Owner of CLOUT license plate is retired from the Chicago Police Department. (CLOUT license plate / Mary Schmich/Chicago Tribune)
If you had to guess who owns the quintessential Chicago license plate, you would probably guess wrong.
A swaggering alderman? A rich contractor? The head of a city department fat with patronage?
If, however, you had to guess what the quintessential Chicago license plate says, you might get it right.
It’s the word that the legendary columnist Mike Royko once defined as "political influence, as exercised through patronage, fixing, money, favors, and other traditional City Hall methods."
In short: CLOUT.
For years I’ve seen the word on a license plate around my neighborhood, wondering every time it passes who scored such a prize.
Finally, the other day, I scouted out Diego Flores and he told me the story.
"There were guys in our neighborhood that were hot rod guys," is how Flores, who is 61, began. "I was always a big-car guy."
He means the neighborhood of West Town, just south of Chicago Avenue near Superior Street.
"It was a mixture of people," he said. "Lot of Italians, Polish, Ukrainians, Germans, not too many Hispanic people. My parents were born in Mexico."
Near the end of high school, Flores went to work at a Cadillac dealership, imagining a career selling cars, and at 21, he bought a Lincoln Continental Town Coupe.
"Black roof, black exterior," he said. "I liked all black. Still, to this day, like all black."
His Lincoln, like all cars in Illinois, had a numerical license plate, but in 1980, when the state began offering vanity plates, Flores thought about an ad he’d once seen for an upcoming news story on the big cars illegally parked near City Hall. In the ad, one of the cars showed a fake plate that said CLOUT. He liked it. Maybe he could get that for real.
"Sure enough," he said, "I applied."
Turns out, as he recalls it, other people also wanted the CLOUT tag, so a lottery was held. He won. And ever since, he has driven around Chicago with a plate that is both coveted and reviled.
When Flores entered the police academy in 1982, after realizing police work was a more reliable career than selling cars, his plate made him a target for teasing.
"I got a lot of grief about it in the academy," he said.
He’s gotten grief from strangers too.
"For instance, if somebody’s going slow down the street and you pass them, they’ll pull up and say, ‘You think because you have clout, you can drive like you do?’"
Once his car was towed and when he went to pick it up in the pound, he found a sticker attached, and in the spot to record the license number, someone had written, "CLOUT Ha Ha."
When he still lived at home with his parents, he kept his car in the garage, but after he moved a few miles north, in 1989, he parked on the street. The plate was stolen three times.
"I ended up getting these special screws so the plate wouldn’t be pulled off," he said.
Not all the reaction is bad. People often stop to take photos of the plate, and he’s happy to let them, though he says he’s not a guy who likes attention.
"Just the opposite," he said.
He also doesn’t like the clout system.
"There were a lot of city workers in the old neighborhood," he said. "I never really liked the way the city hired back then. I couldn’t afford to go to college. I worked right away. These kids would get the city jobs. I never was a big fan of patronage jobs. I never respected that system."
He’s thought about trading the plate in, but CLOUT is a hard thing to give up. Besides, in recent years, the tag has been on the car his wife, Mary Ann, drives. They call it the Cloutmobile.
"Oh my God," she recalls telling him, "I don’t want that on my car."
She didn’t want anyone to think, "Who the heck does she think she is?"
Sometimes people ask if "Clout" is her last name, or what "clout" means. Occasionally someone pulls up next to her and glares.
"Most of the time I forget about it," she said, "but sometimes people look and I think, ‘what are they looking at?’"
She and her husband, who is retired from the police force, are good-humored about the pleasures and perils of having the quintessential Chicago license plate.
And as vanity plates have proliferated, they say, CLOUT is less remarkable. In fact, many newcomers arriving from other places don’t even know what it means.
For those people, I’ll end with a quote from Royko, who once wrote that the best way to understand clout was to hear it used in a sentence, as in, "My tax bill this year is $1.50. Not bad for a three-flat, huh? I got clout in the assessor’s office."