You might think that a 17-count indictment would nix a congressman's chances for re-election. Not if he hails from Chicago. And not if his name is Daniel D. Rostenkowski.
Despite federal charges of embezzling public money, mail fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice, the Democrat's political career appears to be far from over - at least as far as his constituents, political experts and many Chicago leaders are concerned.In fact, the brawny and often brusque Democrat, who was forced last week to surrender his powerful post as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after the indictment was issued, is expected to easily win his 19th term in Congress in November.
Chicago is a city where the Democratic political machine has reigned for decades and political loyalty means everything. And voters have been loyal to Rostenkowski, 66, since they first elected him to the Illinois Legislature in 1952.
Rostenkowski, who is expected to be arraigned Friday, has professed his innocence. He refused to accept a plea bargain that would have sent him to prison for six months and ended his congressional career.
He has been so popular with Chicago voters that he rarely campaigned for re-election. It was only after the May 1992 announcement of the federal investigation, followed by a narrow victory in the November election that year, that he hit the campaign trail for the next election. In March, Rostenkowski's hard campaigning throughout Chicago resulted in clinching the Democratic primary.
"Certain names in Chicago bring about certain reactions," said Michael Patrick Flanagan, Rostenkowski's Republican opponent in the upcoming November election. "Just the appearance of that name on the ballot will draw some votes. Besides, Chicagoans are not big on change."
Flanagan, a 31-year-old lawyer, is virtually unknown to Chicago voters. Even Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a fellow Republican, mispronounced Flanagan's name recently. But he got it right the second time, Flanagan said.
Although the influential Rostenkowski, who stands 6 feet 2 inches tall and tips the scales at 240 pounds, may be a shoo-in for another congressional term, he is in for the legal fight of his life.
Known as "Rosty" to voters, he is accused of misusing public funds, including taking money in exchange for the vouchers that members of Congress used to purchase stamps, using taxpayer money to buy vehicles for himself and his family, and putting 14 persons on his congressional payroll who did little or no official work.
One of the 14 so-called ghost payrollers is Lt. Anthony Ramirez, 50, a Chicago Fire Department inspector. In a recent interview with The Kansas City Star, Ramirez said he worked for Rostenkowski for 16 years as a part-time photographer and was paid $20,000 - always in cash.
Ramirez said he was brought into the investigation after questions arose about the work he performed for Rostenkowski and whether public money was used to pay for personal work.
But Ramirez said he was thankful the congressman gave him an opportunity to work for him. He said he would gladly work for him again.
"I was lucky," Ramirez said. "I got a chance to work for the biggest guy in the state. He's the last dinosaur of old-style Chicago politics."
Ramirez said he also would back Rostenkowski in an election.
"Yes, I'd vote for him," he said. "And so would my family."
Mayor Richard Daley, a longtime Rostenkowski ally, said he also stood by the congressman.
"Sure, I support him," the mayor said. "I'm a friend of his."
Daley's father, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, helped shape Rostenkowski's political career.
The younger Daley thinks Rostenkowski's political career will not topple from the federal charges. He refused to say, however, whether he believed his pal was guilty.