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Two “Cities” in a pod
Lee Walton

By a twist of journalistic fate, Sunday’s Palter and Chatter just happened to contain two very similar articles about the current state of Chicago politics that brings to mind the current state of political affairs in the Lowcountry and the corruption of the political process of governance in the City of Charleston that has endured for nearly four decades.

While reading Rich Lowry’s commentary, “Blago of Chicago: His kind of town”, I was struck by the similarities of the political machines that dominate Charleston and Chicago – “The city has never had a reform movement that has overturned the old-school, ethnic based machine politics “It use to be said that Chicago was the only East European city governed by Irishmen.” Lowry description of Chicago politics even included a reference to “…demi-messianic figures promising to raise us all above selfishness.” That’s also a very accurate description of Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley.

Political corruption in Charleston hasn’t necessarily slumped (yet) to the level of that now practiced by Governor Blagojevich, but the local political tool-kit includes many of the same old shop-worn Chicago-style shenanigans that have become commonplace in the political culture of Charleston. Sharon Cohen’s article, “State has earned its reputation”, echoed the same description of political corruption as in Lowry’s commentary, albeit in greater detail. Allowing influence peddlers (wealthy folks “from off”) to make big contributions (to Riley’s favorite world-class pet projects), a patronage system that makes employees beholding to political bosses (if you’re an Irish-Catholic in Charleston, you’ll never starve), and the practice of reserving city payroll jobs – “…jobs are plunder…” for political cronies (Riley’s string of administrative assistants), and spear-catchers to deflect criticism or praise his grandiose schemes (The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, the Palter and Chatter’s third floor elite, and lately, the Historic Charleston Foundation) are but a few of the most obvious outward signs of local political corruption, intrigue, and mischief that are commonplace in Charleston City government.

Then there’s the same bunch of local deal-estate developers that always seem to be at the head of the line to the public revenue hog-trough. We read about them day in and day out, always joined in some convoluted land deal with Riley that involves city taxpayer money. Anywhere there’s a tempting pot of public money like the Greenbelt funds from the ½ Cent Sales Tax, Riley and his deal-estate development cronies will be first in line intimidating and cajoling all others to step aside.

Cohen quotes Ron Shafer, a former U.S. attorney, who described a condition that is as applicable to the City of Charleston as Chicago – “The public believes there’s a problem and it’s a systematic problem. But they feel powerless and are unable to change it …I think people view it as a blood sport…and they throw up their hands and say it’s just entertainment.” Mr. Shafer also accurately described the attitude of a large segment of Charleston’s electorate.

The political system in the City of Charleston is rigged from within, and only a catastrophic event will offer an opportunity for change. The current “perfect economic storm” may be the tipping point that finally forces Riley’s house of cards to tumble – time will tell.

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