Posted on May 11, 2007 by chicagoclout"You've got to understand something about the Irish, the Daley Irish," Vrdolyak said at the time. "It's the Irish first, and everybody else is a Polack."
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Eddie who? Vrdolyak faded, but not his clout
All-but-forgotten ex-alderman still a force in picking judges
May 13, 2007
BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist
Did you notice that the newspapers had no color photos on file for Edward R. Vrdolyak and a great deal of ink had to be devoted to just explaining who he was and why he was important?
I don’t know about you, but it made me feel old.
But just because nearly a generation of Chicagoans has no firsthand knowledge of Vrdolyak, I wouldn’t want anybody to get the impression that he is some benign has-been from yesteryear.
For sure, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak is not who he was in the 1980s, when his star burned so white-hot that his political career succumbed to the explosive forces he had unleashed, leading him to retreat into the background to make money.
But his influence — built during years of doing favors — didn’t just disappear overnight.
He still had his friends in high places, and he was still the master of the back channels.
Right up until Thursday’s announcement that he had been indicted, Vrdolyak remained a powerful force in this town, a guy that other powerful people still knew as somebody who could help you get things done with a phone call.
Nowhere is his clout more renowned than in the Cook County judiciary, whose ranks are so populated by judges loyal to him that prospective judicial candidates are said to beat a path to his door for a blessing — and the possibility of an appointment arranged through his core of judicial loyalists.
If the appointment route doesn’t work, Vrdolyak can help them get elected, working sub rosa, of course, maybe for both candidates in the race. Once on the bench, the new loyalists replenish the ranks of his allies who date to his time as the Cook County Democratic chairman.
I know you deserve names, but there isn’t a published membership list. Just the same, I wouldn’t want to find myself on the other end of a court case with one of his friends.
It was surely that same kind of influence that had put Vrdolyak in the middle of what federal authorities allege was a $1.5 million kickback scheme involving the sale of a piece of Near North real estate, some details of which have yet to be revealed.
Most of us who have followed Vrdolyak’s career are scratching our heads that his downfall could be a deal in which he didn’t even get any money. Prosecutors say the scheme was interrupted before the $1.5 million could be paid.
It’s also strange he’d take a fall for something that didn’t involve using his government influence, although that may be included in the future details.
Vrdolyak’s lawyer says he’s innocent, so we should keep an open mind to the possibility, even if we’ve spent years believing he’s skirted prosecution for other suspicious activities.
Should have bided his time
For all the disbelief surrounding this being the case that would finally take Vrdolyak down, there was one piece of symmetry. The investigation is called Operation Board Games, a reference to the manipulation of business involving government and nonprofit boards of directors. Even his friends would agree that Vrdolyak always treated his ethical responsibilities as a game in which he tried to stay one step ahead of investigators.
I’d thought that when the day came to explain Vrdolyak’s charisma that I’d compare him to Frank Sinatra, but even that seems outdated now.
Still, if you got a look at that old photo in Friday’s paper of Vrdolyak on election night in his V-neck sweater, surrounded by buddies Sam Panayotovich, Howard Carroll and Glenn Dawson, it reminds me of the famous rat pack poster with Sinatra and boys around a pool table.
He has a personal magnetism that made him a leader. A lot of people liked him. His political workers absolutely loved him. But even those who didn’t like him knew he was somebody to treat seriously.
One of the best observations about Vrdolyak came from Ald. Bernard Stone, who told our City Hall reporter Fran Spielman in part that Vrdolyak was “not dependable because he’s impatient.”
It was that impatience that led Vrdolyak to overplay his hand and jump to the Republican Party, making him the plainest example ever of how Illinois politics is not a matter of competing philosophies so much as competing interests. Forced to the margins by Harold Washington, he was pinned there by Rich Daley.
If he’d just bided his time, maybe we wouldn’t have had to spend so much time last week explaining who he was.
Feds catch up with ‘Fast Eddie’ Vrdolyak
Legendary former alderman took part in kickback scheme, according to U.S. charges
By Dan Mihalopoulos, Jeff Coen and Ray Gibson, Tribune staff reporters; Tribune staff reporters Angela Rozas and Rick Pearson contributed to this report
Published May 11, 2007
Edward R. Vrdolyak was given the nickname “Fast Eddie” for his wheeling and dealing in politics and real estate, but it also described his ability to stay ahead of the packs of investigators and regulators who so frequently poked their noses into his business.
On Thursday, the U.S. attorney announced that the former City Hall powerhouse now shared a distinction with other legendary Chicago politicians: a federal indictment.
From City Hall to D.C.
Though long and legally complicated, the indictment ultimately describes a simple local art — Vrdolyak allegedly got a contract where the fix was in, agreeing to kick back a taste to the connected official who steered the deal his way.
The charges, stemming from an alleged real estate fraud scheme, come years after Vrdolyak loomed large on the local stage as a protagonist of the infamous “Council Wars” at City Hall.
Vrdolyak was the leader of a bloc of white aldermen — the Vrdolyak 29 — who sought to frustrate the agenda of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in the 1980s. The racially charged infighting gained the city international notoriety as “Beirut on the Lake.”
“The Ed Vrdolyak that was our nemesis was too smart to do something so dumb,” Alton Miller, Washington’s press secretary, said of the alleged misconduct. “If in fact he did something criminal, then it’s clear that the Fast Eddie we all knew is slowing down.”
In a state known for official corruption, Vrdolyak, 69, was often investigated but had never been charged with misconduct related to his political dealings. More than a dozen probes have been launched into everything from allegations his law firm engaged in ambulance chasing to suspicions he built his home with city goods and services.
Time after time, he denied wrongdoing but was never coy about the fact that he believed in doing business the old-fashioned way.
“That’s the way life is,” he said in 1974. “You do for one, he does for you.”
He seems to always have been at the center of controversy, even from his emergence on the city’s political scene in the early 1970s.
Led anti-Daley forces
As alderman of the 10th Ward on the Southeast Side, he led a rebellion against Mayor Richard J. Daley’s most powerful council ally.
Vilified widely for his polarizing role during the tumultuous 1980s, Vrdolyak nevertheless saw his political fortunes plummet after Washington died. Vrdolyak, who had switched to the Republican Party while Washington was mayor, lost the 1989 race for mayor to Richard M. Daley, garnering just 4 percent of the vote.
That ended his political career. But federal prosecutors now say Vrdolyak continued to enjoy the benefits of clout.
U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald’s office accuses him of scheming with businessman Stuart Levine in a multimillion-dollar real estate deal. Vrdolyak allegedly arranged a kickback from his secret $1.5 million fee to Levine, who had arranged the sale of a medical school building for a condominium development on the Near North Side.
Levine, a longtime friend of Vrdolyak and former board member of the medical school, has been cooperating with authorities. Sources say conversations Levine had with Vrdolyak were captured on recording equipment.
Should a case built on a wiretap result in Vrdolyak’s conviction, it would be ironic: He liked to say that he treats every conversation as if someone were spying on him.
While the deal at the center of the federal case involved a building in the Gold Coast, Vrdolyak grew up and still lives and works in a far grittier section of the city’s lakefront.
Vrdolyak was born to Croatian immigrant parents who ran a tavern on East 92nd Street and raised their family in an apartment upstairs from the bar. The youngest of seven children, he swept the floors and washed dishes in the tavern.
After three years as a seminarian, he finished high school and later graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, working summers as an ironworker.
Like many politicians, Vrdolyak began his rise by working precincts at election time, and he was elected alderman of the 10th Ward in 1971.
It didn’t take long after that for the investigations to begin. The Tribune accused him in 1973 of failing to file complete financial-disclosure statements, prompting a probe by the Cook County state’s attorney.
He also rapidly earned a reputation as a consummate Chicago politician who was loud and showy at times but quietly made and unmade alliances as circumstances dictated.
Took on Keane
Even as a freshman alderman, he was not afraid to challenge Mayor Richard J. Daley and his council floor leader, Thomas J. Keane. Nor was he shy about describing the nature of Chicago-style politics as he saw it.
Citing the proverb about how sinners should not cast stones, he said, “Well, there aren’t too many rocks flying around Chicago.”
In the 1980s, Vrdolyak became Cook County Democratic chairman, led the “Vrdolyak 29” bloc of aldermen who frustrated Washington, and twice ran unsuccessfully for mayor.
“He grew up in an era where the popular notion was that Daley had the power and Keane had the money,” said a longtime Vrdolyak associate. “He wanted to be a hybrid of both.”
Vrdolyak’s money came from his work as a personal injury lawyer. He built a house with a tennis court that sprawled across an alley bought from the city and also owned vacation homes in Florida and Michigan.
But his political standing waned as Washington became more powerful. Miller, the Washington aide, said the mayor believed Vrdolyak was too clever to do anything illegal.
“Vrdolyak held the city’s economic progress up for political reasons, but everything he did to make us crazy was legal,” Miller said.
In 1986, to bolster a candidate for governor on the eve of the election, Vrdolyak hired a helicopter to fly over Soldier Field during a nationally televised football game. The helicopter dangled a halftime fireworks display that urged voters to “vote Democratic.”
Yet he soon split from the party. His 1987 bid for mayor as a third-party candidate garnered 42 percent of the vote against Washington.
In the wake of Washington’s death, Vrdolyak ran as a Republican candidate for mayor but made his worse showing ever. Although he urged his supporters to give Richard M. Daley a chance, the bitterness of that race was evident in a 1996 interview with the Tribune.
“You’ve got to understand something about the Irish, the Daley Irish,” Vrdolyak said at the time. “It’s the Irish first, and everybody else is a Polack.”
Effectively exiled from City Hall, Vrdolyak found political refuge in the Cicero of town President Betty Loren-Maltese. Under Loren-Maltese, who was convicted on federal corruption charges, Vrdolyak’s law firm was paid millions of dollars in fees by the western suburb.
Levine is a Republican fundraiser and lawyer under indictment in two separate federal corruption cases. He and Vrdolyak have known each other for decades and their relationship began with Vrdolyak’s friendship with Levine’s billionaire uncle Theodore Tannebaum, according to lawyers and records.
In Vrdolyak’s old haunts on the Southeast Side on Thursday, many people said he was “a helluva guy” who worked his way up from humble origins and did his best by constituents who have seen better times.
At the Crow Bar, 106th Street and Avenue C, retired boilermaker Mike Gioia said Vrdolyak helped many in the area — “steelworkers, construction workers, people who worked for a living, which Eddie did too.”
“In the 10th Ward, everybody wants to be like Eddie,” Crow Bar owner Pat Caroll said. “I’m sure after he goes to trial, he’s going to walk away from it.”
‘Fast Eddie,’ in his own words
In 1973, as a freshman alderman:
“Well, as they say, ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.’ Well, there aren’t too many rocks flying around Chicago.”
In 1974 interview:
“If you’re good to people, they reciprocate. They send business your way. So you get jobs for people. That’s the way it’s done. Me — it’s the only place these people can go. I’m the committeeman, alderman, father confessor, cop, lawyer, employment agency. Me. I’m the man.”
In 1983, warning against splitting the white vote in the mayoral election:
“A vote for Daley is a vote for Washington … It’s a two-person race … It’s a racial thing. … Don’t kid yourself. I’m calling on you to save your city. … We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.”
In 1996, about Mayor Richard M. Daley:
If his name was ‘Joe Schmo,’ he’d be nobody, nowhere, pumping gas.”
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