his machine backing. That race had it all—torn signs, thugs on the corner, accusations of absentee ballot abuse.

But the writing was on the wall for Granato. The new, more affluent voters weren’t as afraid of blacks as the old-timers. They weren’t grateful that the city hauled their trash—they expected it. Most important, many were outraged at the haywire development in the ward, helped by Granato’s liberal hand with zoning changes. Single-family homes were being replaced by hulking condo­minium units, changing—many said destroying—the character of the neighborhood.

In 2003 these residents provided the votes that drove Granato out of office and swept in Manny Flores. In retrospect, Granato never had a chance. He was dumpy and lumpy and spoke with a classic dese-and-dose Chicago accent. Flores is a handsome young lawyer with an instinctive ability to tell everyone exactly what they want to hear. He was the new East Villagers’ kind of alderman.

Back in the 32nd Ward, Ted Matlak, a Rostenkowski-Gabinski protege, had replaced Gabinski as alderman in 1999, when he stepped down after 30 years in the job. In 2003 Matlak crushed his opponent, Jay Stone, with the help of Water Department chieftain Donald Tomczak, who brought in the usual herd of burly city workers. Unfortunately for Matlak, Tomczak was in prison during the 2007 election season, sentenced to four years for taking nearly $400,000 in bribes from truck drivers doing business with the city.

Matlak’s challenger, a little-known reformer named Scott Waguespack, managed to force Matlak into a runoff—a sure sign that the old machine was sputtering. Without Tomczak to help him, Matlak didn’t have the usual election-day muscle, and Waguespack won a narrow victory thanks to big turnouts in Bucktown, Lakeview, and Roscoe Village, where voters were pissed at Matlak for his prodevelopment zoning changes.

Ukrainian Village voters, many of them older white ethnics, stayed true to Matlak for the most part, giving him about 55 percent of the vote. But when Gabinski opted not to run for reelection as committeeman this year, the great Rostenkowski machine could be declared officially dead.

Both East Village and Ukrainian Village seem to have survived the political changes. Near as I can tell the streets are clean, the snow gets plowed, and the garbage gets hauled even without Matlak, Granato, Gabinski, or Rostenkowski. Property values remain strong, and there’s still plenty of development popping up. Real estate agents tell me the neighborhood’s the new Lincoln Park. It makes you wonder why voters took so long to wise up.   R

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City.

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