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Chicago scandal takes its toll

Mayor Daley's political future may be in peril, as a city corruption probe begins to yield convictions.

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A once mundane, now quickly growing, investigation into Chicago City Hall hiring and contracting practices has become a relentless drumbeat of indictments, convictions, and front-page headlines that threatens to topple one of America's most monarchical mayors.

It's not that Chicagoans are at all surprised about the idea that patronage, money, and political connections influenced who got jobs. No, what's new this time around, they say, is that people are going to jail for it.

"This city runs on back-room deals," says Jim Faye, a chef reading the day's paper outside a coffee shop, expressing a typical sentiment. "It's more of a lounge act in terms of politics."

Even amid Chicago's storied reputation for corruption, this has been an unusually significant and far-reaching investigation involving 30 indictments and 23 convictions. Those charged have included a top official at the mayor's office of intergovernmental affairs and the former deputy water commissioner, who pleaded guilty to taking bribes, shaking down companies for political contributions, and rigging hiring. With a number of cooperating witnesses, including the water czar, the investigation is far from over.

What's remarkable is that for the first time, Mayor Richard M. Daley seems politically vulnerable. His approval ratings are the lowest since he was elected in 1989. Beneath the apparent cynicism over corruption, many Chicagoans seem genuinely to care about the finding and don't accept his repeated statements that he has nothing to do with hiring. One Republican official even offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could provide information leading to Mr. Daley's conviction. The next election is two years away, but the notion of a legitimate challenger and potential Daley defeat - once a laughable premise - is now an open discussion.

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