Saturday, October 16, 2010



One of the most colorful characters in the history of Chicago politics, former 10th Ward Alderman Ed “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak was sentenced to ten months in prison yesterday for a real estate fraud involving the sale of property by Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science to some developers who paid Vrdolyak a seven figure finders’ fee. Vrdolyak had been convicted in February of 2009 but was sentenced, in one of the stranger junctures of crime, politics, and the law in our town, to probation and community service by U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur. The original sentence of probation was appealed by the government, resulting in yesterday’s sentence, which Vrdolyak will not appeal.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly who, as far as I have been able to determine, is no relation to former Mayor Martin Kennelly, received, as did Judge Shadur, scores, maybe hundreds, of letters commending Ed Vrdolyak for the good works he has performed over his long career in and around Chicago politics. These letters came from law clients, constituents, charities, ordinary citizens, politicians, clergymen, and even professional athletes. Jerry Elsner, who heads a charity for whom Vrdolyak has done extensive fundraising as part of his community service obligations in the first sentencing, went so far as to say

I know I’m going to be crucified for saying this, but Ed Vrdolyak is the finest man I’ve ever met. You just come away talking to him feeling better about things.”

Mr. Elsner, who, as far as I know, has not been hoisted on a cross yet, had company. Vrdolyak’s lawyer Michael Monico, predictably, said, among other things “He never forgot what was important in life.” Radio hosts on WLS, on which Vrdolyak does a talk show now and then, were similarly effusive in their praise of the man, citing his hardscrabble first generation Croatian roots and his struggle to make it in the tough world of Chicago politics while never forgetting those still in the early stages of their similar struggles. All in all, one got the impression, both before and after Vrdolyak’s sentencing, that he was one magnanimous guy sowing the seeds of sweetness and light wherever he went.

In a sense, it’s hard to argue with this hagiographic description of Ed Vrdolyak. I’ve never seen a politician work a crowd more enthusiastically and effectively than Eddie Vrdolyak. I’ve never met a more likeable politician than Eddie Vrdolyak (Well, maybe former Congressman and Illinois gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard, but in an entirely different way; Poshard was, and is, quietly likeable. Eddie is, for lack of a better description, loudly likeable. The late Roman Pucinski may also fall somewhere around the Vrdolyak/Poshard position in the likeableness continuum, but that might have something to do with my having met Pucinski when I was a junior in high school, when avuncularity carries heavier weight. But I digess.) and, I have to agree, I’ve never come away not feeling better about things after hearing Vrdolyak talk. In a city populated, contrary to popular myth, with very smart politicians (Yes, we do have our dumbbells, nitwits, and numbskulls, but the people who get near the top and stay there are exceptionally bright people.), Eddie Vrdolyak is among the smartest, if not the smartest, I’ve ever seen, sharing that rarified air with the likes of Ed Burke, Mike Madigan and, yes, Rich Daley. And how can you not like a guy who told Michael Sneed of the Sun-Times, after being sentenced,

I’m too old to be surprised. God is still good. It’s true I’ve never had a bad day…and I’m the luckiest guy. Life tomorrow is promised to no one. I do the best I can and go on”?

No one can argue that the man does not have the proper perspective on life.

On the other hand, one wonders what we would have heard about Ed Vrdolyak if we were to talk to those who crossed him. One suspects that we would have gotten a very different picture of the man.

My point is that Fast Eddie Vrdolyak is a very complicated man. He could, and can, be the most magnanimous guy in the world. But he also was known for a ruthlessness that would raise hackles of terror in the most hardened of the city’s operators. He was neither black nor white, but a pastel of grays, or, perhaps, a patchwork of the blacks so deep and whites so bright that they could never blend to form a gray. In this sense, Ed Vrdolyak was different from any skilled practitioner of machine politics only in degree.

This fascinating complexity, this perplexing blend of good and evil, that characterizes the likes of Ed Vrdolyak is the reason I created Chairman Eamon DeValera Collins, the protagonist in my novels, The Chairman, A Novel of Big City Politics, and its sequel The Chairman, A Continuing Novel of Big City Politics. (Some might argue that Chairman Collins is the co-protagonist, or even the antagonist, in the sequel. Again, he, like the many real people on whom he is based, is an immensely complicated character.) Chairman Collins, like Eddie Vrdolyak, is a man capable of incalculable good and incalculable evil.

One final note…I often say that the late 25th Ward Alderman Vito Marzullo summed up Chicago politics best when, in response to a question regarding his motivation for entering politics, responded

I entered politics to reward my friends and screw my enemies.”

No beating around the bush, no sugarcoating, no bows to political correctness for the prototypical Alderman and Committeeman Vito Marzullo. But Eddie Vrdolyak came awfully close in summarizing Chicago politics when, in the aforementioned interview with Mike Sneed, said

Hey, not even fishing is on the square.”

Could there be a better subject for a series of novels? I think not.


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