What the U.S. Attorneys Should Investigate:
By Jack Cashill
March 22, 2007
“I’ve always thought of myself as a Democrat,” the young staffer told me. “I grew up in a liberal household, but after this campaign I don’t know what to think.”
The staffer works for Mark Funkhouser, a maverick wonk who survived a 12-candidate primary to challenge Democratic establishment candidate, Alvin Brooks, in the March 27 run-off for mayor of Kansas City, Missouri.
The immediate cause of dismay was that someone had just broken into Funkhouser’s campaign headquarters, a humble doublewide as offbeat as the candidate himself. “This stuff happens,” I told him, “all the time.”
What troubled the staffer even more was the unlikey alliance of forces—development lawyers, hardball politicos, unions, “civil rights” groups—attacking his straight-shooting, reform-oriented candidate, often underhandedly
The staffer still hadn’t gotten over the notorious Kelo eminent domain case in which the five most liberal judges on the Supreme Court sided with the development lawyers over the humble property owners of New London, Connecticut. He had a hard time finding the “liberal” in that decision.
Still, Funkhouser may well prevail on Tuesday. One thing that might stop him, however, is if someone comes up with the money to inspire Kansas City’s wholesale vote harvesters in a major way.
Every city has its harvesters. Each election season, through a variety of means fair and foul, they recruit voters lacking the will or the wherewithal to vote on their own.
The Democratic Party has had a near perfect monopoly on urban vote harvesting machinery for at least a century. Without aggressive harvesting in Richard Daley’s Chicago and LBJ’s Texas, for instance, JFK would never have been president.
In addition to Kansas City, I will review harvesting in three other cities of my acquaintance— Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark, New Jersey, and more on those in a minute.
Kansas City’s harvesters are halfway benign. They gave up election-day shenanigans like kidnapping and murder with U.S. Attorney Maurice Milligan’s successful prosecution of Harry Truman’s mentor, Boss Tom Pendergast.
At the time, then Senator Truman bitterly protested Milligan’s “Hitler-Stalin tactics.” Upon ascending the presidency, one of Truman’s first acts was to fire Milligan. When Attorney General Francis Biddle protested, Truman fired him too.
In present time, most harvesting is technically legal. In Missouri’s November 2006 election, for example, evidence suggests that the pro-embryonic stem cell forces contracted with the radical community activist group ACORN--Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—to get out the vote for Missouri’s Amendment 2.
The paid ACORN workers combed the cities and prodded voters to the polls. Working the skid rows, the nursing homes, the housing projects, and other sources where people are easily intimidated or “incentivized,” ACORN and other harvesters turned the tide in the election.
By a 64-36 margin, the “no high school” voters decided that therapeutic cloning was in the best interest of science. The “under $15,000 income” voters concurred in this judgment, registering a 63-37 approval.
Thanks to their votes, the YES on 2 forces eked out a 51 to 49 percent victory statewide, and Democrat Claire McCaskill beat incumbent Republican Jim Talent in the Senate race 49 to 47.
To meet their daily quotas, however, the ACORN workers did not limit the pool of new voters to the living and legal. Election Board officials in St. Louis discovered roughly 1,500 "potentially fraudulent" voter registration cards, including at least three from the deceased, and in Kansas City four ACORN employees were indicted for voter registration fraud.
Harvesters often stray from the straight and narrow, and theirs is the kind of mischief that U.S. attorneys should be investigating. To expect U.S. Attorneys to somehow balance the Republican and Democrat fraud scalps on their belt, however, as some Democrats do, is a truly berserk form of affirmative action
The task falls to the U.S. Attorneys because the local prosecutors will rarely do the policing themselves. They depend too much on the harvesting. A few years back, I moderated a Democratic primary debate for Jackson County, Missouri Prosecutor at an inner-city church. As is true in many urban counties, there was no serious Republican opposition.
During the Q&A, audience members flustered the two white candidates by citing one case after another of electoral malarkey by a certain civil rights group turned vote-harvesting machine.
In the inner city, vote harvesting kills reform in its tracks, and the people were there to protest that. Unfortunately for these citizens, however, both of the would-be prosecutors had eagerly sought the machine’s endorsement and weren't overly squeamish about how it harvested votes.
In 1994, Nat Helms, then the spokesman for the effort to legalize gambling in Missouri, approached a group of ministers actively associated with this same harvesting machine. They had been preaching that gambling was bad for the community.
Helms, who later publicly regretted his actions, tells what happened next:
“We went to them and said, ‘what is it going to take for you to change your message? Nothing convinced them of anything. So we said, ‘what about a million dollars?’ Well, that worked. Next week, gambling is good. Gambling is good for Kansas City. They got posters out, they got their ward workers out.”
Statewide, Helms and his cronies spent $12 million to register 54,000 voters, all through Democratic organizations and politicians, black and white. “You satisfy the state rules,” said Helms, who explained in almost comic detail the way they finessed those rules, “and the money goes to who you want it to go to.”
Vote harvesting takes a variety of forms. In 1982, while finishing my Ph.D. dissertation, I accepted an extended consultancy at Harvesting U, the Newark, New Jersey Housing and Redevelopment Authority, in whose dim projects I had lived as a kid.
As it happened, I arrived just in time for a mayoral election and got a first hand look at how to steal one. I took notes. My new agency, allegedly in a "reform" mode, supported the incumbent mayor despite the fact that he had just been indicted for fraud.
No big deal for this mayor, not in Newark. Reportedly, President Jimmy Carter had intervened to quash the mayor's previous indictment for stashing campaigns funds in a personal Swiss bank account.
Although prohibited by federal law from doing any of the following, our agency dedicated its computers, its phones, and literally thousands of coerced man-hours to the re-election campaign.
We gave new apartments to the loudest of the tenants and new appliances to the merely noisy. On election day, most of the thousand or so employees "volunteered" to herd the Authority's cowed and captive masses—more than 10% of the city’s residents--to the polls.
In the largely black projects, our volunteers handed out fliers that claimed that the challenger, himself an African-American, was planning to hire "200 killer cops" to prevent the citizens from "fighting against Reaganism."
In the Italian-American senior projects, where I was assigned with old-timers Joe and Sal, we had the subtler task of escorting old ladies to the polls and assuring them of continued tenancy if the incumbent prevailed.
With no one watching, my new buddies and I blew off the assignment and hung out at a donut shop across the street from the polling place. After a long day of coffee and cannolis, Sal confided in me that during a prior election, when no opposing election judge showed up at this site, he had voted six times.
"I was old people. I was dead people. I was all kind of people," joked Sal. When I asked what his motivation was, he stared at me like I was a not very bright child and said, "I want to keep my job." He wasn't kidding.
At a staff meeting after the election, the Authority's Chief of Staff, a tyrannical Filipina whose avowed idol was Imelda Marcos, informed me and about twenty others about the incumbent's upcoming "victory breakfast."
After a few sighs and eye rolls, those assembled reached for their checkbooks. "How much?" asked one. We had all expected to be hit up for another $50 or $100 as we had throughout the campaign.
"$500 will do nicely," said the Imelda wannabe. The crowd gasped. At the time, $500 represented at least a week's take-home pay for the average staffer.
"Is it mandatory?" ventured one fellow, rather meekly at that, this being the middle of a recession. "Only if you're interested in job security," Imelda deadpanned.
Fortunately, my exit strategy had already been arranged. I had accepted a Fulbright to teach at a French university and was on my way out. When it came my turn to pony up, I asked in feigned innocence, "Should I make the check payable in Swiss Francs?"
Everyone laughed, Imelda louder than the others. Stealing elections has long been a source of great amusement. A fascinating documentary on the 2002 Newark election, Street Fight, suggests that the joke continued for at least the next 20 years.
Two recent books, Howie Carr’s eye-popping The Brothers Bulger and Sean Patrick Griffin’s courageous Black Brothers Inc., show just how unfunny this business really can be.
In The Brothers Bulger, Carr vividly documents the seeming ease with which an unholy pair of Irish-American brothers terrorized and corrupted Boston for the last quarter of the 20th century.
William “Billy” Bulger served as president of the Massachusetts senate before being appointed president of the University of Massachusetts. His brother James “Whitey” Bulger meanwhile served as a role model for the Jack Nicholson character “Frank Costello” in the Oscar-winning film, The Departed.
A wanton killer and sexual predator, Whitey reached the coveted second spot on the FBI’s most wanted list, trailing only the inimitable bin Laden. Neither Whitey’s notoriety nor Billy’s sleaze, however, prevented the Kennedys, the Kerrys, and the Dukakises from paying court to Billy when harvesting season came due.
This is the truly appalling part of the story. These same high-minded souls, so quick to spot a “culture of corruption” among others, tolerated a generation of murder and mayhem right under their noses because they needed the votes.
If anything, the vote harvesting machinery in Philadelphia for the last forty years has been more ruthless than that in Boston. Griffin chronicles the city’s “pay-to-play” zeitgeist with relentless detail and real bravado in his 2005 book, the most useful book written by a criminal justice professor in memory.
A former Philly cop and now an associate professor at Penn State, Griffin traces the astonishingly murderous rise of city’s so-called “Black Mafia” in the late 1960s and its imperfect metamorphosis into a “community development” organization and civic force.
In 1999, John F. Street was elected to succeed Ed “Fast Eddy” Rendell, now Pennsylvania’s governor, as mayor of what was emerging as one of America’s most lethal and corrupt big cities.
Street lacked Rendell’s sense of discretion, and by late 2003, the FBI was engaged in a full scale probe of corruption in the mayor’s office, including his relationship with Shamsud-din Ali, the Muslim heir to the remains of the Black Mafia empire.
A month before the November 2003 election, the probe’s cover was blown when an FBI bug was discovered in Street’s office. Indifferent to his guilt or innocence, Nancy Pelosi, then House minority leader, marched with Street in the city’s Columbus Day parade a week later.
The national Democratic Party knew what was at stake. In the apt words of the mayor’s spokesman, no one was going “to wrest control of the city of Philadelphia from the Democratic machine to set up a win in Pennsylvania for Bush.”
With Pelosi’s help, Street won in a landslide. In 2004, John Kerry needed all the help the machine could offer. Bush would carry the rest of Pennsylvania by 300,000 votes, but a 400,000-vote margin in Philadelphia County gave Kerry the state. The Democrats weren’t about to yield a machine this productive.
Griffin describes the city’s political culture as “sick” and blames it, in no small part, on “decades-long single-party rule.” The same could be said for almost every big city in America and some not so big.
As Griffin observes too, the Philadelphia Inquirer has done little to inspire reform. As newspapers across the country have grown more partisan in the last generation, they have come to understand that the vote harvesters almost always advance causes and candidates that they believe in.
Truth be told, if the major presses in America and the national Democratic Party put their minds to it, they could all but eliminate urban corruption in a decade.
Don’t hold your breath.
In a refreshing departure from norm, however, The Kansas City Star has endorsed Funkhouser. Its vigilance on his behalf will help keep the campaign relatively honest. Who knows? Maybe it will start a trend.
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