Saturday, December 23, 2023

Rosemont, Il.

The Economist is celebrating the holidays by making a double issue filled with holiday specials, which are articles by correspondents that they would not usually write because of their lack of centrality to the newsmagazine's theme. One of those holiday specials I found particularly interesting was: "Inside the last true political machine in America."

Rosemont, Illinios, a city just outside Chicago, has been run by one family for 70 years. This has gone swimmingly for them. They pay themselves handsome salaries — the mayor, Brad Stephens (son of Donald Stephens, the original), pays himself a $290,000 salary, just more than Eric Adams gets paid to run New York City. They write contracts to their family's businesses, saying they don't need to comply by the competitive bid law. Brad won his first election unopposed in 2009, with 91% of the vote. 

I have actually been to Rosemont. It is home to the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, a large convention center where ISNA and MAS conventions have been held. I mean, it is kind of not really a full "place." It is mostly a place you pass by, perhaps on your way to the airport or back, unless you are headed to a convention, a second-league hockey game, your boring suburban office, or a casino located just outside its formal border.

The correspondent compares it to Gabon, where they spent some years reporting. Gabon, a west African petrostate, has been run by one family for 56 years — until August, when the son of the original dictator was ousted in a coup. Ali Bongo may be able to return to his former career as a funk singer, I guess. 

Gabon has oil exports worth $5B, which make it wealthy, but all that wealth was concentrated in the hands of the Bongo family. In Rosemont, the author explains, the mayor uses his power to allocate jobs to the citizens. The machine works like the old Chicagoan Daley administration:

Though in the Illinois state house he is a Republican, in Rosemont Brad Stephens has his own political party, the Rosemont Voters League. According to Frank Siciliano, a former Rosemont police commander, it is impossible to work for the city without joining it. When he once fell behind on his dues, “I actually got a letter, a note in my mailbox in the station,” he says, from his commander telling him to pay up. “Throughout my career I would be told several times: ‘You gotta know how to play politics,’” he recalls. The city contends that Mr Siciliano is a bitter ex-employee, and that employees “give freely and openly”.

The correspondent explains that Rosemont claims to be stable now. They interviewed Ali Bongo of Gabon in 2016, and was came away with a "similar sense of stability." Rosemont probably will not face a coup. But accountants might be even worse!

However, the Rosemont model hardly fosters dynamism. The median income is 20% lower than in the wider Chicago region. In the wake of the pandemic, Rosemont’s large offices with their endless car parks are quiet. And though conventions are once again filling up the town at weekends with people dressed as anime characters, the city is deeply in debt. In 2023, it will spend $38m on servicing it. Many city-owned businesses are highly leveraged, too. Men with guns and sunglasses pose no threat to the Rosemont machine, but one day men with calculators might.