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Patron saints; how honest political machines can humanize government.

When Rosie was wheeled into my courtroom, I was horrified. Here was an elderly, one-legged, unemployed woman who had been in jail for more than five months awaiting trial. Her crimes-arson, recklessly endangering others, and risking a catastrophe-sounded serious, but still, she should have been released on nominal bond. The purpose of bail is simply to secure the appearance of the accused at trial. Where and how could Rosie flee?

I asked the public defender, who had received Rosie's case file the previous evening, why Rosie had been held. He said that wasn't his concern. Such decisions were made by the bail project, which, like the public defender's office, is a publicly funded, nonpolitical agency. The employee who had recommended that Rosie be denied bail explained that she did not meet the criteria for release: She had no job, no family, no telephone. She had lived in her residence for only a month. He had followed the guidelines, discharged his obligation. He had no special responsibility to Rosie.

Why had Rosie turned to crime? I discovered that she had moved to an unapproved apartment after the redevelopment authority condemned her house. The lock on her apartment door had jammed, and Rosie was trapped inside, without a telephone. She opened the window and shouted to her neighbors for help. But amid the din of television sets, playing children, domestic fights, and the first-floor bar, no one heard her. In desperation she placed a wastebasket on the window sill, put a piece of old newspaper in it, and set it on fire. That got her some attention. Although the fire was out by the time the fire-fighters broke down her door, Rosie was arrested.

The whole fiasco could have been avoided, of course, if Rosie had been moved into a proper home. I asked the civil service social worker who was supposed to relocate Rosie to an approved dwelling why she hadn't done her job. "She was not polite to me," the worker explained. And where was the $6,000 the city owed Rosie for her condemned house? That had not been paid to her because she had not come to the office to request it. No one went looking for her.

What had gone wrong? Conservatives might say Rosie's story demonstrates yet again what happens when the government bureaucracy tries to deliver services that the private sector should provide. Liberals might argue that only the government can ensure that people like Rosie don't fall through the cracks-but that in this case, the civil servants were probably overworked, underpaid, and given too little respect by the government they tried to serve. Both groups would be partly right. Yes, the community should be more involved in providing services. And yes, you still need an activist government to pick up the inevitable slack. How can we bring the two together?

By bringing back machine politics. Now, I realize that when most people think of big-city political machines, they think of sleek fat men smoking cigars and striking deals-of governments that were even less responsive to the people, not more. But as a young lawyer and volunteer committee person in Philadelphia, I saw how a patronage system benefited ordinary citizens. Today, politicians campaign against the bureaucrats, but once elected they can do little to compel the city hall drones to work for the people who pay their salaries. Those bureaucrats, after all, are protected by civil service rules that were intended to end the abuses of the machines but instead have come to insulate public employees from both the politicians and the public.

Civil service reforms have also drastically increased the cost of political campaigns. Because politicians are less able to barter services to constituents for their votes or jobs to campaign workers for their voluntary services, they have become much more dependent on big fundraisers (in particular the political action committees) to cover the costs of their advertising and professional campaign staffs-a change that has further insulated them from the public.

By contrast, a generation or two ago, when politicians were able to hire and fire public employees more freely, those politicians were directly accountable for their subordinates' performance. That meant committee people, as party representatives elected from various neighborhoods, had to act as advocates for their communities, making sure constituents received fair treatment from government agencies and personally filling in where government fell short. In addition to party officers such as committee people, ambitious young men and women would volunteer to serve on campaigns in the hopes of finding exciting work in the new administration if their candidate won. And when they did get patronage jobs, these erstwhile volunteers were dedicated to putting their candidate's platforms into practice.

This system produced not only better government in the short term, but generations of leaders drawn from the worlds of the people they served. The decline of the political machine has left the poor with no one to help them negotiate the icy corridors of government and little interest in going to the polls. They have been disillusioned and effectively disenfranchised by the very agencies that were created to serve them. As a result, both "politician" and "bureaucrat" have become terms of opprobrium.

When I was a committee person, Tyrone's mother worked for my neighbor, Sally. One night, Sally called, frantic, to say that Tyrone had been arrested and was being held in custody. His mother had no money for a lawyer and was desperate to get him out. He was 18 and epileptic; she feared he might have a seizure if he were held overnight.

I went to the police station at once and got him released (into Sally's custody) on nominal bail. Six months later, when Tyrone's case came to trial, the charges were dismissed because the complainant failed to appear. Tyrone did not miss a day of school and he was not subjected to the trauma of prison. What did I get in return? Sally's husband retained me as his lawyer on several small but lucrative matters. More important, Sally became a devoted worker at the polls.

Several years later, when I was a judge, I encountered another 18-year-old charged with a crime, a young man brought into my court for robbing a neighborhood bar. Willie Williams had been in custody for months awaiting trial. He was being represented by the public defender. The prosecutor was a young man, new to the city. We were an hour and 45 minutes into the trial when Willie took the stand and began describing the route he'd taken to get to the bar. I interrupted him:

"If you were going to a bar on 48th Street, why did you take the bus heading to Third Street?"

"I wasn't going to a bar on 48th Street," he replied. "I was going to a bar on 15th Street."

We then discovered that this Willie Williams was not the defendant in this case. He was charged with a different robbery. Another Willie Williams was accused of this crime. This Willie's lawyer had never seen him before. The prosecutor didn't know one neighborhood from another. Both lawyers were just doing their jobs.

This was a familiar pattern. I frequently heard cases of young men and women who had been held in custody for months awaiting trial. They had been seen by one assistant public defender at the preliminary hearing, another who filed the application for bail reduction, and still another who tried the case. These defendants were scrupulously accorded their constitutional rights. Each was represented at public expense by a lawyer-or a series of lawyers. Many were released after trial for want of evidence, or convicted of relatively minor offenses and placed on probation. But in every instance, the defendant had been hurt by the long stay in jail. Mothers lost children to the foster care system. The employed lost their jobs. Those in school often dropped out because they had missed so many days that they would have had to repeat a grade. When such people get in trouble today, concerned women like Sally no longer call their committee people; they refer the mothers to the public defender. They are no longer active in politics. They do not see the point. Ward healing

The committee person for decades was the linchpin of American politics, the elected local party representative who mediated between the voters and their government. Under that system, even the most indigent derelict in a community had something that was valued: his vote. In exchange for that precious commodity, the citizen could expect consideration and decent treatment. George Washington Plunkitt, the notorious Tammany Hall boss, once explained the enlightened political self-interest that drove the system: "If a family is burned out, I don't ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don't refer them to the Charity Organization Service, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up 'til they get things runnin' again. It's philanthropy, but it's politics too-mighty good politics. Who can tell me how many votes one of these fires brings me?"

When I was a committee person, I, like my colleagues, performed innumerable services for my constituents. When there was a dangerous street crossing near a school and the people wanted a stoplight, I went to the authorities and pleaded their cause. When my constituents' garbage wasn't being collected, I fought for them. If citizens objected to a bar or rooming house planned for the neighborhood, I represented them, usually without fee. And at election time my neighbors generally voted for the candidate I recommended.

Committee people saw to it that the residents of their districts went to the polls. If a young mother needed a baby-sitter so she could get out to vote, we found one (a volunteer). We provided free transportation for the sick and elderly. In the weeks before elections, we distributed leaflets explaining the issues and describing the candidates. We also spoke at schools and civic associations.

While some committee people were selfless do-gooders, many expected some return for their services. This is where patronage came into the picture: A loyal party worker was entitled to a job from the city or an appointment to a commission or board (not necessarily paid positions). And there were other, less tangible benefits to party work. As committee people, we influenced elected officials and party leaders-even congressmen and senators-because ultimately we controlled the votes.

Party service could also be lucrative. In those days lawyers were not permitted to advertise, so young ones (myself included) found politics a great way to attract clients. When I represented a civic group or organization without a fee, I often received a call later from a member seeking assistance in getting a divorce, buying a house, or drawing up a will.

Of course, not every political employee was honest and hardworking. Some were pure goldbrickers, like Sam," a former Chicago precinct worker quoted by Mike Royko in his book, Boss: "In those days to succeed in politics you sometimes had to bash in a few heads. The Republicans in another ward heard about me and they brought me into one of their precincts where they were having trouble. I was brought in as a heavy, and I took care of the problem, so they got me a job at the state department of labor. The job was ... uh ... to tell the truth, I didn't do anything. I was a payroller."

But are we better off with today's civil service? Last January, Carl Greene had to go to the press to force the D.C. government to give him work. Not that he didn't have a job-he did, as a $47,000-per-year computer expert-he just didn't have anything to do. In fact, he said he hadn't done any work for seven months, burning up his time instead with long coffee breaks and trips to his health club. The new mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon, met with Greene and assured him he'd have "challenging work" within a few days. "We don't want our employees to feel less than enthusiastic about coming to work," she said at the time. "We want them to render quality service." Six months later, Greene, now attached to the maintenance office of the housing department, says he still has nothing to do. "I was sent [here] to help with computer operations, to make the computers more efficient, but there are no computers. Periodically," he reports, "I write memos."

There is one critical difference between today's civil servants and the city workers of yesterday: Back then, public servants could be fired. That meant government service was not usually a lifetime sinecure. New employees arrived with the knowledge that if they failed or their administration was voted out, they'd be looking for work. Moreover, these new employees-at least those with more evolved notions of public service than Sam's-believed in the philosophy of the elected official who hired them. They had volunteered time to their candidate's campaign, knocking on doors and passing out leaflets, and now they had the chance to put campaign promises into practice. Today, such people don't bother to volunteer, because the brutal hours of campaign drudgery hold no promise of reward.

One of my rewards was a job as deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, working under an activist governor and attorney general. When I discovered that hundreds of millions of dollars in trust funds earmarked for public use were being misspent, I was encouraged to go after the money. I sued scores of trustees, forcing them to build the hospitals, libraries, and schools for which the money had been donated. I sued to open institutions to the public that had been run as private fiefdoms. When my party lost the governorship, I was promptly fired because the new governor and his attorney general weren't interested in this program. That was fine with me. I didn't want to work for that administration, and I felt that the new governor was entitled to have a staff that would carry out his policies with equal passion. The untouchables

These vital links-between the government and the community, between government workers and their party-were severed by the reform movements that began in the federal system at the turn of the century, gradually spreading to the big cities and then, after World War II, to most state and city governments. The reformers were driven by justified horror at the evil side of machine politics-the payrollers like Sam, the bribes, the kickbacks, the sweetheart deals for favored contractors and unions. To be clean, ran the theory, government would have to be above politics. Public agencies were established to provide, at taxpayers' expense, services formerly rendered without charge by committee people. Bureaucracies staffed by civil servants proliferated. government employees were prohibited from serving as committee people or holding office in political parties-even from doing occasional volunteer work for a candidate. At the same time, new laws began protecting civil servants from the bosses' political whims.

Today, public servants seem untouchable. In Washington, D.C., for example, the harshest punishment a worker can receive for supplying false information to his superiors, for being drunk or stoned on the job, or even for comitting a crime off-hours that "discredits the D.C. government" is a five-day suspension. In Philadelphia, a court officer who worked for me misappropriated money, but I could not fire or even punish her because the process was too burdensome.

As the bureaucracy took over, committee people lost the ability to perform services for their constituents, which meant they lost their influence with the voters. Once-powerful ward leaders, unable to deliver the vote, became irrelevant. Deprived of the grassroots influence of the committee people in the neighborhoods, the political parties withered, ceding control of the selection of candidates and platforms to political action committees, big financial donors, and tightly organized special interests. Governments became, if anything, more corrupt and far less responsive to the average citizen. This was not what the reformers expected. It was, however, just what George Washington Plunkitt predicted when he imagined life after patronage. "I ain't up on silly-gisms, but I can give you some arguments that nobody can answer.

"First, this great and glorious country was built up by political parties; second, parties can't hold together if their workers don't get the offices when they win; third, if the parties go to pieces, the government they built up must go to pieces, too; fourth, then there'll be hell to pay."

And hell is what many vulnerable Americans, with no one to champion their cause in government, are already paying. During my years as a trial judge, I daily observed public agencies created to assist and "empower" the weak instead treat those citizens with aloof disregard, if not disdain. One five-year-old who found her way into my court had been treated at a hospital for a vaginal infection that proved to be syphilis. A social worker at the hospital had interviewed the child, who said, in effect, that her father had molested her. The worker filed a child abuse report. Then she returned the child to her parents.

"If you had good reason to believe that the child was being molested by her father, why did you permit the father to take her home?" I inquired.

"That wasn't my job. I am only required to file the abuse report," she replied.

It was not only one social worker who felt no special duty toward this girl. At least six public or publicly funded private agencies were involved in the case. Each employee was duly qualified, nonpolitical, and, I believe, honest. They all followed the rules of their respective agencies. But none of them took responsibility for protecting this child.

That case may be extreme, but depersonalization on a more banal scale is endemic to a civil service system in which employees are expected to respond to rule books rather than constituents. Too often, public lawyers and social workers don't have or won't take the time to know the people they are supposed to help. It wouldn't take a revolution to restore accountability to this system.

Reforming the civil service rules to increase dramatically the number of patronage jobs-that is, to enlarge substantially the authority of a mayor or a governor or a president to hire and fire-would be a first and most important step. Job applicants would still be required to pass merit tests prescribed by the civil service: Clerks would have to prove they could type more than 40 words per minute; supervisors of sewage workers would have to have a background in engineering. The result would be a hybrid system that combines the benefits of civil service reforms with the advantages of patronage-a system in which, to avoid the Sams, we won't have to trample the Rosies. Czechs and balances

Bringing back patronage would also bring Americans back to the polls. When a clerk in a store is rude or unhelpful, the shopper at least has the power to vote with her feet. But the citizen seeking government assistance has no such choice and, hence, no way to vent her dissatisfaction. Civil servants have no reason to care about how, or even if, the disgruntled citizen decides to use her vote. Which means the citizen has little reason to care either.

When I was in Prague a year ago, it seemed that everybody in the country was eagerly awaiting his first free election. While walking in the beautiful gardens of Hradcany Castle, I met a middle-aged couple eager to speak with an American. They told me that although they were lifelong residents of Prague, this was the first time they had been in the gardens. The Soviets had declared the grounds off-limits to the natives. Still, their minds were not on the flowers but on the forthcoming election.

"It is a great responsibility," the man said.

"You see," explained his wife, "we have important choices to make. We must be sure we make them wisely."

More than 80 percent of eligible Czech citizens voted in the 1990 elections. In the fall 1990 U.S. elections, only 36.4 percent of the eligible electorate voted, despite multimillion-dollar political campaigns. In local elections, according to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, the turnout is even lower: between 10 and 15 percent. On their 1989 tax returns, fewer than 20 percent of Americans authorized the payment of one dollar for campaign financing, even though that dollar would not be added onto their taxes.

Americans simply don't care about politics anymore, because, as the reformers intended, politics now has precious little to do with government. We all may want good government, but these days most Americans have decided that voting just won't make it so. Lois Forer is a retired judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia and author, most recently, of Unequal Protection: Women, Children, and the Elderly in Court. Research assistance was provided by Betsy Dance and Pat Davis.
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Author:Forer, Lois
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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