Shortly after prosecuting former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted on 17 federal corruption charges last year, Reid Schar watched Jon Stewart joke about it on "The Daily Show."
"Seventeen felony convictions," Stewart quipped. "Or, as that’s known, a Chicago dozen."
It was funny, and that was unfortunate. Because although Schar had spent nearly a decade exposing graft there as an assistant U.S. attorney, he didn’t think the city, or the state, deserved a reputation as one of America’s most corrupt places. It was the famously crooked politicians like Blagojevich who made it seem worse than it really was.
"You have this perception that overtakes the reality," Schar, now in private practice, said in a recent interview. "When you end up with big name individuals at high levels such as the governor's mansion, then there's a perception that if people at the highest levels are corrupt, then that must mean the system is corrupt, and lots of people are corrupt. That's a misperception."
That notion is back in the public consciousness, this time thanks to Jesse Jackson Jr., a congressman from Chicago’s South Shore and the son and namesake of the civil rights leader. Jackson Jr., who is battling mental illness and a federal corruption probe, announced his resignation Wednesday, just weeks after easily winning re-election.
Chicago’s history is entwined with the growth of the modern American political machine — and the patronage, nepotism, bribes and shakedowns it engendered. To many, that tradition did not fade with the demise of last big-time boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley, whose 21-year rule ended with his death in 1976.
The numbers seem to support that view. One recent study of federal prosecutions counted 1,828 people convicted of public corruption in Illinois since the year of Daley’s death. The vast majority of them, 1,531, occurred in the district that includes Chicago, the most of any district in the country. Of the 100 or so people to serve as a city alderman in the last four decades, 31 of them have been convicted of corruption. When Blagojevich went down, he became the fourth of the past seven Illinois governors to be convicted of a felony.
"It’s a problem for each individual involved in corrupt acts, but it’s a part of a political culture with a long history, and until we change what we might call machine politics, we’re not going to end major corruption in Illinois," said University of Chicago political science professor and former alderman Dick Simpson, who authored the study. "This is still a machine town."
Certain Chicagoans still take pride the city’s image, because it connotes old-school toughness and resiliency. Even President Barack Obama, who adopted the city's South Side as his home, has boasted about doing things "the Chicago way" – a quote from "The Untouchables."
At the same time, Obama's critics have tried to tarnish him by describing his decision-making style to "Chicago-style politics."
But some historians, and crime-fighters like Schar, say that image is a relic, no matter what the numbers appear to show.
"When you’re looking at gross numbers you need to be careful comparing them (to numbers in other places)," Schar said. "Raw numbers only tell part of the story."
Jim Grossman, a former vice-president for research and education at Northwestern’s Newberry Library and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Chicago, said the myths and realities of Chicago tend to mix together so deeply that it’s hard to separate the two.
"Part of the problem is that every time something small happens, it gets blown up, because of the magnitude of the myth," he said. "We have a big narrative to fit things into."
Grossman, who now heads the American Historical Association in Washington D.C., added: "To pick out Chicago (as more corrupt than other places) is to be picking a narrative as much as the reality."
One reason Chicago maintains its unscrupulous profile is its tradition of Mike Royko-style investigative journalism and its focus on the darker side of politics, Grossman said. Chicagoans are deeply interested in that subject and enjoy speaking about it publicly – arguably more than in most parts of the country. So corruption cases that might otherwise not attract much sustained attention get thoroughly discussed and dissected, he said.
"In some cities maybe where the public culture is less vibrant, corruption doesn’t bubble up as quickly," Grossman said.
But Simpson points out that there several realities still make Chicago a cradle for graft. It is dominated by one party, the Democrats. (Conversely, the outlying suburbs, with their own tradition of corruption, are overwhelmingly run by Republicans.) Despite laws to curb patronage, machine-style politics abound, notably on the hyper-local level. Family dynasties remain, most notably the Jacksons’ (Jackson Jr.’s wife, Sandi, is an alderman). And state campaign finance laws are still relatively lenient, Simpson said.
And then there's the continued popularity of politicians facing corruption charges. On the same day that Jackson Jr. won re-election, so did Derrick Smith, who won back his seat in the state House of Representatives despite having been charged with taking a bribe.
Simpson, however, allows that things seem to be looking better under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has overhauled the city’s ethics board and has himself remained scandal-free.
Schar, who still cannot shake memories of Blagojevich’s appearances on "Celebrity Apprentice," said that the two key ingredients to political corruption, greed and the desire for power, still exist in Chicago. But he argued that they don't exist in greater proportion to most parts of the country.
In the end, he said, it's up to the people of the city to make things better.
"The problem with corrupt politicians is when people are willing to put up with it," Schar said.