Few deem Cicero ready for reform

A town with a long history of corruption won’t change overnight, some residents say, despite the conviction of its tough mayor

By Ron Grossman, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Shia Kapos contributed to this report

August 25, 2002

In many places, a big-bucks scandal at City Hall would trigger a grass-roots movement for reform. But Cicero is hardly your typical American town. So few people there expect an era of good government to follow the nine-year reign of Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, convicted Friday for having helped loot Cicero’s treasury of $12 million.

There is little evidence the electorate expects things to change in the wake of a 13-week trial, which also produced guilty verdicts against a former town official, the reputed mob boss of Cicero and four others. Even Loren-Maltese’s opponents think it will still be business as usual at Town Hall–which, in Cicero, has often meant funny business.

Former Chicago Ald. Paddy Bauler, a hack politician, famously said: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”

In Cicero, even the reformers sing that tune.

Among them is David Boyle, a local attorney who has made a virtual profession of being a thorn in the side of Cicero’s powers that be.

Hailing Friday’s verdict, he said: “We don’t have to be terrorized by the syndicate, and in Cicero the syndicate is the Town Board.”

Yet he is hardly optimistic about wrestling Town Hall away from the local Republican machine.

“If I were a betting man,” he said, “I’d bet on them, not us.”

Recent election returns only underscore his pessimism. The last time Loren-Maltese stood for re-election in 2001, federal agents were already swarming all over the town. She swamped her opponent anyway.

Two months later, Loren-Maltese was indicted.

On Saturday, as Loren-Maltese packed up her office at Town Hall, town spokesman David Donahue said the seven-member board is likely to discuss appointing an interim town president at its Tuesday meeting. The members probably will choose from among themselves, he said: “It would be highly unlikely that they would go outside.”

That is exactly the problem, critics said.

“No one is appointed to that board who doesn’t support Betty 100 percent. And no one remains who doesn’t support her 100 percent,” said David Niebur, ousted as police chief by Loren-Maltese in 1998.

Donahue said a likely choice is Town Assessor John Kociolko, who often led board meetings in Loren-Maltese’s absence.

Even before the verdict was announced in the corruption trial, some Cicero residents were anticipating with trepidation that it would be “guilty.” They saw that potential outcome not as a vindication of law and order, but a threat to the established order, which they vehemently assert has been good to them. The streets get swept, they say.

On a recent afternoon, Cicero’s fate in a post-Loren-Maltese era was the topic of discussion along the bar at Klas Restaurant on Cermak Road, the principal shopping and socializing rialto. They like to talk politics there on a first-name basis only.

“Because I’m afraid,” said Jim, a postal worker, explaining why he declined to give his last name.

And he is a strong supporter of Loren-Maltese. In Cicero, you learn to keep your nose down, especially if it involves politics.

“So what if she took the money?” Jim said. “The town’s never looked better.”

Cicero-born writer Norbert Blei has made a literary career of narrating the peculiarities of the local take on political life: It is a variation on the you-scratch-my-back theme, with the additional ground rule that an intelligent citizen is expected to know better than to ask officials embarrassing questions.

“It’s not that you can’t fight City Hall; it’s that you don’t need to,” Blei wrote in a book of essays titled “Neighborhood.” “City Hall has always known precisely how to cater to the Ciceronian mentality.”

Delia Barajas recalled how, when she moved to Cicero 11 years ago, her precinct captain rang the bell on her bungalow, the dominant architectural form on the side streets, and explained how the system works.

“He said: `If you vote Republican and need a tree cut down or a curb repaired, we’ll get it done for you,'” Barajas said. “`But if you’re a Democratic, you won’t get nothing.'”

The blatancy of that local shortcut around democracy put Barajas’ hackles up, inspiring her to become an activist in Cicero’s Mexican community. But she is quick to say that she has had little success in persuading other Spanish speakers to use their numbers–more than 70 percent of the population–to buck the system. To them, it seems situation normal.

The town’s newcomers, she explained, are ideal recruits for Cicero-style politics, because most come from Mexico, which long was under one-party rule.

“They’re so used to not having their own voice,” Barajas said.

It was much the same with the town’s previous inhabitants–immigrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania–who left their homelands before democracy arrived in Eastern Europe and thereby didn’t expect to find it in Cicero, either.

It was Al Capone who first realized the potential of that political demography. When he came to town in the 1920s, he cut a deal with the good burghers of Cicero: His stooges in Town Hall would see that those bungalow-lined side streets were kept shipshape, and they wouldn’t cry foul at his beer-running and gambling operations.

Ever since, Ciceronians have assumed that there are four branches of government: the executive, the legislative, the judicial, and the mob.

Accordingly, no one was particularly surprised to see Loren-Maltese brought to the bar of justice alongside reputed mobsters Michael Spano Sr. and John LaGiglio. Her late husband, Frank Maltese, the town’s assessor, had a side job: bookmaker and gambling-debt collector for the syndicate.

Spano’s brother Paul, a Cicero businessman, once got $1 million in economic development loans even though–or perhaps precisely because–he shared a summer home with reputed mob leader Joseph Ferriola. Though Spano’s brother fell behind on his monthly payments, Town President Henry Klosak, Loren-Maltese’s predecessor, was unconcerned. He explained why in wink-and-nod terms that any true Ciceronian could grasp: “It’s a good investment.”

Boyle recalled that it was precisely that overlap between the world of gangsters and that of politicians that tempted him to stand for town trustee as a reform candidate in the 1980s.

“I wanted to prove you could run against the machine and live,” said Boyle, who has run, and lost, as a Democrat and as a Republican.

It also was Capone who gave Cicero the distinctive flavor of being a shot-and-beer town that votes Republican. He had built his underworld empire under the patronage of Chicago Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, a Republican. When Chicago reformers drew a bead on Thompson, Capone found it prudent to move his headquarters west, just across the city line to Cicero.

When Robert St. John, editor of the Cicero Tribune, had the temerity to protest the mob’s takeover of the town, Capone’s brother Ralph and two other hoods jumped him in broad daylight while two Cicero police officers stood neutrally by. Afterward, Capone paid St. John’s hospital bills, then bought the newspaper out from under him.

In 1924, would-be reformers ran Democratic candidates against Capone’s list. On Election Day, Capone’s “boys” monitored polling places, fondling revolvers as they asked voters how they intended to vote.

When word reached Cook County Judge Edmund Jarecki, he deputized 70 Chicago police officers who rushed to Cicero and fought a series of running battles with the mobsters, during which Frank Capone, another of Al’s brothers, was killed.

The feeling that reform would have to come to Cicero from the outside–bearing badges and guns–long outlived Capone.

In Cicero, there also descends from those days a feeling that elections are a distraction from the real business of government. In 1985, Boyle and friends formed a group, Can Do, that was devoted to getting rid of the town’s all-night taverns. They got a non-binding referendum measure on the ballot, which won hands down. Yet Klosak, the town president, said he didn’t think that was any reason to force bars to close at 2 a.m.

“These people have rights too,” Klosak said of the town’s tavern keepers.

Yet even in Cicero there are those who never say die. Joseph Moreno, who ran against Loren-Maltese in 2001, said he’ll make another run for town president against whomever the Republicans put up as her successor.

Although he wound up with less than 40 percent of the vote despite bearing a Latino name in a heavily Hispanic town, Moreno is already focusing on what he’ll do when he wins.

“If members of the Outfit want to come to see me in the town president’s office, that’s fine,” Moreno said. “I’ll tell them: `Those days are over. Now get out of here.'”

There are others who say the time might be right for town leadership to better represent the people it serves.

“Cicero is undergoing a dramatic demographic change. There is incredible Hispanic growth,” said Melvin Holli, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Maybe a reform mayor could become popular. The key would be one who has a Hispanic link.”

But first, someone would have to convince all those Cicero homeowners that voting for reform isn’t a surefire recipe for having building inspectors cite them for every minor violation.

And the reformers will have to present a united front. Last time, they lined up behind attorney Victor Armendariz against Moreno in the primary.

Even if they put past scraps behind them, reformers are anything but confident of getting a hearing for their crusade. Maybe a few years down the road. But how about now?

“Cicero?” said Armendariz. “Cicero isn’t ready for reform.”