I didn’t see the shakedown coming as I approached Butch McGuire’s on Division Street for the first party of the holiday season on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. But there he was, the “perp,” wearing a Santa Claus hat and ringing a bell behind the Salvation Army kettle outside the entrance. The perp was actually my longtime colleague Thom Serafin, host of the party and public affairs consultant extraordinaire. “Andy Shaw,” he said with a trademark Cheshire cat grin on his face. “You wouldn’t want anyone to say you went in without giving, would you?” So I tossed a buck in the bucket and headed into Butch’s, thinking—behind a smile of my own—that pay-to-play is still the coin of the realm in Chicago, even in its most innocent form…

Serafin, as gracious and generous a maven as you’ll ever meet, hosts the first and one of the best parties of the holiday season, attracting an eye-popping array of movers and shakers from business, politics, media and government. Drink whatever you like for as long as you want. Nosh on mini-burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, corned beef sandwiches and corn dogs. And schmooze to your heart’s content, from one end of the packed establishment to the other. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Oh, the things you see, hear and learn along the way as you catch up with friends, foes and rivals who span a professional lifetime on the Windy City scene.

From my standpoint, running the Better Government Association, it’s interesting to hear a former state senator suggest that we target the multitude of wasteful, duplicative and unnecessary units of government in Illinois. Thanks—we’re on it. Or the husband of a former Illinois state comptroller urging a closer look at the political hacks responsible for the city, state and suburban pension fiascoes. We’re there. Or a former Daley aide offering to help us hold mayoral candidates accountable. Offer accepted. Talk about a working party.

The soiree also features several candidates for mayor (sorry, Rahmbo’s a no-show), some so-close-but-not-quite ex-candidates (hello Bill Brady), former government insiders, influential lobbyists and enough TV, radio and print folks to create a potentially volatile mixture. Barbs and brickbats in bars beget bloody battles. But not on this night—the holiday spirit trumps the enmity, and everyone is on his or her best behavior.

Some of the public officials the BGA’s criticized the most for controversial hires, questionable office practices and apparent conflicts of interest—soon-to-be former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and Board of Review member and assessor-elect Joe Berrios—are all smiles, awkward and forced perhaps, but smiles just the same—as we shake hands politely, engage in small talk and put our professional differences aside, at least temporarily. Kind of like a post-game hug or handshake between combatants who’ve tried to knock each other’s heads off during a football game. Definitely surreal, and possibly disingenuous because the disagreements are serious and real. But they don’t have to play out at a party that kicks off the holiday season.

The rest of the evening is more genuinely playful banter with old friends and colleagues. There’s former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, whose fear of flying probably cost him the 2002 Democratic nomination for governor because he didn’t spend enough time downstate, and Rod Blagojevich did. Paul now runs the Recovery School District of Louisiana, but he’s also consulting on education in Haiti and Chile. He’s in town to endorse his old Chicago School Board partner Gery Chico for mayor, and we’re thinking he might be back to run the Chicago schools again if Chico wins. Just then up walks Gery’s communications director, Brooke Anderson, on loan from the Serafin firm, to extol the virtues of Chico’s recent transparency initiative. Followed by former Chicago alderman Manny Flores, who runs the Illinois Commerce Commission when he’s not joining Brooke to extoll the virtues of Mr. Chico.

Next to sidle by is my longtime competitor on the political beat, Dick Kay, working the room like he used to late at night in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. As he goes by, I turn around to notice, sitting on a stool at a nearby table, former state senator and soon-to-be-former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, who was swept out by a Tea Party activist after one term in office. She tells me, with a look of relief, that she’s done with politics. “I’m out of it,” she says. We’ll see.

I also find time to check in with one of Serafin’s best clients, ageless racetrack owner Dick Duchossois, who says he’s too young to retire, especially with the prospect of slot machines at the track back on the table. He’s known fondly as “Mr. D.” I wave across the room to Serafin’s loyal lieutenant, Betsy Sales, who still hasn’t stopped celebrating the victory of her Wal-Mart clients in the most recent round of “Council Wars.” Veteran gadfly Charlie Serrano explains his umpteenth business venture in Cuba, where we joined ex-Gov. George Ryan on a fascinating news story junket in the late 1990s.

Finally a quick nod to Bruce Dold, who runs the stellar Tribune editorial page, and a brief Q&A about the news business and real life with the inseparable Bragiel sisters. And then, sad to say, I’m out of there for an appearance on FOX Chicago’s 9 p.m. news to discuss our investigative partnership story about abuse of the “Free Rides for Seniors” transit program. Reporter Dane Placko tells me he’s heading over to Butch’s after the story airs, and I think about tagging along for Round 2. But the day’s been long enough, so I opt for home.

Whether we make the news, cover it or comment on it as civic watchdogs, ours is a small world. We have different and oft-competing agendas as we go about our jobs, and we frequently disagree. Strenuously and stridently. But it doesn’t have to be disagreeable personally, and usually it’s not, which is a pleasant takeaway from a Serafin party that starts the holiday season on a perfect note. On a night when a shakedown and pay-to-play gambit produces a smile…instead of a subpoena.