One of the entertaining subplots on “Boardwalk Empire” this season is the fact-based depiction of infamous mob boss Al Capone’s reign of terror in west suburban Cicero, where “Scarface” set up temporary headquarters in the mid-20s to escape the heat of Chicago’s one-term “reform” mayor.
The highly acclaimed HBO series reminds us that Al and his brother Frank hijacked Cicero’s 1924 municipal election with enough threats, intimidation and actual violence to make sure their candidate won, which guaranteed them a safe haven as they expanded their organized crime network.
Capone went to prison for tax evasion in 1931, but the mob continued to exert influence on Cicero and its wanton politics for decades after that.
One recent town president, Betty Loren-Maltese, widow of mid-level mobster and municipal official Frank Maltese, went to jail for her role in a mobbed-up multi-million-dollar insurance scam.
Her successor, Ramiro Gonzalez, promised reform and then put a dozen relatives on the payroll.
And his successor, current President Larry Dominick, made the same pledge and then one-upped Gonzalez by hiring 20 relatives, angering the town’s large Latino population with ethnic slurs, paying out several hundred thousand tax dollars to settle sexual-harassment lawsuits, and hiring a corrupt ex-Chicago alderman to manage the town’s special events.
The hiring of Ambrosio Medrano, who may be Chicago’s most corrupt alderman, with three felony convictions in three separate scams, made me wonder why the residents of Cicero put up with this nonsense — why, for instance, Dominick’s been elected three times by comfortable margins.
So I asked Betty Loren-Maltese, who’s out of prison and still maintaining her innocence as she watches Cicero, talks to old political friends and blogs on the goings-on.
Here’s her explanation, via email:
“I believe the system of expanded services, perks and employment rewards isn’t a government function but a government-funded voter bribery system designed to keep 10 percent of the population under control.
“Cicero has about 90,000 residents, but with low voter turnout it only takes about 6,000 votes to win, which is generally 3,000 families.
“Between the town, high school, college, park district and grammar school there are approximately 2,000 jobs and tens of millions in government contracts.
“The 200 or so government employees who are also precinct captains are required to keep the voting families in line through services, favors and employment, and ultimately the threat of losing it all if the incumbents don’t win.
“And they’re told ‘we know how you vote.’ That’s not true, but people who have a chance to lose will not take that chance, knowing the system is corrupt anyway.”
Betty’s not a political scientist but she knows her town, and the figure that jumps out of her narrative is 6,000 — the approximate number of votes it takes to win a municipal election.
That’s because the turnout is so low — under 10,000 voters, or less than 15 percent of those registered.
And that’s where Cicero is like so many other suburbs that end up with leaders who aren’t paragons of good government.
Low voter turnout generally favors incumbents who have the ability to get their voters to the polls, if only out of self-interest — a job or contract or necessary service — and the muscle to knock challengers off the ballot, outspend them, or outhustle them on election day.
So the challengers usually lose, and so do the residents, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for people who tolerate business as usual by failing to pay attention or vote.
Cicero’s always been a ripe target for caricature, so it’s easy to get the impression not much has changed since the days of Al Capone, when in fact the real problem, beyond alleged mob influence, is residents who don’t vote and leaders who aren’t held accountable.
That’s a recipe for unhealthy democracy.
Capone and his thugs with their tommy-guns are long gone, but Cicero and too many other sorry suburbs — with their apathetic, uninformed voters — are still very much with us.
That’s not an entertaining enough story line for a TV show.
It’s just a sad reality.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.