Putting the Fix in for Reform
Improving politics and government in Chicago
See Illinois (unpublished)
More than 14,000 words on political reform movements in Chicago. Is this really how I spent my life?
The topic had been written about in the past, of course. Political science professor and 1970s reform alderman Dick Simpson has written more than a dozen books about how to reform Chicago politics. James L. Merriner wrote one of the best in Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833–2003 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), which explains these recurring conflicts in conflicting class, ethnic, and religious values.
Too often, however, reform efforts are treated as comic relief in the larger dramas written about the city’s politicians, derision that owes to reform’s long association with effete types such as college professors and the clergy.
From my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture; its length suggests why the larger work was never published.
It had become plain enough by the 1880s that Chicago politics and government as then constituted was inadequate to the task of running the new industrial Goliath that the city had become. There was no shortage of ideas about how to fix things—put more politics into government, take politics out of government, change the rules, change who holds office, change who votes for them—but little agreement about which of those ideas had merit.
The result was a scattering of loosely related movements—open primary, recall, and in later day what became known as community organizing—to apply democracy to a wider range of public decisions, to bring self-government closer to the People by giving them the power to make their own laws through the initiative and referendum, and to extend the franchise by women’s suffrage to a new class of voters.
The Goo-Goo Movement
Ask a Chicago pol about reform, and you can get a reply much like that of the lifelong smoker—it’s easy to quit. I’ve done it dozens of times. What came to be known as the goo-goo movement— “good government” —had more effect on Chicago politics than most mayors, although, like all efforts at reform, its successes were few, hard-won, and short-lived, and none has had permanent improving effects on the city’s public life.
Good-government reformers were obliged to wage a multifront campaign on what was a complex set of interrelated problems. Depending on the era, politics was seen by reformers as the problem, sometimes as the solution. Reforms sometimes aimed to put more politics into government—as when formerly appointive offices were opened to direct election by voters—or taking it out of government, as was the case with anti-patronage laws.
“Good government” thus meant different things to different people. To the working guy in the wards, it might mean a alderman who is bribe-able at a price working people could afford. To the aggrieved leftist, it meant a City Hall that was as biased in his cause as it usually was in the cause of the bosses. For the workers, the immigrants, the outcasts, “reform” was often less a matter of protests over dirty dealing than attempts by these outsiders to get in on the action.
As usually understood, good government was defined by the middle class that pushed hardest and most successfully for their set of reforms in the forms of strong doses of honesty, efficiency, and rationality. These “goo-goos”—a dismissive coinage from a later era—sought to apply to the problems of government the essentially Protestant virtues. The women of Hull House for example extended their maternalist agenda to include housekeeping at the civic level. They had modest enough ambitions at first; one of the project’s early undertakings was nagging the men at City Hall to, in effect, take out the trash in the Near West Side. They would eventually put public finances on a sounder basis in dozen ways, They thus were a major force for modernization.
Reform’s real champions came from the business world. Businesspeople made natural reformers. They knew how to run large organizations—unlike most patronage workers, who were concerned with efficiency only when it came time to get out their share of the vote in their wards. They had a stake in the city since they paid most of the taxes, and they were used to bossing other people around. And they had a grievance—city government that took more in taxes (and bribes) than it gave them back in services.
In 1874, the issue was the city fire department's ineptitude in fighting fires. Having just rebuilt the city center after the Great Fire, the business community was not in mood to do it again. The Citizens' Association—in fact, businessmen wearing civic suits—was organized to push “honest” and “efficient” government—meaning a city government that would not let its pursuit of profits interfere with theirs. These would be the holy grails of business reformers for decades to come.
The elite business members of the Union League Club, founded in 1879, had striven to make Chicago a place deserving of their residence in it. The Club had a broad agenda of civic reform that included political improvement projects that had members tilting at such windmills as the installation of voting machines, protection of the City of Chicago’s municipal personnel code, judiciary reform, adoption of the city-manager form of government (more on that later) and eliminating wasteful patronage hiring in the Metropolitan Sanitary District.
In the 1890s and into the 1900s, Chicago spawned goo-goo groups like the human body spawns antibodies after being infected by a cold. The Civic Federation opened for business in 1893, and the City Club was founded in 1903. The Bureau of Public Efficiency was founded in 1910 by Julius Rosenwald, who hoped to get City Hall running as smoothly as his Sears Merchandise operations.
Not all of these groups were dedicated solely to good government; some, such as the prestigious social clubs, were not reform organizations per se. Nonetheless, all committed themselves to at least some good government goals.
Just in time for the world’s fair in 1893, William Stead published the book, If Christ Came to Chicago whose message was, Christ wouldn’t want to do business here. The middle class was briefly roused from its customary torpor to political consciousness, and a fitful activism. Chicago’s new class of social critic and thinker provided the program, but it was the enlightened businessman—and in those days they were all men—who provided the push for change in the form of money and political backing.
Embarrassed business and civic elites in 1984 formed an ecumenical reform outfit they called the Chicago Civic Federation (later the Civic Federation of Chicago). Of necessity it too took up the good government cause, as it was believed that even if bad government didn’t cause all the woes of what was then a very woeful city, it was keeping good people from curing them. The Civic Federation demonstrated in 1896) that it could clean the central streets for slightly over half what the city was paying, it originated the movement for vacation schools and other educational advances, and started the Committee of One Hundred (1897), from which sprang various other reform clubs.
There were many other clubs, again peopled mainly by business leaders, that were formed with expressly reformist agendas. The Municipal Voters' League (1896), the Legislative Voters' League (1901), the Municipal Lecture Association (1902), the Referendum League of Illinois (1901), the Civil Service Reform Association of Chicago, the Civil Service Reform Association of Illinois (1902), the City Club (1903), the Law and Order League (1904), Society of Social Hygiene (1906), and many of the women's clubs took an active part.
Clubs formed for other purposes also put their members’ collective shoulders to the wheel. The Union League Club originally blended patriotism and profit, but came to back election reform, the formation of the Chicago Crime Commission, the adoption of a new state constitution, civil service for the City of Chicago, and public spending for public hospitals and asylums—then still innovations—parks, police, libraries, and public baths.
Likewise, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago was set up in 1893. The parent club is one the city’s oldest organizations of business, professional, educational, and cultural elites. Its aim is to improve the general business environment; it is distinguished from a chamber of commerce by its realization that economic development in the broader sense includes not only what it calls “reasonable” local tax and regulatory structures but sound and effective local government services, superior transportation and communication networks, strong education and training systems, and decent health care.
Exhortation (aimed at the middle-class voter) and education were the principal means of public persuasion. As for education, they acted on the naïve faith that the voting public, apprised of facts, would back good policies. Before that could happen, of course, the facts had to be amassed. The model of field research perfected by universities and settlement houses such as Hull House was within a decade adopted by public agencies. In 1914 for example the Chicago City Council approved the creation of a Department of Public Welfare to conduct social research. Reform mayors such as Carter Harrison II equipped City Hall with such appurtenances as a Municipal Reference Library and a Bureau of Statistics. Martin Kennelly set up fact-finding commissions that did useful work in such areas as home rule and municipal finance. Chicago might not have been the best-run city in the country in the early 20th century, but it was one of the best-informed about itself.
Alas, the fact-finding apparatus at City Hall did not long survive the departure of the reform-minded mayors who built it. An exception was the Chicago Municipal Reference Library, which led a useful life for 92 years until it too fell victim to budget cuts.
As for ends, goo-goos to this day seek to improve the basic administrative processes of city government by applying to them the kinds of modern business practices (such as centralized purchasing) that most of them mastered in their firms. The members of the the Merchants' Club for example volunteered as consultants in proposing reforms to City Hall’s book-keeping system.
A favorite target was not corruption per se—the business class in Chicago was adept in the arts of the bribe when it suited their interests—but the waste that is its commonest symptom. Money spent on employees who never showed up to work, on inflated contracts, on kickbacks by politicians was money that might have been spent reducing taxes—the civic reformer’s perennial dream.
However, reformers understood all too well that the best processes in the world will do little to improve agency performance if they were put in the hands of staff who were picked for their jobs because of party loyalty rather than skill. To remedy that meant changing the ways city workers were hired and fired, and central to that hope was taking patronage out of the personnel system through adoption of civil service.
Putting Public Employees to the Test
Civil service was a central tenet of goo-goo theology. The spoils system was not only the practice in Illinois until 1895 but the law, when then-governor John Peter Altgeld reformed public of hiring. Chicago’s Civic Federation and the Civil Service Reform Federation went to Springfield to push for a law setting up merit hiring in Chicago; it passed, subject to the voters’ approval, which they gave overwhelmingly. The now-familiar apparatus of nonpolitical hiring—exams for positions, promotion by merit or seniority rather than clout, firings only for cause, and an appointed commission to administer it all—was put in place.
Civil service, alas, proved not quite the panacea that its backers promised it would be. The younger Carter Harrison was for the spoils system, so long as it did not materially impede efficient government, but he was also against civil service, which he thought kept as many good people from jobs as bad ones. “I criticized an examination for patrolman in which among others equally far from the point the question was propounded as to the best and shortest route between Chicago and Tokio,” he wrote in 1935. “A fictitious Irishman was portrayed as leaving the examination room with the statement: ‘If that’s one of the beats, be-Gorrah! I don’t want the job!’”
Joan Gittens, in her history of Illinois programs for dependent children, relates how in the early years of the reform Juvenile Court, probation officers were paid by various Catholic and Protestant organizations who backed the reform. In 1905, the legislature passed an amendment to the Juvenile Court Act providing public money for those salaries. By making probation officers public employees, the new law made them subject to civil service regulations. Asked why he wanted to be a probation officer, one of the former Catholic officers replied that he was especially fit for it, “having had the charge of four boys who bid fair to be criminals, and made priests of all four.” This kind of answer meant that not one Catholic probation officer was deemed by examiners to be fit to work with the dependent and delinquent children of Cook County, a very considerable percentage of whom were Catholic.
Goo-goos Get Out of Town
Good government never came to Chicago partly because so many members of the reform-minded middle class began moving to the suburbs as fast the railroads could be built to carry them and taking their votes with them. The brief flowering of reform sentiment in the city at the end of the 19th century owed much to the fact that voters who had already moved out found themselves back in the city, thanks to the massive annexations of middle-class neighborhoods such as happened in 1889.) There, on the mostly clean slates of the new residential towns, reformers wrote new rules for new kinds of local government.
Typical of the men and women who led the suburban fights for city halls as neat and tidy as the local lawns was Henry Demarest Lloyd. Lloyd had the political itch as a young man but was no good at it and so sought to improve the world with his pen. It was Lloyd’s muckraking journalism that helped bring down New York City’s Boss Tweed in the Tammany Hall scandals. He continued exposing the greedy and the crooked after moving to Chicago and a post at the Tribune in 1878; his magazine expose of 1881 of Standard Oil Company made him famous. Over the years he aimed his pen at child labor, inhumane insane asylums, and corrupt unions. He argued for academic freedom, and for women's suffrage, and for justice for the oppressed worker. He also was among the few who plead publicly for commutation of the Haymarket anarchists.
Lloyd lived in Winnetka, and followed the maxim that reform begins at home. Lloyd with other civic fathers developed the Village Improvement Association and the Winnetka Town Meeting, the latter a forum for residents to hear such speakers as Jane Addams (a personal friend) and Clarence Darrow. He was among those who saw to it, in 1915, that Winnetka was run by citizen caucus rather than political parties, served as council president and town treasurer, and backed plans for Winnetka’s publicly-owned water and power plants, which was as close to socialism as the suburbs ever got.
Throw the Bums Out!
The public was never perfectly indifferent to corruption, only when it got so bad that it embarrassed them or frightened them or cost them too much money or excluded them from the process. A fair chunk of the people of Chicago wanted reform. They didn’t want in extreme amounts, or all the time—like medicine, they would swallow it only when it was necessary. They did back politicians, indeed whole parties dedicated to reform of one kind of another. For long time, therefore, government and political reform in Chicago was the province of politicians, acting as politicians do.
Sometimes the vehicle for reform were new political parties formed for the purpose such as the People’s Tickets in the 1860s. Such parties seldom lasted very long, and none ever had citywide success, although their existence nudged the mainstream parties toward reformish positions.
One faction of Chicago businessmen-reformers concluded that if they couldn’t make then-aldermen better men, the only alternative was to make better men aldermen. That meant not merely talking about, studying, or recommending about politics but actually doing it. And in fact the reform organization that had the most lasting influence was the one that was run like a political party— the Municipal Voters League, founded in 1896 by reformers eager to oust the Gray Wolves from their dens in City Hall and replace them with aldermen who would back merit hiring and clean up the transit franchise system.
The MVL observed all the reform rituals by publishing candidate credentials and incumbents’ voting records. More usefully, the League set up a political action committee in every ward and made deals with several powerful ward politicians trading patronage for votes on issues that mattered to it. On many occasions it supported a bad guy if that meant keeping a worse one from being elected. Lincoln Steffens, in his autobiography, aptly described Walter L. Fischer, the League’s influential secretary, as “a reform boss.”
The MVLs of the current era is the Independent Voters of Illinois and the Independent Precinct Organization, or IVI/IPO, whose influence is most felt in Chicago and Cook County. It is a good-government throwback; the organization describes itself as dedicated to “an idealistic vision of open, honest government in Illinois through pragmatic means that confront cynicism and corruption with equal force.” Campaign finance and ethics reform are among the IVI/IPO’s perennial issues. To achieve these miracles the IVI/IPO uses tools scarcely updated from the turn of the 20th century—voter registration, voter information and candidate endorsement, and reforms designed to open the system to broader public participation.
As there was never an enduring citywide constituency for reform, reformist politicians had influence usually only at ward level. They were generally ignored except when the party needed to clean up its image; However, the successful party bosses sensed when too much was too much, and when “the boys” overstepped the boundaries of the prudent—as all did eventually—the parties acted quickly to win back public trust by slating, and sometimes even backing reformers, whom they temporarily embraced, as gingerly as a clergyman might embrace an Everleigh Club whore.
The result is that the city in the modern era has elected a few avowedly reformist mayors. Among them was Carter Harrison II. Carter Harrison II did not favor moral reform—he ran open city—but was a goo-goo nonpareil. A Brahmin by upbringing he shared the good-government ethos of that class, with politically convenient exceptions, Harrison’c governing coalition included the Municipal Voters’ League, which worked for the election of honest aldermen on a nonpartisan basis. He backed—and fought for—home rule for municipalities, open primaries, and giving voters referendum power to decide public policy questions.
Since Harrison’s retirement, Chicago has elected four avowedly reformist mayors—six if one counts the Harrisons—Edward F Dunne (1905–07), William Dever (1923–27, Martin Kennelly, and Harold Washington (1983–87). Most are remembered not because they achieved much, but because of what they attempted to achieve, or simply because they were, by virtue of wanting to reform, deemed interestingly eccentric. They usually were—and are—only nominally members of their party organizations. They were tolerated by party regulars for the sake of the (few)votes they command, and because they function as serum against toxic public image.
A reform politician who must work through a decidedly unreformed city council was never going to have any easy time of it, and so it has proven again and again in Chicago. Perhaps the best—and more traffic example—was that of Edward F. Dunne. Dunne was elected mayor in 1905. He set about staffing City Hall with outsiders recruited from the ranks of the universities, business, and do-gooder orgs. His agenda, broadly speaking, was to put government at the service of organized labor, consumer groups, social workers and teachers, and to reward the middle class with fairer taxes, more efficient utility regulation, and better schools and public sanitation.
Most of this program was achieved. As historian John Beunker notes, his administration achieved lower utility rates for the citizens, compelled utilities to pay for the use of public thoroughfares, expanded the role of teachers and parents in public education, collected delinquent taxes from some of the city’s wealthiest corporations and estates. Most crucially, Dunne tried to put the transit system under public ownership, to eliminate a major source of city council graft and provide better service. (In the end the deal failed not because it was too radical but because it was too complicated for all the interested parties to work out.)
Dunne’s attempt to introduce municipal socialism into this most capitalist of cities eventually failed; Chicagoans wanted better transit service, they didn’t necessarily want socialism. The effort, says historian Buenker, was “the most serious challenge to the existing order ever managed in Chicago.” The attention it focused on the manifold failure of regulated private ownership of this most important public service forced the companies involved to ultimately accept stricter regulation and finally consolidation.
While Dunne allied himself with social critics, independent radicals, activist intellectuals, settlement house workers, and labor leaders, he was himself was anything but a radical leftist, being a family man, good catholic, and long-time county judge. Indeed, as Historian John Buenker surmises, Dunne’s belief in muni socialism had roots in that very common Chicago background. As an Irishman he identified with the social underdog, and his Catholic upbringing stressed the interdependence of social classes, the responsibility of the more fortunate for the less.
Dunne went on to be elected governor of Illinois in 1913. Donald Tinglet, an historian of the period, has called the one-term Dunne administration “an illustrious one in the progressive tradition.” During his term Dunne saw to the creation of a state public utilities commission, expanded suffrage for women, set up the Legislative Reference Bureau, required that lobbyists be registered and pushed—unsuccessfully—to give Illinoisans the power to decide laws for themselves through the initiative and referendum in wide use in the Western U.S.
The Democratic party turned to a reformer again for the 1923 mayoral race. William Dever was slated to take on Big Bill Thompson, whose corruption was too flagrant even for the Chicago of the extravagant ‘20s. Dever’s road to Damascus began in the 1890s, when the attorney joined the political discussion groups at the Chicago Commons settlement house. Its founder was also a leader in the good-government Municipal Voters’ League, and Dever was persuaded to run as alderman in 1902. In eight years in that rocky vineyard, Dever plugged for honest government, improved schools, more parks and playgrounds, bigger and better public works. Unlike Thompson, who admitted the Capone mob as part of his governing coalition, Dever fought the mob’s influence on the streets and in City Hall.
As mayor, Dever set about turning city hall into a showcase for progressive government. To promote efficiency and tighten management, he initiated a complete survey of metropolitan government. He revamped the city personnel system by placing more than two thousand patronage jobs back under civil service protection. He also took on transit, public works, and schools—Schmidt credits him with installing one of the finest school boards in the city’s history.
Dever’s ability to make his reform agenda real was crippled politically by his principled commitment to strict enforcement of Volstead Act. A law is a law, he argued, even a stupid one, as he thought Prohibition was. Inevitably, his crackdown on booze excited the enmity of ward bosses in immigrant wards; they, some historians believe, sabotaged Dever’s program in retaliation, and he left office after a single term.
Martin Kennelly was a successful businessman with no experience in office when the Democrats needed a candidate to make people forget the scandal-racked Kelly administration in 1947. In Arnold Hirsch words, “Martin H. Kennelly was as close as the Chicago machine could come to Puritan respectability.”
Kennelly’s reform zeal was, however, a pose in Hirsch’s view. By the standards of the late New Deal, the mayor was quite conservative. His principles had by then gone stale, since he believed in progressivism of the sort that moderate businessmen of Chicago had been pushing for half a century. Even had Kennelly’s commitment to change been more determined, he had little idea how to do it. Ben Adamowski was to say that Kennelly was a nice man who was more fit to be a monsignor than a mayor of Chicago.
Kennelly was tolerated in City Hall by the party regulars for only one term (he was succeeded by the first Mayor Daley) but in that term he did, in fact, tidy up the joint a little. He set up a centralized purchasing department, modernized the police department, installed a decent school board (it needed to be done again, 20 years after Dever had worked same miracle), and took some 10,000 jobs off the patronage lists—thus “reforming” a civil service system that itself had ostensibly reformed hiring a half century earlier.
Richard J. Daley is not usually listed among Chicago’s reformist mayors, but he was, in a way. The political power enjoyed by ward aldermen under Chicago’s weak-major governing structure—they initiated budgets, they enjoyed what amounted to veto of public projects in their wards, they dictated hiring—had made Chicago mayor miserable for decades. As chairman of the Cook County Democratic Organization, Daley took control of the budget process and professionalizing and centralizing ward services under his office, among other changes. The postwar urban renewal and public works aid was dispensed largely through agencies that were run out of the mayor’s office too. From a mayor’s point of view these were good government reforms, meaning they enabled the first Daley to govern as he wanted, rather than as the council wanted.
The nearest thing to a “reform” movement in the 1980s was the election of Harold Washington as mayor. White voters who saw in Washington a Hyde Park progressive were frustrated at his failure to enact reform measures (he was thwarted by a white council majority for much of his tenure) but African American votes, however, tended to see his election as a successful reform. in a city politics in which racism had been so long entrenched, merely being a black man in power was itself progressive.
The Washington era also left us with an illustration of how “reform” can be used to advance interests that are anything but progressive. For nearly 90 years Chicago had chosen its mayoral candidates through party primaries. In 1983 Harold Washington had got onto the ballot as A democrat as white voters split their votes between his two white primary foes, and Washington went on as the Demo nominee to win against nominal Republican opposition. To forestall a minority candidate—minority in either racial or political sense—doing that again, party regulars engineered in Springfield a change in law that called for a nonpartisan election with a run-off between the top two vote getters if no candidate wins a majority. Had the system been in place in 1983, Washington would have had to face the much tougher task of beating his primary runner-up, former mayor Jane Byrne, rather than the unknown Bernard Epson.
Reform still figures in local politics—mayoral challengers to this day ritually rail against the corruption of the incumbent, since all recent ones have been tainted while in office—few organize a campaign around corruption issues. If anti-corruption cannot sustain a campaign it certainly cannot sustain a party and in recent decades reform parties have not existed as a political force. That is because the natural constituents of such a party—the middle class, the core constituency of ‘good government” since the mid-1800s—has largely moved to the suburbs.
Those Radicals from Hyde Park
Businesspeople were the principal backers of Chicago’s political reform organizations, but the middle class also the educated elites also had reform ideals. There have always been pockets of the city—the lakefront wards, for example, where the city’s educated disproportionately congregate—where reform was not a calculated political option but a moral imperative.
Representatives from such districts usually constituted the only permanent reformist opposition in city councils and other bodies. (Ditto the suburbs; North Shore and Oak Park liberals longfunctioned in the Illinois legislature much as Hyde Park and Gold Coast liberals functioned on the city council, being more honored than heeded.) It was also such places—usually but not exclusively the neighborhoods of the city’s more educated and affluent citizens—that supplied the persons and the money and the brains behind reform organizations.
For roughly a century, the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park has been to Chicago reform what Bridgeport has been its regular Democratic Party. If there was a city on the hill where virtue reigned, at least in political terms, it was Hyde Park. Hyde Park (like the north lakefront) was and is, affluent and educated well above the Chicago norm. its citizens, notes Glen Holt, tend to be socially liberal, politically independent, and economically conservative—traits that would define the neighborhood’s stand on a dozen major issues ever since.
What made Hyde Park different from the Gold Coast liberals was the presence of the University of Chicago. It was not only that the campus drew to the neighborhood advanced thinkers. the university itself had long at least tacitly endorsed the involvement of its faculty in improving public affairs. With the backing of the University's early presidents, many a Hyde Parker climbed down from the ivory tower—or rather rode the train out of it on their commute downtown—to carry the gospel to the rest of the city. UC faculty were common presences on the boards and among the volunteers of do-gooder organizations of all kinds.
The university has had most impact through its social scientists, working both inside and outside the classroom. Being full of smart people who knew most about what was wrong with the city, who better to prescribe how to fix it? The university community was at the vanguard in reforms from settlement houses and education (progressive) to politics (clean and nonpartisan) to city planning (efficient) to public housing (integrated), to labor law reform public sanitation and prison reform.
Nor did Hyde Park fail to leave a mark on local arts. renderings of ethnic and/or working-class landscapes in the novels, plays and stories of James T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, Willard Motley, and Richard Wright—all quasi-muckraking—were, as Timothy Spears notes in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, informed by Marxist politics and sociological theories each writer developed during his students years at the University of Chicago.
Saul D. Alinsky was a fabled practitioners of grassroots politics. Born in Chicago when progressivism was at its height, in 1909, he trained in criminology at the University of Chicago. His work with the state agency that dealt with delinquent kids, where he realized, as he later told interviewers that camping trips and museum outings were hardly a cure for the effects on young people of bad housing, discrimination, economic insecurity, unemployment and disease.
The cure, Alinsky was convinced, was to organize the poor into effective local political forces capable of demanding and getting those things. Alinsky was that rarest of creatures, a realistic radical. He began in the still-mostly Irish American Back of the Yards in the 1930s, where he rallied local labor leaders and parish priests behind a program of rent strikes and boycotts aimed at slumlords and the crooked pols who protected them.
In later years, he generaled the Woodlawn Organization (TWO) into a force for in Chicago’s perennial attempts at school reform. His philosophy of neighborhood empowerment was well-suited to the times, and he ended up setting up similar programs first in Chicago, then around the country.
Alinsky was disdained as dangerous but he was a true-blue American—he believed in the democratic process, and aimed to teach the disenfranchised and the discouraged how to take advantage of it for their own benefit; he urged not the overthrow of local power structures, merely use protest for force them to live by their own rules. If not dangerous he was willing to be rude to make a point. He once threatened to bring protesters from a bean dinner to an orchestra concert attended by the mink-stole set. (Threatening to toss stink bombs instead of real bombs suggests how far the city had come from the 1870s.)
For all his apparent radicalism, Saul Alinsky was a reformer who had more in common with the Merriams of the city’s past than its Eugene Debs. He didn’t seek to change the system so much as to use it; he didn’t organize people to win new rights but to take advantage of rights and privileges they already had but did not exploit. In many ways he was a politician who functioned as a ward committeeman might; his principles for building an organization—self-interest and a realistic assessment of the power structure—came right out of Boss Daley’s book. The difference between them was Alinsky believed that clean alleys and so on were matter of right, not who one voted for.
Partisan politics however was different. The university regarded involvement with the parties, usually with good reason, as offering no chance to enhance the university’s reputation, and all too many ways to damage it. Academics famously independent-minded people, however, and several took up party politics nonetheless, in part as an experiment, in part from a genuine conviction that the only certain way to improve politics was from the inside.
As a result, most of the “independent” voices in the City Council since World War I have been Hyde Parkers, and most of them have had University connections. They include State Representative Robert E. Mann), State Senator Richard Newhouse, Congresswoman Emily Taft Douglas, Aldermen Charles and Robert Merriam, alderman and congressman Abner Mikva, alderpersons Leon Despres, Lawrence Bloom, and Toni Preckwinkle. One could not too fancifully describe the university as the Hyde Park ward organization.
The first and in many ways the model of the Hyde Park independent was Charles Merriam. A political science instructor at the university, Merriam was elected alderman as a Republican In 1909. On the City council, he immediately set about making himself such a nuisance—he had uncovering evidence of widespread graft—that his colleagues shut off the Commission's funding and tried to repress its findings.
With the backing of such Hyde Park worthies as Julius Rosenwald, Merriam run for Mayor in 1911. That was the year Chicago's first direct mayoral primary election was held, which gave Merriam a chance to bypass regular party kingmakers. The ensuing campaign, managed by Harold Ickes (AB '97, JD '07), pitted Merriam as a reform Republican against party regulars. Merriam won the nomination, but lost to Carter H. Harrison II in the general election. After a second term in the City Council, Merriam ran unsuccessfully in the 1919 Republican mayoral primary on an internationalist platform against isolationist William Hale Thompson. In the end he reformed the teaching about politics more than he reformed politics.
Harold Ickes (pronounced Ick-ees) was born in Pennsylvania, in 1874, but grew up in Chicago and worked his way through the University of Chicago. He got to know the city both as a newspaper reporter and a lawyer and thus got to see the city from the behind the scenes, or perhaps from the bottom.
Like so many of his generation, Ickes was excited by the progressive social reform espoused by Jane Addams and others of the Chicago settlement house movement. His involvement took a political turn, he acting as campaign manager for Teddy Roosevelt doomed Presidential try in 1912 as the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party candidate.
After service in World War I, Ickes settled in Winnetka on whose behalf he jousted with the likes of Samuel Insull and the Tribune’s Col Robert McCormick—the latter a favorite target of his jibes. Ickes was famously cantankerous, as is reflected in the titles of the books about him—his own life story (The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon) and the biographies Harold L. Ickes: The Aggressive Progressive and The Righteous Pilgrim.
Ickes remained active in politics and rallied progressive Republicans behind the candidacy of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was no Jane Addams, but the New Deal would turn out to be as close to a progressive revolution as any U.S. president would achieve, and Ickes was Happy to join Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1933 as Secretary of the Interior.
Ickes spent 13 years in the Cabinet post—a record—and came to stand for either the best or worst in government, depending on who was doing the judging. Ickes as Interior Secretary channeled for FDR’s’s late cousin Teddy. Ickes was antifascist, pro-civil rights, and pro-environment back when the last was still called conservationism. It was Ickes who helped set up and ran the New Deal Public Works Administration (PWA), which undertook to provide for America’s economically straitened present by paying the unemployed to build for America’s future. Ickes name is not on the Hoover Dam or the Lincoln Tunnel, but it might have been.
Local artifacts of Ickes’ tenure at Interior include Skokie Lagoons, which was one of the Civilian Conservation Corps’s biggest projects. He also shepherded into reality the sunken tracks that allowed commuter trains to pass safely and noiselessly through his hometown of Winnetka. Ickes never worked in the stockyards but he know all about pork.
Charles Merriam’s son Robert followed in his father’s footsteps to the extent of having a University of Chicago academic career and becoming a two-term reform alderman just after World War II. The younger Merriam was described by journalist A.J. Liebling as a town character in his day—“an honest alderman.” Robert even made a run for the mayor’s job as his father had, in 1955, which he lost; Mike Royko would later write that the handsome, smart, and informed Merriam would have been expected to crush Daley in any city but Chicago.
Springfield has seen its share of philosophers of a certain sort in the halls of the State house, but few real ones. T. V. Smith was on the University of Chicago philosophy faculty when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1934. Smith championed various progressive administrative reforms in his two terms there before being elected to Congress in 1938 against the vigorously expressed wishes of the Kelly-Nash Democratic machine that then ran Cook County. Smith had the reformer’s sense of priorities; he passed up an appointment to the prestigious foreign affairs to work on civil service reform. Perhaps realizing that such a naïf was wasted in Washington, the voters disdained to return him in 1940.
Paul Douglas was a professor of economics who, like Charles Merriam, Douglas was introduced to politics via work for a reform commission when in 1929 Douglas headed an investigation of utilities magnate Samuel Insull, that led to Insull's downfall. in 1939 Douglas became a Democratic Hyde Park alderman with the backing of the Kelly machine, then turned around a bit the hand that fed him in the council. After a failed the U.S. Senate race in 1942 and a distinguished service in the Marines in the Pacific (going in as a private, he left as a lieutenant colonel), Douglas In 1948, he ran for the U.S. Senate again and won.
Paul Douglas mentored a new generation of reformers. One of his economics students, for instance, was Leon Despres. Despres was a 20-year Fifth Ward alderman and bete noir of Richard J. Daley. Admirers called him “the conscience of the Chicago City Council.” For his dedication to the standard progressive issues—civic improvements, education, ethics, and good government. He was raised by Hyde Park liberals—he studied economics under Douglas, and When Hyde Park's alderman, Robert Merriam, ran for mayor in 1955, Despres served as chairman of the committee to find an independent replacement. Despres has quoted the Bible, Shakespeare, John Donne, St. Thomas Aquinas, Milton, and Emerson in Council debate. He also undertook quixotic challenges such as ordinances that require public disclosure of city employees' outside income—it would be hard to say which habit struck his fellow council members as odder.
As a group, Hyde Park politicians backed good government of a generally progressive sort, based on disinterested administrators and professionally trained staff implementing policies based on solid research rather than grubby political tradeoffs. All believed that corrupt city administrations could only be changed from the inside. Their stubbornness and integrity are admirable, but they achieved little, at least in the city council. Like most academics they vastly overestimated the power of facts and reason to sway people who did not have chalk on the lapels. The Hyde Parkers frequently faced 49-to-1 defeats in their respective city councils. When they were allowed the occasional win, it was to reform what didn’t matter—mostly symbolic gestures such as creation of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks (which no one listened to) and Chicago's fair housing ordinance (which no one enforced). But if they seldom actually reformed anything, their trying helped keep reform in the mind of the voters as an issue, if not as a possibility.
Judged by energy, commitment, and innovation, these reforms efforts are much to the university’s credit. Judged by extent to which Chicago was actually changed, well, improved the university reputation more than the city. Referring to novelist Robert Herrick, who was member of the Chicago English faculty and such of Herrick’s colleagues as the poet William Vaughn Moody and Thorstein Veblen, critic Robert Bray has noted:
Their traditional role in society was to act as efficacious moral agents, as sorters-out and patchers-up of the social mechanism. But what if nobody seemed to respect such work? The professions were either being ignored by the society at large or, what was worse, even being subverted by the new marching tunes of the Philistines.
And in no city did the Philistine band play louder than Chicago.
Resort to the Law
There is at the moment no reform faction in City Hall, no prospect of a new party or even a winning faction of an existing party that is devoted to reform. After more than a century of seeking to change government by changing the rules through electoral action, have the goo-goos given up?
Perhaps. The failure of reform movements to achieve lasting changes seems to have led much of the public to a new understanding: If you can’t stop them from stealing, at least stop them from enjoying it. The result, as Paul Merriner has written, is that the waves of cleanups of the most recent half century owe not to the demands of outraged publics nor the fulminations of clout-heavy civic groups but to the diligent work of law enforcement professionals and private attorneys suing public officials.
Reform used to mean throwing the bums out. Now it means throwing the bums into jail. It is widely said—sometimes in admiration, sometimes in disappointment—that the only real reformers left in Chicago are U.S. Attorneys. The former are more likely to change the system, but the latter are better able to throw people in jail, which is as much as most people expect.
There are several reasons for the shift. Faith that reform might be efficacious is weak. And while it is often in the interests of state and federal prosecutors to pursue corruption—especially if the miscreants are members of an opposing party--fewer and fewer voters see it in their interest to vote, much less to organize the like-minded.
The resort to the courts was not exactly new. Chicago politicians had always used the courts as a reform tool—to “reform” the other party out of office. Republicans state and federal attorneys in particular go hunting in Cook County the same reason that deer hunters go to Pike County—because that’s were the trophy bucks are to be found in numbers. The conviction of big time Chicago pol is the crowning achievement of a professional career for a prosecutor. More than one has used such cases to catapult himself into politics. Republican Dwight Green appointed in 1926 as special attorney for the federal Bureau of Internal Revenue and later a special assistant on income tax matters to the state’s northern district attorney. It was Green who nailed Al Capone and other mobsters for income tax evasion after many attempts to jail them on more conventional charges had failed. Now a public figure, Green was elected to two terms in Springfield as governor in the 1940s.
James R. Thompson was a young federal prosecutor who specialized in bringing good cases against bad public employees—white cops who beat up black kids, city aldermen and a former Cook County clerk on the take, even a former governor tainted by a race track stock deal. Like Green, Thompson became a name, and in 1976 he was elected to the first of his many terms as governor of Illinois.
Nothing puts the fear of god into a Chicago pol like an honest judge. If Richard J. Daley “stole the election of 1960 for JFK, he didn’t do it to put JFK into office so much as to keep Ben Adamowski out of it; Adamowski was the apostate Democrat and Daley foe, now nominally a Republican, who had been elected Cook County State’s Attorney in November 1956. He had spent next four years making Daley miserable, with successful prosecutions of illegal syndicate gambling dens corruption in the circuit courts, and theft rings run by—not just tolerated by—Chicago police officers, and he was running for re-election in 1960.
Beginning in the 1970s, federal prosecutors have slammed the cash drawer onto the fingers of dozens of local judges, attorneys, aldermen, and contractors. the histories of the era will be organized not around the campaigns of prestige panels of the great and the good, citizen as in the past but of federal search and destroy missions such as "Operation Silver Shovel" (which targeted aldermen bribed to allow illegal construction-debris dumping), "Operation Haunted Hall" (target: ghost payrollers), "Operation Incubator" (which targeted bribery schemes involving aldermen and other city officials and businessmen) and "Operation Greylord" (judges bribed to fix robbery and drunk-driving cases). Since 1972, fifteen aldermen alone have been convicted on federal corruption charges, mostly some form of bribery, extortion, mail fraud or income tax evasion. (In his history of corruption, James Merriner notes that so many former Chicago officials—four alderman, a water reclamation commissioner, and a state representative) were doing time simultaneously at one Wisconsin federal prison that whenever one passed the others in a hall, they jokingly cried out, “quorum call!”)
The methods of reformers, especially reformers in the cloak of prosecutors, tend toward impurity, much as those of corrupt politicians do. Wealthy businessmen employed extralegal means to ease the scourge of 1920s gangsterism; the undercover federal corruption investigation known as Operation Silver Shovel was itself a scam whose methods would have been open to question had not been done by people with badges.
The most significant of the lawsuits attacking corruption resulted in the so-called Shakman decrees. In 1969, an independent candidate for delegate to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention named Michael Shakman sued the Democrats’ county organization, arguing that the patronage support for Machine candidates gave them an unconstitutional advantage. A series of negotiated settlements, court rulings, and finally, in 1983, a court order and a series of consent decrees based on it banned taking politics into account in hiring public employees for non-policy positions.
The Shakman decrees have indeed dramatically reduced the patronage power of the party organization at City Hall. The senior Daley is thought to have controlled some 35,000-40,000 patronage jobs, his son directly controls only two or three thousand. That has diminished the latter’s power less than one might think. Political clout mattered to past mayors because mayor had so little actual statutory authority under Chicago’s governance charter. Beginning with Daley I, power gradually been concentrated in the mayor who determines who runs what through his appointive power and, through his power over the budget process, determines who gets money for which projects. He also staffs the extensive array of agencies that are under his administrative as well as his political control.
Alas, the deterrence effect of imprisonment to deter future wrong-doers is proved weak. As the new century dawned on Chicago, it shone light on some old habits. Federal investigators found massive patronage hiring scheme in city hall, millions of dollars of waste and wrongdoing, and misuse of the city's affirmative-action contracting program. Alderman Mathias “Paddy” Bauler’s famous remark ought to be amended. It is not that Chicago ain’t ready for reform, it’s that Chicago has never been ready for permanent reform.
A major thrust of progressive-era government reform was to expand democracy, either by permitting more citizens to vote, or to expand the range of issues and people they could vote on, or both. The result, it was hoped, would be to restore to the People the powers over their own affairs that had been misused by their elected surrogates.
In the mid-1800s, for example, many city offices were appointed by the City Council, including city clerks and treasurers, city attorneys, and city marshals; reformers pushed for such positions to be made elective, to shift some of the power from very corrupt aldermen to the slightly less corruptible people. Tax assessors, justices of the peace, even police constables were also elected.
But democracy was at war with another progressive principle, efficiency. By World War I, Chicagoland voters were spending as much to elect their city officials as they used to spend bribing them. The ballot in the Chicago general election in 1912 was more than three feet long; in the next general election voters were asked to choose or help choose more than 300 people for sundry offices. The inevitable result of this surfeit of democracy was anti-democratic; voters, if they voted at all, voted a party ticket, or for whichever name was most familiar to them from billboards and banners. The voters also proved not much better at selecting office-holders than the aldermen, so Democracy was saved for speeches. Today all city officials are appointive save for the mayor, clerk, and treasurer.
Although recent mayors—well, those named Daley anyway—have done much to centralize power in the mayor’s office, the formal structure of governance in the city is cumbersome, what with 50 wards, separate bodies dealing with parks and water, regional special purpose governments dealing with planning and sewers, not to mention overlapping county and township governments. Facing so many elections for so many jobs has left the voting public confused and ultimately numb. That suits the politicians just fine, since it is when turnout is low that a well-organized campaign can have maximum impact. A system set up in part to ensure that power resides in the hands of the people rather than the politicians has, perversely, had just the opposite effect.
This is a familiar cycle by now in Chicago. The demand is made to let the people select officials after the politicians have proven inept or corrupt, only for reformers to call for their being made appointive after the people have proven themselves indifferent or uninformed. Elected local school councils were set up in 1989, for example, after Chicago public school parents lost faith in the ability of the school board downtown to run neighborhood schools.
Which contests ought to be settled by voters remains an issue in Illinois to this day. Over the last 200 years the trend has been toward broadening the participation in nominating candidates, taking control away from the few and giving it to millions. Every version of the nominating process—from the caucus method use in the early 1800s to party conventions of delegates elected at the precinct level by party members to the direct primary in which party members themselves elected nominees—was at first hailed as a reform that expanded democracy, only to later be damned as a tool of the bosses and the special interests.
Consider the direct primary. Choosing candidates in Illinois in the latter 1800s and early 1900s was often less a matter of fidelity to party platforms or electability than of placating factions in the form of a “federal crowd,” a “statehouse crowd,” and a bewildering array of mini-machines in Chicago based on ward organizations, such as the William Lorimer, a Chicago manipulator who for years was the “evil genius of Illinois Republicanism.”
In 1904 to pick one famous example, patronage allies Richard Yates (Downstate) and Lorimer backed opposing candidates; the Republican delegates meeting in Springfield had to poll themselves seventy-nine times before compromise candidate Charles Deneen was able to—or perhaps allowed to—prevail. Disgust with this sort of political vaudeville incited the public to approve an advisory referendum later that year that called for an end to the convention nomination system.
Illinois was late in adopting direct primary elections—not, as most assume because of opposition from the political bosses (although they were opposed) but because of repeated objections by the courts. Gov. Charles Deneen helped pass three primary laws between 1905 and 1908 that were all ruled unconstitutional; a law that passed legal muster was not put onto the books until 1910.
The direct primary approved that year certainly seemed an improvement. Rather than few party leaders, choice of each party’s candidates in Illinois was made by potentially millions. Did the direct primary fulfill the hopes of reformers? Historian Donald Tingley has written that the primaries increased the number of candidates and improved the chances of independents. Certainly, the direct primary made possible a number of challenges to boss rule in Chicago, most recently when independents beat regular party candidates in the black wards in the civil rights years.
Whether they have materially improved the level of public administration in Illinois, or the faithfulness with which elected representatives reflect the public will, is a harder question to answer. Eroding the power of the parties has not invigorated democracy, at least judging from the low levels of voter participation in primaries. And the shift from party-leader-nominated to party-member-nominated candidates has also arguably made Illinois politics more strident, as the system favors candidates that appeal to the ideologically committed party members who tend to dominate the turnout in primaries.
The low voter turnout in Illinois primaries may not reflect a poor appetite for politics, but a keen appetite for privacy. The state’s direct primary has been from the start a closed primary, meaning voting for party nominees is closed to people who are not members of the party. In Illinois, you become a member of the party on election day by openly declaring your membership, a declaration that becomes part of the public record.
The closed primary’s many critics insist that by identifying themselves as Democrat or Republican, voters leave themselves vulnerable to political retribution and discrimination in the awarding of public contracts. At a minimum, betraying one’s personal party preference offends many Illinoisans’ more evolved modern sense of privacy.
For more than 30 years, reformers sought to give Illinois an open primary that does not oblige voters in nominating elections to declare their party, or at least does not require that such declarations be public. Opinion polls consistently suggest that overwhelming majorities of Illinoisans who say they would prefer it, but reformers have to date achieved only minor procedural changes, mainly because the state’s major political parties benefit from the existing system. The parties also raise a knotty question of principle: Are primaries meant to express the people’s will or the parties’ wills?
In addition to lacking an open primary, the State of Illinois never adopted measures for direct democracy as the initiative, referendum, and recall of elected officials. Illinois is not Wisconsin, and the larger public, perhaps wisely, resisted taking the power to make laws to themselves. If things went wrong?—which, this being Illinois, they certainly would—who would they have to blame?
Enlarging the Franchise
It remains a matter of wonder to younger Illinoisans that the right of women to fully participate in their own government by the vote is no more ancient an innovation than the automobile or the radio. As recently as 1919 the law still classed females with imbeciles, paupers, and felons on the official list of citizens who were not permitted to cast ballots. Historian Ernest Bogart notes that denial of the vote to whole classes of citizen, such as women, was justified by white males on grounds that the interests of those who did not have the vote were protected by those who did. To which a great many women said, like hell they were.
To some, the problem of poor government could be traced to flaws in the democratic system itself. Women in particular insisted that the problem was not that government was inefficient or misdirected but that—or rather that both were caused by—the fact that the “the people” as a political category was not encompassing enough. women’s votes in particular were expected to doom the liquor industry, support welfare protections for mothers and children, and, in their more extravagant fantasies, bring about peace.
Before they could elevate the world, however, women had first to elevate themselves to the status of full citizens. Campaigns to extend suffrage to women aimed to change that, so that they might take full part in running their city, state, and nation.
The modern movement to grant women the vote was a thing of complex parts. Some saw it as a civil rights issue. In the 1860s, for example, many women argued that the U.S. had ended one form of slavery it was time to end another—the slavery in which men held women by denying them equal protection of the laws.
Others saw women’s suffrage as a social reform movement, a way to wrest control from the men who ran things so poorly. Social reformers as Mary E. McDowell and the Hull house women backed suffrage. So did women of privilege—some eagerly socially enlightened upper- and upper-middle classes such as Louise deKoven Bowen and Ruth Hanna McCormick, who were among the women who formed the pro-suffrage Woman’s City Club of Chicago in 1910) and some more reluctantly, as did the more conservative Chicago Woman’s Club.
However, “reform” is in the eye of the beholder. Both the educated, well-to-do, nearly all white middle- and upper-class women wanted change. So did the mostly immigrant women of the swelling working class. (It was a natural alliance resulting from an unnatural political situation; Chicago women for decades found themselves in much the same political position as people outside the social mainstream.) The problem was that these factions did not want to change the same things.
If it is hard now to imagine how controversial women’s suffrage was in its day, it is even harder to appreciate how controversial it was among women. There was an organized anti-suffragism movement among Chicago women. Some of them believed that women belonged in home and church and should stay there. Others worried that empowering women would free of males of their traditional obligations as protectors and protectors—to which proponents replied that the world in which that tradition evolved had been destroyed by urbanization and industrialization.
Many ethnic and working-class women thought suffrage was a side issue; they had many more pressing concerns. The Women’s Trade Union League did not endorse women’s suffrage until 1907, when possibilities of alliance with middle-class activists suggested themselves after the latter opted to join in a parade to protest the arrest of the then-leader of the International Workers of the World. Such alliances never lasted long, falling victim to disparate social agendas and some ham-handed politics by the middle-class faction, such as doing business with newspapers that the women’s unions had blackballed for unfair labor practices.
The vote was won in the end, of course, thanks mainly to old-fashioned grassroots political organizing. Suffragists in Illinois was doomed to lives of constant travel and public speaking (essential in a day before mass electronic media) and increasingly sophisticated lobbying. They were not above resorting to publicity stunts in the attempt to swing opinion their way.
Under pressure, a series of hurdles fell, one by one, the smallest first. Courts had ruled that allowing women to help select leaders specified in state and federal constitutions that did not themselves authorize the female franchise violated those compacts, but legislators proved willing to extend it in other races. In 1891 the Illinois legislature passed a school suffrage bill allowing women to vote in school elections, a measure passed in part because it was seen even by male lawmakers as consistent with women’s traditional roles as protectors of children.
The right to vote in all kinds of elections was not feasible politically in Illinois until after 1910. A bill to allow women in Illinois to vote for Presidential electors and for all local offices not specified in the Illinois Constitution became law in 1913; that made Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi to grant women the right to vote for President, an opportunity seized upon by a reported quarter million women in Chicago alone.
Women still could not vote for officers of arguably more importance to their day to day lives, such as state representative, Congressman, or governor. Full access to the polls had to wait until 1919, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally was passed. Illinois became the first state to approve this amendment, thanks in no small part to the work of Chicagoland women.
The extension of the franchise was sometimes seen as reform in itself—a right thing to do—and a tool of reform. Women in Chicagoland became a constituency for reform in whatever contests they were allowed to participate in. In 1915, the 232,000 women voting did so in large numbers for good government candidates and against saloons, for school reform and better public health.
Women legislators tended to be reformers. Lottie O’Neill devoted her 26-year career House career to a maternalist agenda that called for better deals for crippled and foster children, widows, reform of schools finding, the eight-hour day, allowing women to serve on juries, bans on the firing of female school teachers because of pregnancy, etc. Bernice Van der Vries, elected from the Progressive bastion of Winnetka, went on to serve ten consecutive terms in Springfield beginning in the 1930s, during which time she advocate of modernizing notions as city manager government and enlightened mental health laws.
Influential from the start, women’s input at the polls was occasionally decisive. In 1914 the indefatigable Ida Wells and the Alpha Suffrage Club supported a black independent instead of the regular machine candidate for alderman. On his behalf they canvassed the black wards block by block and registered three thousand new voters, who nearly put the challenger in office. Savvy party regulars struck a bargain with Wells’ group—the women’s support for the party in return for the party’s pledge to slate an African American for the post in the next election. Historian Maureen Flanagan thus concludes that it was the women of the 2d Ward that enable Oscar De Priest to become, in 1915, Chicago’s first black alderman.
In 1894 Lucy Flower was elected a trustees of the University of Illinois—consistent with the popular view of the time that education was the one sphere of public life in which women, as teachers and mothers, had a legitimate claim to attention. Flower thus became the first woman elected to a statewide office in Illinois. In 1922, Lottie O’Neill, the Du Page County Republican who was the first women elected to the Illinois House.
In spite of such successes, the results never matched suffragists hopes’ that women in voting booth would transform politics or women’s lives. Once the thrill of voting had faded—and women realized how little influence any voter had over politics in Chicago and Illinois—their zeal faded. In Chicago in 1894 30,000 women registered for school board elections (24,000 of whom voted); by 1909, one race saw fewer than 700 register.
Chicagoland women remained scarce in the Illinois General Assembly. In the 1930s only two members were female. No woman was elected to the Chicago City Council until 1971, when Marylou Hedlund and Anna Langford secured seats, and Jane Byrne (1979–1983) is the only woman ever elected mayor.
Historian Ernest Bogart reported that the relative unimportance of local offices, and the parties’ indifference to getting out the female vote were partly to blame. (Sexism cannot be wholly dismissed as cause for women being shunned, but their own political behavior did not recommend them to the bosses, since women tended to vote for candidate rather than party.) Female turnout might have been better in those years if women voters been able to vote for women candidates, but they were very rarely in the ballot. Largely because most male voters disdained to vote for women candidates, neither major political party slated females for even local offices. However, voting for and running as elected officials are only two of many ways women affect public life of course. Women did grunt work for the parties and cause organizations and helped organize labor unions. Thus did “women’s issues” succeed more often than women candidates did.
Vote Early and Vote Often
Of course, Chicago is not famous for efforts to expand democracy, but for efforts to restrict it. The surest way for Party A to get more votes than Party B is to prevent Party B’s supporters from casting a ballot. Chicago’s political parties were adept at keeping opponents’ voters off the voting rolls and swelling their own by recruiting voters from the ranks of the transient, even the deceased. The last practice was made possible by official failure to clean the voter rolls of the dead; Chicago’s enthusiasm for politics is such (goes an old joke) that its citizens come back from the grave to cast ballots.
Such travesties aroused Honest Citizens from time to time. One body of such stalwarts made a career of fighting for cleaner elections—the Union League Club. Made of what used to be called, without a sneer, enlightened citizens, the Club stated at its founding in 1879 that one of its primary objects was to “preserve the purity of the ballot box”—what Club historian Bruce Grant called “its first great crusade in the cause of better government.”
There was plenty of need for it. The thousands of men in near-Loop wards that included skid row willing indeed eager to vote as the ward bosses instructed in return for a bottle of wine or a free meal. Often they voted—and if news accounts are accurate, still vote—more than once, using addresses supplied by precinct workers that are in fact those of vacant lots, cemeteries and abandoned buildings.
Among the very first reform laws on the books in Chicago (1865) was a voter registration law meant to forestall ballot box fraud. In a famous municipal election of 1883, canvassers from the Union League Club found 351 persons living in the second precinct of the old Ninth Ward, but 1,112 votes were cast. As recounted by Grant, thirty-six voters were recorded as living in vacant lots, and factories, foundries, stores, vacant buildings, brothels and saloons all were represented as having public-minded citizens in them. “George Washington cast his ballot in the second precinct of the Ninth Ward,” wrote Grant.
So did Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and many other distinguished Americans. Such a turnout of notable men had never before—nor since— been recorded in any one voting place in the United States. And regardless of former political preferences, they one and all had voted the straight Democratic ticket.
The next year, forged ballots from one precinct of the old Eighteenth Ward gave the Democratic State Senator candidate a fraudulent majority. And in 1886, it was discovered that fraudulent affidavits sworn by unregistered voters attesting that they resided in the precincts they voted in were subsequently stolen from the polling booths before the returns were made to the city clerk.
A law passed in 1885 by the Union League Club, among other reformer groups, set up the system still in place—election commissioners, judges, and clerks from each of the two leading political parties, challengers from each party at each polling place, and registration a must. In 1891 the Australian secret ballot was mandated.
As reformers of other aspects of Chicago’s election system were to find, alas, mere laws were never enough. A generation later, the voter registration requirements had to be made more stringent, and citizen volunteers had to be recruited as poll watchers in Chicago precincts known for vote fraud. So vulnerable were paper ballots to mischief that the city looked to voting machines as a mechanical substitute for honest citizens; these went into service in the late 1940s.
The most infamous example of Chicago’s convenient approach to elections came in 1960, when Mayor Richard J. Daley purportedly won the Presidential election for John F. Kennedy by rolling up massive majorities that gave him Chicago, and thus Illinois, and thus the White House. He did this thanks to majorities racked up in the Machine’s West Side wards that were hard to credit even given Chicagoans’ purported enthusiasm for Democratic candidates. A post-election tally found that in one precinct, for example, 22 registered voters cast 74 votes for Kennedy and 2 for Nixon.
In short, Nixon wuz robbed. “This is not to say that Daley espoused the practice of vote fraud,” wrote Len O’Connor in 1975, “he merely let each ward boss know what was expected of him.” The suspect majorities prompted outrage from Republicans who insisted (indeed still insist) that Daley stole the presidency for JFK. However, official inquiries found no substantial violations, and the results owed to a classic, if more than ordinarily energetic, get-out-the-vote campaign by the Democratic organization.
The rumors were hardly quelled when it became known that, speaking by phone to candidate Kennedy late on Election Night, Daley told him, “Mr. President, with a little luck and the help a few close friends, you’re going to carry Illinois.” This certainly makes it sound as if the fix was in—but then the mayor had his reasons for making it sound that way. No mayor would pass up a chance to make a new President feel in his debt. However, the consensus that has evolved in the past 50 years is that Daley was less worried about helping JFK win that seeing to it Ben Adamowski—a bitter foe running as a Republican for the state attorney’s job and thus a potential danger to Daley’s machine—lost.
No wonder, then, that larcenous Elections Days have become a cherished part of the city’s lore. (Chicago’s unofficial slogan for years was, vote early and vote often.) Skulguggery involving votes—usually blamed on overzealous precinct workers—and if it no longer happens as often as it use to, or even as often as is usually alleged, catching people who try remains on the to-do lists of federal law enforcement officials.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The structure of local government outside Chicago was scarcely more rational, if for different reasons. Civic reformers also perceived that bad personnel are not the only corrupter of governmental processes. Bad structure does too.
If the problem in the city of Chicago was that there was not enough local government, for example, the problem in its suburbs was that there was too much of it. In Chicago’s hinterland, local government was achieved through a jumble of townships devised originally for rural areas, separately incorporated villages and cities, counties, and special purpose districts including school systems, all with overlapping boundaries, separate taxing powers, boards of governance, terms of office.
Such provision for local government could not be called a system, for that implies some coherence of purpose and coordination of parts that did not exist. While the origins of this cockamamie system are complex—its peculiar shape owes to fiscal and constitutional constraints, compromises between citified modernists and countrified traditionalists—but its persistence is explained by politics. Each unit jealously guarded the power it had to make rules and regulations. (“Each . . . is seated on its own little throne,” Merriam concluded In his 1929 book, Chicago: A More Intimate View of Urban Politics, “These are the Feudalities.”) They even more jealous in defense of their right to survive. As one expert put it, its only excuse for being was its generosity in providing many unnecessary offices for deserving party workers.
It was a natural target of civic reformers eager to impose rationality and efficiency on public administration. Some rational-minded reformers dreamed of abolishing townships when they drifted off to sleep at night. That reform would eliminate one especially outmoded layer of government. Others dared entertain more radical futures. Merriam, Frank Lowden, and other young leaders preferred a single “Greater Chicago” in which city and Cook County suburbs would be governed under a single government. Lowden, who was to become governor, often took up the lance for the cause, backed by allies of the Union League Club and Civic Federation, and even helped draft a constitutional amendment laying out the terms. But while cosmopolites in Hyde Park may perceive themselves living in Chicagoland area, citizens see themselves as citizens of a town or a neighborhood and prefer government on same scale, whatever the cost in efficiency. They also fear loss of autonomy to Chicago, which gave them common cause with their Downstate cousins.
Chicagoland did embrace regionalism occasionally as the basis for local government, but only as it applied to specific functions. In 1889, for example, Chicagoland voters okayed by referendum the establishing the Sanitary District of Chicago by an overwhelming vote. The new District was one of the first regional authorities in the nation, had comprehensive brief: to was charged with establishing a comprehensive system that would handle sewage and storm water for the entire Chicago region, improve and expand navigable waterways in the region, and protect its water supply. The SSD model has been used since. mass transit is another service provided regionally. So is what mht be called planning for land use planning in the form of the NIPC, which by design remains a clout-less agency in a government culture in which clout matters above all.
So, while special-purpose districts on the Chicagoland scale relieve existing governments of the need to perform some services they do not replace the governments themselves. Indeed, they add to them, and the clutter of local governments is as bad as ever. In the 1920 Merriam exasperatedly called Chicagoland government structure “chaos.” When Merriam wrote that, there were more than thirty separate governments with powers in the region. Today more than 1,200 units of government exercise come power over Chicagoland’s governmental life; their elected representatives alone would populate a small city. The region has so many municipalities that its nine suburban mayors associations have an association, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.
The region prefers local sovereignty for reasons that are good (local control) and bad (patronage). The suburbs prefer ad hoc, cooperative agreements with other governments on an issue by issue basis. Solving problems this way is enormously complex and time-consuming—money lost in patronage in old days nothing compared to money wasted on meetings in intergovernment projects—but it fits the political anxieties of a public that distrusts government in general, and distrusts their neighbors’ governments in particular. As Jon Teaford has put it, “The fragmentation of suburban Chicago was an entrenched fact of political life.”
The suburbs disdained city problems for decades—today they have city-style problems themselves. New initiatives stemming from the realization that “we are one region” spurred new Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to travel to Schaumburg to make a speech calling for cooperation—the Chicagoland equivalent of Anwar Sadat going to Jerusalem—and hired a longtime suburban official to head his new suburban mayors' group. This effort has borne fruit in a number of areas, from cooperation on the 2000 census, to joint lobbying efforts in Washington, to agreements on streamlining and coordinating local government operations, expansion of O’Hare, flood control, traffic management, green space preservation, and many other chores.
The one thing that broke down the resistance of suburban public officials to intrusions of the city was the prospect of a service economy without servants. For the workers of the city, the outer suburbs are too distant to drive to affordably by private car even if they have one. Bus rides take too long and the els never reach that far. (In the 1990s, municipalities along the northwest suburban corridor pressed for extension of CTA rails into that area.)
Nonetheless, progressive businesspeople of this generation have not abandoned their dream of formal and fully empowered regional government. The Merriams of this generations are Respected national city doctors like Anthony Downs or Myron Orfield argue for various forms of regional government as the solution to inequities in taxable wealth and municipal services across Chicagoland's patchwork of municipalities. A system of tax sharing across borders administered by some new regional entity set up for the purpose might satisfy the demands of both fiscal equity and self-determination. Go-getting towns like Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Columbus do that in different ways; local models already exist from suburban pollution control or traffic planning.
Interesting that when local businessmen gathered in the late 1990s to draft a new vision for the Chicagoland in 2020 and beyond, they retained the exasperation of their forbears with the fragmented state of local government, but had finally abandoned their dream of uniting the region, or even Cook County under a single government. The introduction to Metropolis 2020 noted the local bias in Illinois’s governance and tax framework, a bias is “exacerbated by the sheer number of autonomous governmental units in the region.” Rather than proposing a regional government a la Lowden, they lamented merely “the lack of a coordinating mechanism with significant authority to address regional issues.”
The potential of consolidation, as with most reforms in Chicagoland, may be exaggerated in any event. The city’s success in annexing contiguous towns meant that the Chicagoland government that livens the dreams of today’s anti-sprawl activists was a reality in Chicago more than a century ago. As the Chicagoland population grew, the city grew with it, bringing contiguous territories subject to the same water and sewage systems, the same taxing authority, the same building code and licensing standards. In the end, that arrangement did not achieve the social equity and administrative efficiency so earnestly desired by modern reformers—not, perhaps, because the hinterland was administered by a single central government but that it was administered by a single central government that ended up being run by people with little interest in equity and efficiency as reformers understood them.
Not Quite Wisconsin
The Millennium Delayed
Illinois never reached the heights of Wisconsin. Achieving reforms proved exhausting enough; the constant vigilance required to defend them simply wore reformers and voters out. Still, considering the odds against them, progressive-era good-government reformers were surprisingly successful, if by “success” one means altering the ways politicians go about the public’s business. Sensible changes were. In 1895 the state legislature okayed, and the City of Chicago quickly adopted, an act setting up elections commission to regulate party nominations and voting; aldermen have been elected on a nonpartisan basis since 1920, Since 1935, council terms have lasted for four years and elections have coincided with mayoral balloting, to improve voter turnout.
Indeed, most of the old progressive political reform agenda has been acted on. That did not, alas, bring the millennium. Replacing party caucuses with primary elections to determine candidates, for example, helped weaken the bosses’s control of the political process, but the nominating process now so complex that only specialists—meaning the parties, and these days the candidates’ paid political consultants—can master it.
Likewise, civil service did little to prevent unqualified people from getting government jobs. Most politicians in Cook County continued to hire and fire based on party membership or some other preference than merit. They did so by adapting the new administrative procedures to old ends, with the connivance of a commission staffed by his own appointees. One popular work-around is to fix the test scores. Another is to exploit the provision in the law that allowed officials to bypass the merit selection and hire people for 60 days in an “emergency;” politicians simply reappointed such permanent “temporary” employees every 60 days. (The system was perfected by Big Bill Thompson, who made more than 30,000 such appointments in the first year of his administration.) Another ploy is to invent a job title that fits only the preferred candidate; a legacy of decades of such shenanigans is the City of Chicago’s collection of more than 1,700 separate job titles.
The progressive reforms were never wholly abandoned, but they had to be reinvigorated every generation or so, to win back the territory that corruption’s forces had stolen in the interim. That happened in 1983, when decades of reform prayers answered by the judge who ruled that merit, not clout, should be the basis for filling all but about 1,000 policymaking positions from among the 38,000 jobs on the City of Chicago's payroll. This so-called Shakman decree was assumed by the naïve to have killed patronage at City Hall back in 1977, but in 2005, the feds alleged that the administration of the younger Mayor Daley had committed "massive fraud" for more than a decade by illegally awarding city jobs to reward campaign workers. The city allegedly passed over equally qualified or more suitable applicants to open spots for "preselected" applicants favored by connected politicians and union officials.
Reforms have added to the already cumbersome and often archaic structure of popular government a further superstructure of special prosecutors, inspectors general, review boards, ethics codes, disclosure laws, and watchdog groups. The Shakman court decree obliged city departments to observe extended notice periods and interview quotas on the hiring process. The new rules give prosecutors more grounds for action. But the complexity of the rules merely offered new opportunities for—critics say need for—bribes to get around them.
Much of the good-government agenda was realized—in the suburbs. Widely touted in the early years of the 20th century, the council-manager form of municipal government consists of a small elected council that acts much as a company’s board of directors. The council sets broad policy, approves ordinances, and authorizes the spending of money. The day-to-day operations of government it left to a professional city manager—what amounts to a civic CEO. Council-manager government was never likely to be adopted in Chicago, in part because the constituency for it was fleeing city for the suburbs at about the same time as it became available. In Chicago’s suburbs that organized themselves as cities under state law, council-manager government is the most popular form of self-government.
All the other expedients proposed for the city of Chicago—nonpartisanship, hiring by merit, city-manager government—were adopted wholly or in part by the region’s more affluent suburbs such as the North Shore and Oak Park. In such places, efficiency and honesty and decisions by experts were merely the methods of corporate America applied to the problems of civic life. Many other suburbs of course remained as badly governed as Chicago had always been, and sometimes worse. In any event neither they or Chicago rushed to emulate their progressive kin. ●