The builder--and the threads
Friday, September 14, 2007
If the name Orlando Jones didn't mean much to you before word of his death rocked political Chicago on Thursday, well, that's what Jones would have wanted. He was soft-spoken, the rabidly loyal insider who fused relationships but whose name rarely appeared in the papers. For years he ran contracts and patronage in Cook County government. He was the empire builder for County Board President John Stroger.
Jones, Stroger's godson, had one other crucial distinction: When talk in corridors of power and in law enforcement agencies turned to government corruption, he was often suspected, never indicted.
The discovery of Jones' body on a southwest Michigan beach is, foremost, a loss to the family he cherished. But it provokes public comment as well. His intimate connections -- to business deals that involve public money, and to the politicians and public officials who award those deals to their pals -- could keep him just as much a subject of inquiry in death as he had become in life.
Jones was the brains of Chicago's 8th Ward political organization, the South Side seat of Stroger's power. He shared Stroger's passion for protecting the poor -- and Stroger's use of political muscle to achieve what he wanted. In talking about contracts and jobs, Jones sometimes posed a very good question: If white Chicago pols and their friends could profiteer from clout, why not African-American pols and their friends?
This suggestion of entitlement -- an unstated but real sense that "It's our turn now," made Jones defensive when political opponents railed about the corruption in county government. He once challenged a reform member of the County Board to stop picking on Stroger: "Why aren't you guys complaining about Mayor Daley? About the aldermen?"
Jones, always fiercely protective of his godfather, was shrewd enough to see that other Chicago politicians thought they owned Stroger. When word spread in 2002 that Stroger was running for re-election, Jones confided to another county pol, "I hope he's running because it's what he wants, not what they want." Who were "they"? The bosses, the high-paid patronage hires, the contractors -- all of them thriving on connections to John Stroger.
The death of Orlando Jones comes as a passel of investigators reportedly are examining the reach of his tentacles into government deals, government offices and government hiring.
Illinois brims with insiders who leverage political relationships: They pay their dues in government, then they leave for the private sector to make money. Orlando Jones was at the center of so much, another insider mused Thursday, that his dealings boiled down to the briefest of descriptions: Whom was he connected to? Everyone. What was he connected to? Everything.
Jones insisted that he had done nothing illicit. Will he be cleared posthumously of any wrongdoing? Or was he destined to be, as Chicago political gossips have long speculated, the player-to-be-named-later in ongoing corruption probes in county and state government?
So many federal investigators are now tugging at so many threads in Illinois that we'll probably learn that answer. Those investigators are gradually unraveling the sorry fabric of politics and government in this county, this state.