March 18, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Al Sanchez sat in the witness box Tuesday doing what defendants in federal corruption trials seldom do.
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Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin
Jurors couldn't take their eyes off of him as defense attorney Thomas Breen did as masterful an Irish step dance as any that was being performed around the city on St. Patrick's Day.
The power Sanchez once held as Mayor Daley's commissioner of Streets and Sanitation was nowhere to be seen as the 61-year-old, sweater-clad Sanchez gave jurors his life story as a Mexican-American child of Slag Valley, otherwise known as the steel mill neighborhoods of Chicago's Southeast side.
Breen: Tell us about your father.
Sanchez: He was born in a boxcar.
What followed was Sanchez describing how often he passed employment tests at a variety of steel mills only to be turned away because Hispanics weren't welcome. How he learned, a soldier coming home from Vietnam, to avoid Coors beer because Coors' hiring policy was "Mexicans need not apply."
"I started drinking Bud," he said to laughter in the courtroom.
Sanchez is the highest-ranking member of the Daley administration to go on trial. It hasn't gone well for those who went before him, including Robert Sorich, the mayor's former patronage chief, who now sits in a federal prison for rigging city hiring to reward the politically well-connected.
Sorich and his co-defendants didn't take the stand.
Sanchez and his co-defendant, former right-hand man Aaron DelValle, decided to gamble.
At issue is whether Sanchez's role in the Hispanic Democratic Organization was to empower Latinos or to create a formidable political army dedicated to the election and re-election of Mayor Richard M. Daley. And to, in turn, reward loyalists with city jobs, depriving other applicants of a fair or fighting chance of getting hired.
Did HDO actually stand for Hispanic Daley Organization?
"I've been known to call it such," said 22nd Ward Ald. Ricardo Munoz by phone Tuesday.
Munoz, also a Mexican American, was appointed by Daley to the Council in 1993, but his independent streak quickly put him on the outs with the mayor. The HDO never rode to his rescue, fielding opponents in every election since.
"It's easy for HDO supporters to hide behind the populist empowerment banner. If that's the case, why are the Hispanic numbers inside the Daley administration so dismal?" said Munoz. "Look at the the CTA, the Police Department, the CHA, Fire Department ... the numbers are not reflective of a sympathetic administration."
Make no mistake, federal prosecutors in both the Sorich and the Sanchez trials have the Daley administration on trial too as they attempt to climb up the ladder in the direction of the fifth floor of City Hall, where hiring was directed by the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
But Sanchez's legal team is making that their defense. That it wasn't Sanchez who hired or fired, it was the mayor's operatives above him who made the real decisions.
Watching the jury, I had to wonder if the dismal economy coupled with the outrage citizens feel about higher-ups who reap great rewards at the expense of workers further down the ladder, won't have some traction in this trial.
Could the current climate benefit Sanchez? Dominic Delgado, an old friend who came to show his support, hopes something will help.
"He didn't shoot anybody," argued Delgado sitting outside the courtroom. "He didn't rob a bank or steal money."
What the jury will decide -- as soon, perhaps, as today -- is whether the defendant who was denied jobs because he was Hispanic ended up denying jobs to others for equally unfair and illegal reasons.
"I believe in my heart I'm innocent," Sanchez told me Tuesday in the hallway.
It won't matter.
Only the jury has to believe him.