A Rich Pageant of Chicanery
Government and politics in Chicagoland
See Illinois (unpublished)
My attempt at a history and a sociology of Chicago politics. At some 23,000 words, it is stupid long, but worse things of this sort have been published.
The twenty years that have passed since I wrote this piece have rendered it not outdated, exactly, but incomplete. In 2007 I noted that only one of the four Illinois indicted for corruption in the past half-century was from Chicago; today it is two out of six. The trends I noted in 2007 have continued trending, such as the blurring of once-sharp distinction between city and suburban voters in terms of interests and party affiliation. But there is no longer a Daley at City Hall, or is there likely to be; the election in 2019 of a gay African American woman as mayor suggests how much else has changed.
It would be hard to judge which iconic figure more often pops into the heads of out-of-towners when they hear the word “Chicago”—the gangster or the politician. The latter’s corruption is as irresistible and enduring an image as the gangsters’ rat-a-tat-tat from the 1920s. One can’t talk with anyone from elsewhere in the nation five minutes before someone will mention 1) a Daley, 2) the Democratic National Convention of 1968, or 3) the “stolen” election of 1960 in which the Chicago machine supposed stole the White House for John F. Kennedy.
Few aspects of life in any region are as complex than politics. In spite of that fact, politics is treated by the Chicagoland public increasingly as a sideshow or a bore, when they pay attention to it at all. That’s a shame. Politics in Chicago has never been merely about street sweeper jobs. It’s about building the city, taming its industrial beasts, managing the entry into the U.S. mainstream of repeated waves of immigrants in face of their ignorance and the hostility of the already-settled or managing finances, and, crucially, achieving genuine legal and fiscal independence from a state government that at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the city's interests, and, of late, coping with corrosive poverty.
In an ungenerous mood, one concludes that Henry Mencken had it right when he defined Democracy as the worship of jackals by jackasses. Politics, Chicago-style, is a rich pageant of chicanery, buffoonery, high purpose, and low humor. Local lore has the widow of Tom Keane, running for her late husband’s chair in the city council, ingratiating herself to Latino voters by promising to urge the teaching of Latin in schools; it is probably untrue, but it is not in the last implausible.
The Encyclopedia of Chicago offers well over a dozen major entries under “politics.” In one of them, Maureen Flanagan writes, “Chicago politics is a national cliché, evoking images of a one-party system, dominated by a boss-controlled Democratic political machine whose crafty politicians dangle patronage before competing ethnic and racial groups in return for votes.” Like most clichés, this is useful enough as a shorthand description of very complex phenomena. But while much of what is popularly understood about Chicagoland politics is true, more of it is not true, and some of what is still true is not as true as it used to be.
Tribal territories: The ward system
The basic unit of Chicago city politics is the ward. Citizen representation is based on wards; so, largely, is the administrative system by which city services are delivered and the basis on which local political parties are organized. Both political activity and city services are run through the local ward boss. This is the source of considerable clout in the higher circles of, say, the Democratic Party. Indeed, the wards have given rise to innumerable mini-machines that leave Chicago resembling a medieval kingdom with lots of ambitious jealous and sometimes territorially ambitious lords.
Since 1837, Chicago has elected its aldermen from wards—two each until 1923, and one each today. The number of wards grew as the city grew, but since 1923 has been fixed at 50—one alderman for every roughly 57,000 people. at first elected to two-year terms, which condemned both the aldermen and the voters to nearly constant campaigning, so the term was lengthened to the present four years. Visitors are usually surprised to learn that aldermen have been elected on a nonpartisan basis since 1920, but in Chicago would-be aldermen candidates usually run, unofficially at least, as the candidates as of this union or that ethnic group or this mayor.
Aldermen used to rule their wards like suzerains. They had power over the mayor under the city charter, for one thing. The reality underlay the doctrine of aldermanic privilege, which ceded to each council member the power to initiate or block city government actions affecting his ward. If you wanted an alley paved or a tree trimmed or a kitchen remodeled, you had to get the approval of the alderman as well as City Hall bureaucrats.
Businesspeople operating on a scale larger than the corner laundry had to deal with what amounted to 50 city governments (one reason why that faction has always been in the vanguard of charter reform movements). The system afforded vast opportunities for bribes, delays, confusion, and inefficiency. That began to change under Daley the Elder, whose control of party apparatus as well as the mayor’s office allowed him to substitute clout for the formal executive power he was denied by the city charter. It was Daley who took away members power over construction permits—the so-called “driveway permit” power. Even as curtailed by Daley and his son, aldermanic privilege is still an expansive assertion of power by these 50 local potentates, who still enjoy vetoes over zoning and property dealings by the city in their wards.
Ward boundaries were flagrantly gerrymandered, mainly to protect the Ins from new majorities of Outs that resulted from immigration or neighborhood change. African American and Hispanic constituencies for example had been split among several wards to dilute their polling power.
Gerrymandering is not the only way that the machinery of democracy in Chicago has been tinkered with to keep every generation’s “them” out of power. For nearly 90 years, for example, Chicago voters chose their mayors through party primary elections. That changed in 1995 when mayors began to be elected the way aldermen were, in nonpartisan elections that called for a run-off between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins a majority. The “reform” was engineered in Springfield by losing factions in the mayoral election of 1989, and was intended to prevent another Harold Washington; that year, two white candidates for the Democratic Party nomination had split the white vote and allowed African American Washington to win with a plurality.
For decades, the Chicago City Council thus reflected the makeup of the people it represented only imperfectly. One-person-one-vote court decisions sent the council rummaging in their desks for fresh pencils; ward borders had to be redrawn five times in the 1970s and 1980s under court orders.
Thus is the ward so central to city life that, like the parish or the neighborhood, it is the basis of Chicagoans' tribal identifications. The new City Council elected in 2007 is much more representative, at least in ethnic terms, than it was in the 1970s. During those 30 years, the number of white people in the council dropped from 35 to 22. Polish membership dwindled from ten to two (although this being Chicago, another three aldermen have Polish roots). Croats lost their two representatives, and Italians lost three of their five. The number of African American aldermen was up to 20 from 15, but it is the city’s Hispanic populations that saw the largest gains in representation—eight aldermen in 2007 compared to none in the 1970s.
The soul of the old Machine
“Chicago” and “machine” are usually assumed to go together like “apple” and “pie” but much about the city’s fabled machine is misunderstood. “The Machine” of recent memory has in fact been several different machines in succession. Indeed, for most of the city’s history the machine as a single entity did not exist at all. Instead, Chicago political life in the early twentieth century was dominated by several mini-machines, most under the sway of powerful ward bosses. When a party boss wielding authority across all the wards finally emerged in the 1930s, he was less a king than a diplomat brokering deals among his ambitious and jealous nobles.
That leader was Anton Cermak, who bolted together the machine in its modern form. After his death, the machine’s custodians included Pat Nash and Edward Kelly and, by the end of World War II, West Side ward boss Jake Arvey. Richard J. Daley inherited this apparatus in the 1950s. The Daley organization was several organizations—the South Side machine, a West Side machine, the mob—operating in loose coalition under his guidance. Factions joined him for the same reasons that companies joined in cartels—competition was costly even for the winners.
Daley was often referred to as the last of the big-city bosses, but even he was a boss in the old style, because the machine wasn’t the old machine. The latter’s demise had begin when Daley was still an altar boy. Remarkably, Daley the Younger does not even hold a Democratic Party post, so unimportant has the party become to governance. As Richard l. Wade explained in a 1986 article in Chicago History magazine, quarterly of the Chicago Historical Society, the New Deal largely took away the welfare function once performed by machine politicians. en. The resurgent labor unions, given new powers under pro-union FDR, The unions now found the jobs, exercised discipline in the workplace, protected the employed worker, and, along with the federal government, took care of him during slack times, with the result that “the union hall replaced the old political clubhouse.” The Social Security Act provided help to the elderly, and new public housing put roofs over the heads of the very poor. “In short,” wrote Wade, “what the machine had provided on a primitive level and with obligations was now provided by the federal government as a matter of right. Thus, few people noticed as the whole rationale for the boss system slipped slowly away.”
While Daley found it in his interest to not contradict the press when it referred to his being all-powerful—a reputation for power is nearly as good as having the real thing—not even a Daley has been able to rule Chicago unchallenged. Daley I was beset by disaffected African Americans acting in alliance with liberals of all races. Daley II—known variously to local political bloggers as “mayor-for-life” or “His Elective Majesty” —faced an uprising in 2006 led by an upstart labor union representing lowly service workers when he vetoed a union-backed ordinance to compel “big box” retailers in chicago to boost their minimum wages. The union filled a campaign war chest with a reported million bucks to pick off aldermen who had voted the mayor’s line and shrunk his majority in the council.
The Democratic machine in its heyday enjoyed suzerainty in many wards—poor wards, where votes could be had in exchange for jobs and small favors, and in the ethnic wards, where ethnic and party solidarity merged. It wasn’t the voters in these wards who decided who represented them, but the ward organizations. In city- and county-wide races, however, the middle-class and business has a say. To attract their votes, machine candidates had to be plausible, and sometimes better than that. Arvey for example was a shrewd observer who understood that if the machine was to stay in power it had to surrender some of it by slating not pliant party hacks for major offices but “clean” (and thus potentially troublesome) candidates. The Arvey machine even backed “reform” candidates now and then, such as Paul Douglas (U.S. Senator) and Adlai Stevenson (governor) in 1948.
The Daley machine peddled good-government efficiency to the middle-class, white supremacy to the ethnic wards, and symbolic achievements in lieu of real change to the poor. African Americans for example got bailiff jobs, not control of the police department, jobs as housing inspectors, not control over zoning, teaching jobs, not control over school policy.
However, an organization can never count on holding on to power by trusting to the fickle affection of voters. Politicians in Chicago early on realized the wisdom of dealing in more durable currency—favors, jobs, contracts, cash. Its permanent constituencies included labor unions (whose loyalty was purchased through fat contracts), business (including property developers) and the mob.
Successive generations of reformers never succeeded in doing away with the machine, but they have changed the way it operates. Patronage, its main source of power, has been gradually whittled away by reforms and (more damaging) court rulings. (See Improving Democracy in Social Reform.) Patronage survives, but it flows not through personnel office or ward organizations but through the mayor’s office. For example, Daley II uses no-bid professional services contracts for public works projects to win friends and influence elections; those grateful contractors provide precinct workers that get out the vote just like the ward bosses used to. Perhaps more important, they donate the campaign cash that influences votes these days. As a result, Dick Daley ran a Democratic machine, his son Richard M. runs a Daley machine.
Peasants and overlords
Say “ethnic politics” in the rest of Illinois and people will point toward the northeast. In the rest of Illinois, the ethnic cast of politics in Chicagoland is inferred from the surnames of the officials the process anoints as leaders. The region’s Annunzio and Kocialkowskis and Rostenkowskis are unpronounceable and un-understandable to much of the rest of Illinois. One of the “issues” in the 2002 gubernatorial race was the fact that the Dem nominee was a Croatian American who had a name—Blagojevich—that was inconvenient for Downstaters to spell and pronounce.
Issues as well as personalities have always had an ethnic cast in Chicago. Maureen Flanagan in the Encyclopedia of Chicago notes that the political parties realigned themselves along class and ethnic lines as the industrial city grew. The struggle over how much power Chicago should have to govern itself, which ostensibly was waged between the city and the state, was also fought within the city among factions divided along ethnic/religious lines. Granting more powers to City Hall meant granting more power to whoever controlled City Hall—a good thing to immigrants who felt they deserved it because of their numbers and need, a bad thing to WASPs who felt they did because they were fitter to govern.
The famous early example of an essentially ethnic dispute that was expressed politically is the lager beer riots. Protestant natives—themselves immigrants from Britain—alienated new Germans and Irish arrivals by having the municipal government raise the cost of liquor licenses and require Sunday closing of saloons. Such efforts usually backfired, in that they excited such resentment that ethnic voters begin to organize in opposition to them, and or at least to reconsider their allegiances; in the early decades of the 19th century, for example, opposition to the nativism among the Whigs attract Irish and German voters to local Democrats.
The ethnic voter was a threat to the hegemony, both social and political, or the established British Americans. It wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that the electoral arithmetic counted decisively against them. This did not mean that WASPs were thus banned from public life, however. WASP politicians knew how to count, and any number of American-bred mayors relied on ethnic votes. At the 19th Century’s end, Carter Harrison catered to such voters by keeping temperance activists in the City Hall waiting room; he also opposed efforts by local chauvinists to make the Chicago public schools English-language only. Harrison’s fellow natives saw this as treason, but it went down so well in the ethnic wards that Carter was elected five times. The same pattern could be seen again in the 1920s and ‘30s, when ethnic factions who otherwise detested each other worked politically for Anton Cermak because they shared his and each other’s outrage at Prohibitionists.
If Chicago’s industrialists welcomed, or at least tolerated the presence of immigrants for their labor force, Chicago pols did the same because the newcomers were a source of votes. D’Eramo, in characteristically blunt language, reports that the Chicago machine—and there have been several, of both parties—used immigrants as “polling cattle.” Sociologist Marco D’Eramo makes the point that the bad reputation of the machine in Chicago owes to its being an ethnic machine; peoples contempt for ethnics was extended to the political machine that catered to them, or rather exploited them. Thus did “anti-corruption” come to be understood to mean “anti-immigrant.”
Most immigrants had little experience at democratic self-government, thanks to imperial or royal overseers in the old country. Chicago wasn’t very democratic either, and the adjustments to Chicago-style democracy were not as hard as they might have been. Inevitably, immigrants brought to politics in Chicago the attitudes and assumptions that govern political behavior back home. People accustomed to the landlord or the priests found the ward boss a familiar, even comforting figure. And the ethnic pols in turn reverted to ancient roles in their dealings with those who held power over them. Richard J. Daley essentially re-established the ancient relationship of the Irish peasant to what Milt Rakove described as the city’s “Anglo-Saxon-Protestant overlords.” In his subservience to Chicago’s manorial capitalists, Daley was a true son of Erin.
Chicago ethnics thus sometimes affected politics in the rest of Illinois too. The nativist Whigs for instance opposed allowing unnaturalized immigrants to vote, and not only because the Democrats, who relied on the foreign born, relied on their votes. Indeed Pease recalls that the concentration of Irish in Cook County in the 1830s so frightened the natives that even Democratic Downstaters turned Whig.
Chicago politicians administered their machines through party representatives in the various ethnic wards. Michael Diversey, alderman of the German Sixth Ward in the early 1840s, was one of these. Oscar DePriest and William Dawson in the African American wards in the early 20th century were others, as was Swedish-born Fred Lundin, who ran a Republican machine on the North and Northwest sides. Mike and Moe Rosenberg delivered West Side Jewish voters into the welcoming arms of the 24th Ward Democratic machine; FDR famously outpolled his opponent in the 24th in the 1936 presidential election 29,000 to 700, which led the President to dub it “the number one ward in the Democratic Party.”
A Chicago politician serving one its larger and more polyglot districts had to demonstrate a cosmopolitanism than would test a UN delegate. Carter Harrison’s distinguished family was of British ancestry, but on the stump, Harrison proudly identified with every ethnic group. As on St. Patrick's Day, it has been said, he wore his finest green. Germans heard about his friendship with Bismarck. With Scandinavians he claimed a Viking heritage, and among African Americans he recalled being raised by a "colored mammy." Sidney R. Yates, the nation's longest-serving congressman whose North Side district included such melting pots as Roger Park, told colleagues that he won his first election in 1948 because of his ability to serenade various constituency groups with their own ethnic songs while campaigning.
The most politically adept of Chicago’s ethnics are, of course, its Irish. But while the city is famous for an Irish machine, they did not build the first true city-wide machine—that credit goes to Bohemian Anton Cermak. However, the Irish excelled at managing multi-ethnic coalitions of that type, and usually dominated them out of proportion to their numbers. Chicago’s Irish politicians are the American equivalent of the leprechauns in the old country. They had inestimable advantages—they spoke English, for one thing, for another, the Irish had been enemies of no one but the English in the old country, and thus had no enemies among the Continental immigrants who flooded the city in the 50 years after 1880. “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole, and a Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian, and a German won’t vote for either of them,” goes a much-quoted maxim of the local trade, “but all three will vote for [an Irishman].”
As early as the 1840s, the Irish controlled enough of the Democratic party “to elect officers for the sole reason that they are Irishmen.” Already in the 1850s, the Irish had adopted the Democratic party as their political home. Their saloons became precinct headquarters, and they took their share of spoils in the form of jobs in what could be called an early affirmative action program. By the mid-l850s, a fifth of the elected or appointed government officials in Chicago were Irish. By the 1880s, the Irish controlled the Democratic party on the ward and precinct levels, and after 1883, City Hall closed regularly on St. Patrick’s Day, since no one was likely to show up anyway.
Proud Chicago Irish knows certain stats as well as they do the batting averages of favorite ball players. The city has elected eight Irish mayors (every Chicago mayor but two since 1933). The police force was disproportionately Irish by the 1890s, as was the fire department. Irish women were to local hospitals and schools what their men were to the police and fire departments.
It could be said that not only did the local Irish achieve prominence out of proportion to their numbers, they did so out of proportion to their merits. The Irish legacy in Chicago is in some ways a dubious one. Dispossessed peasants, the Irish upon their arrival in Chicago became the original underclass. The mostly young and unattached male Irish brought to the cities a culture that tolerated, if it did not actually endorse, drunkenness, bastardy, and hustling. The city’s first “bad neighborhoods, such as Hardscrabble near what became Bridgeport, were Irish.
One aspect of the ethnic’s alien-ness was religion. Political and party allegiance in Chicago were heavily influenced by one’s religion. Protestants among the Americans, British, Scandinavians, and English Canadians tended to be Republicans for example, while Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Europe were just as likely to be Democrats.
The immigration explosion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with suburban out-migration, so changed the electorate that the traditional political order was threatened. such was the anti-Catholic prejudice that no candidate who ran with a pro-Church agenda (as distinct from a pro-Catholics agenda) could get backing in citywide races. Indeed, “ethnic” meant “Catholic” in the eyes of many city voters uneasy at the prospect that Catholic politician behold to Catholic votes might favor Catholic issues and interests as blatantly as most Protestant politicians had traditionally favored the issues and interests of their fellow believers.
Catholic historian Thomas Sanders noted that in 57 mayoral campaigns prior to 1930, Catholic candidates won only three. Such pro-Church policies as came from City Hall tended to be the work of American native mayors who had won office through help of Catholic blocs and returned the favor as mayor. A good example is Carter Harrison I, during whose lengthy tenure Chicago parochial schools were gifted with free city water. The two Harrisons- explains sanders, while died-in-the-wool native Americans, won rode to ten mayoral victories between 1879 and 1911 with solid Catholic support. Carter II struck many a Catholic voter as for all intents and purposes a Catholic mayor, having been educated at St. Ignatius College, married a devout Catholic, and raised his kids in the faith.
When a Catholic did finally run successfully for the mayoralty, he did so only with reform credentials that endeared him even to Protestant bigots—and made it impossible for him to unduly favor the Church’s interests. As John Schmidt explained in The Mayors:
Once in office, [Mayor William] Dever recognized his role as a ‘respectable ethnic.’ He often told Knights of Columbus suppers or other such gatherings that he would show the critics a Catholic could govern wisely. He tried to avoid any hint of favoritism, and was so scrupulous that a few Catholics complained the mayor was not being fair to his own people.
Dever’s rigorous application of Prohibition laws in spite of the detestation his fellow Irish had for them also can be attributed to his desire to out-WASp the WASPs.
Legend has it that Chicago machine transcended ethnicity, that it was a prototype of the “rainbow coalition” in which diverse people supped at the same table, or rather slopped at the same trough. This romantic notion is beloved of political journalists with a story to sell, but political scientists have been poo-poohing it as simple-minded for years. There was no ethnic group that didn’t have to fight its way for a share of the spoils against the machinations of the bosses and the ambitions of their ethnic neighbors.
Ethnic voters, especially settled ones, often vote alike—not because they’d been dictated to but because they share interests with their neighbors. A disaffected voter could be ignored; a disaffected voting bloc could not. One remedy was to gerrymander ward boundaries to spread ethnic populations across more than one ward to weaken their influence in any one of them. The Puerto Rican vote—the second-largest Hispanic group after Mexicans—was splintered this way, which left them without clout. As recently as 1966, not one Puerto Rican held political office. None was an administrator with the Board of Education, and none held any prestigious position in the Police Department. That pattern of exclusion quickly changed when Irene Hernandez became the first Latino elected to office in 1974 when she became a member of the Cook County Board.
All the region’s minorities have had to adjust to a new political system, but over time that system has had to adjust to them too. The Arab population concentrated in the southwest suburbs not long ago showed it has become Americanized to the extent it mastered the art of pressing its elected representatives for new laws congenial to its interests. The General Assembly adopted a bill require "truth in marketing" for food labeled as meeting Islamic food preparation rules—a bill proposed by a legislator named Radogno.
The 2000 Chicago census prompted demands by Hispanics for at least two and as many as five more super-majority Hispanic wards, up from the seven that already had Hispanic majorities. Such has been the growth in the strength of the Hispanic vote of late, indeed, that the Democratic Party in Chicago has resorted to gerrymandering in order to get Hispanics elected; in 1992 that the first Hispanic Congressman from Illinois was elected (in the person of veteran alderman Luis Gutierrez) after the Democrat-controlled legislature helpfully redrew the boundaries of his House district to make it 64% Hispanic by population.
In the process they suffered wounds in the battle with other ethnics, the memory of which make it all the harder for them to greet successors generously. In The Pig and the Skyscraper, Italian sociologist D’Eramo describes the way things really worked.
Every council post reserved for an Irish American is denied a Pole. Every favor done for an Italian is at the expense of a Latino. Politics doesn’t so much revive old ethnic rivalries as create new ones: An Irishman who came here hating only the Englishmen and Irish Protestants, soon hated Poles, Italians and blacks. A Pole who was free arrived here hating only Jews and Russians, but soon learned to hate the Irish, the Italians and the blacks.”
Thus the impression made on generations of Downstaters that Chicago is a mean town. They had hatreds back home, sure, but in Chicago, group animosity was the basis of civic relations.
Each immigrant group, having risen to control the local government machinery, used it to limit access of their newer arrivals—and now rivals—to the goodies. The most vivid example of this was in the 1980s, during the “Council Wars, when the city’s first elected black mayor found his administrative appointments and policy initiatives in City Hall blocked by white ethnic aldermen whose hold on the council (as a federal court later ruled) owed to gerrymandered ward boundaries. The three-year impasse earned the city the nickname “Beirut on the lake.”
The city’s new immigrants in the half century after World War I were African American. Strangers from another land—the American South—they were Protestants like the British and many of the Germans, many were peasants like so many of the European Catholics, they were targets of centuries old prejudice as were the Jews. But while a Jew or a Catholic could pass for a WASP, a black-skinned Chicagoan could never pass for a white one, and in that fact long assumed that they constituted a special case among the city’s ethnic groups. (Separate-but-equal is a doctrine that had it days in history-writing too.) However, the political experience of Chicago African Americans and its other immigrants are more alike than not.
Politics is one of the areas in which the city has always painfully worked out new social arrangements with its newcomers. The city has had black elected officials as far back as 1871, when an African American named John Jones was elected to fill an at-large seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In 1876, John W. E. Thomas became the first African American to be elected as a state representative in the Illinois General Assembly. Edward H. Wright became the first black alderman in 1915, Edward H. Morris, distinguished black lawyer, and stalwart of the Sumner Club, one of the top African American political and social clubs of the day was elected to the Illinois House in 1890 and 1902, and Chicago sent African Americans to the house routinely after 1906. In 1928 Adelbert H. Roberts became the first African American elected to the Illinois Senate. That year also saw Oscar DePriest elected to the U.S. House— the first black man elected to that body from Illinois. In the 1980s, two of the most prominent black politicians in America resided in Chicago in the persons of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the country’s first serious black candidate for president of the United States.
It would be misleading to attribute these achievements to an enlightened polity nor even a sizeable black vote. Before 1908, county commissioners were elected by slates, slates were nominated at party conventions, and party leaders apportioned seats on the slate to appease constituent groups, not the voters. They did so until primary elections were adopted in 1908. Once voters rather than party bosses decided who got to run, opportunities for black candidates in city- or county-wide races disappeared, African American candidates were not elected in county-wide races until 1938, although they continued to elect black aldermen in black-only wards.
Most of those pioneers marched into the history book under the banner of the Republican Party. Chicago African Americans were loyal backers of the party of Lincoln from Reconstruction through the New Deal. Not large in itself—before World War I only 3 percent of the city’s population was African American—the black vote could be crucial in tight races, as many races tended to be in those decades when the GOP was still a viable force in city politics. The result was that black voters were courted, and within limits, catered to. The forementioned Mayor Thompson, turn-of-the-century governor Charles Deneen, and U.S. Senator William Lorimer were among the Republican party heavyweights who relied on the black vote.
“Vice”—mainly gambling—was to the black wards of the early 20th century what temperance had been in the old ethnic wards in the middle of the 19th. Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson in 1927 racked up pluralities in the black wards of more than 90% not by championing civil rights or jobs but by promising official tolerance of the numbers rackets that provide work and amusement in the black wards.
African American voters may have been only a small part of the general population of Chicago, but the residential apartheid of the city concentrated them and their votes in only a few wards, where they could be decisive in local elections. first one ward, then two able to elect blacks reps. many of these were party hacks of the sort that Chicago always sent to Springfield. An exception was the best-known black politician prior to 1930, Alabaman Oscar DePriest. De Priest ran away from home at age seventeen and in 1889 arrived in Chicago, where he built a real estate business and helped organize the Negro Business League. He was a Chicago pol of the grand tradition. The Chicago Tribune, in honoring him, called him “shrewd, smart and street savvy,” which in Chicago means crooked but smart enough to not go to jail— DePriest was indicted for graft but was acquitted.
By 1928, the black population of Chicago had grown sufficiently large to cover most of a congressional district, and in 1929 DePriest secured the Republican nomination and election to the U.S. Congress. Not only was he the first black man elected from Illinois but at the time he was the only black representative in Congress. As he had done in the Chicago city council, DePriest championed a civil rights agenda in Congress. (In 1933 for example he successfully attached an anti-discrimination amendment to the law that established the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Depression began to turn black Chicagoans into Democrats. The black electorate split, as was the white one, by class differences. The less educated looked to their political representatives for real rewards—welfare and jobs mainly. The middle class—the Black Belt equivalent of the lakefront liberals—sought access to the larger economy, and rewarded pols who were considered friends to the race. Republican Gov. Charles Deneen won wide black support for example because his support of an anti-lynching bill and for his vigorous action in several lynchings and in the Springfield race riot of 1908.
The administration of Democrat FDR brought welfare and jobs to the ghetto—replacing the role that Cit Hall had always filled—and later championed (at least rhetorically) equal opportunity. The authors of Negro in Illinois recording this street scene in which a young African American harangued a crowd during a campaign in those days.
You better get down on yoh knees and pray that none a these isms gets started here in this good ole USA and thank the Lawd for Uncle Sam and Ant Cha’ity.
Republicans always knocking the WPA, saying we poke along. . . I ain’t seen none of ‘em refusing to poke ‘long with us and payday they ain’t long poking they hands out for democrat money.
The black Republican ward bosses of the 1930s therefore were left having to choose between loyally voting the GOP line or voting against their own constituents. They opted for the latter, and the voters did not fail to notice. In the mid-30s, DePriest was deposed after three terms in Congress, and the Democratic ticket swept the black South Side with more than 80 percent of the vote.
The then-mayor, Anton Cermak, offered different inducements to African American to switch parties—in effect state terrorism against the policy rackets. The price of lifting the crackdown, it was made plain, was voting Demo. Cermak’s successor Edward Kelly took a permissive stand on the rackets that were popular in the black wards, and made available to African Americans some of the juicy new plums picked from the federal tree in the form of welfare and work programs.
Less predictably, Kelly also won over the black middle class by fighting for civil rights. To the dismay of many white backers, he established Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations, pushed for integrated public schools (Kelly appointed the first black member of the school board, and ended the practice of setting up “branch schools” to separate white and black pupils) In 1940 a black man was promoted to captain in the Chicago Police Department, for example, the first of his race to reach such as plateau. (Just as Chicago had two public housing systems, and two school systems, so it had two police departments, one for black citizens, another for whites. Black officers were not allowed to arrest white people, and black sergeants were never assigned to supervise white officers.) Such accommodation showed Kelly to have been either a closet progressive or a poor politician, since it went beyond the minimum required of politics and alienated much of the rest of the party’s base in the city.
For all its growth, the black electorate was not sizable enough to carry a mayor into City Hall. To win city-wide, a candidate needed white ethnics, and offending them by strong pro-civil rights stands would cost a candidate more in the white wards than he would gain in the black ones. (in the same way, too strong a pro-Catholic stand offended the nativists of previous eras.)
Kelly’s successor, Richard Daley, made symbolic appointments and supportive speeches, but the machine’s black aldermen were not allowed to developed independent power bases from which they might launch attacks on power. Instead, African American ward bosses were granted dominion in their wards in return for fealty to City Hall. The black organization men set a high standard in sycophancy. In American Pharoah, authors Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor recall how one of them, Alderman Claude Holman, once averred of Dick Daley that he was not only the greatest mayor in Chicago history or even the greatest mayor in the world but the greatest mayor in outer space, too.
In practice, however, Daley’s administration was, if not anti-black, at least anti-civil rights. Granting black Chicagoans patronage and the occasional commission appointment were one thing; opening the city and its institutions to them was something else. Daley gave African Americans public housing—but only in already-black neighborhoods. He gave black appointees offices but no real power. As the ‘60s progressed, blacks were stonewalled by City Hall on open housing, insulted by discriminatory schools practices that would have embarrassed Mississippi in their blatantness, and overseen by a police force that protected the segregated status quo at the expense of black citizens.
As Daley shifted his power base from inner-city black wards to the fringe-dwelling white ethnics, his black support began to dissipate. It is significant that the last election in which the black vote for Daley was decisive—1963—occurred at the start of the civil rights era. Chicago black Democrats were of the same party as Southern Dixiecrats, with the result that a black leader could be pro-civil rights or be a Democrat, but it was getting hard to be both. University of Southern California political scientist Michael B. Preston summarized the central dilemma of the black Chicago politician in a 1990 article: “By operating within the political system in Chicago—and thus becoming a part of it— blacks could not challenge that system with any great degree of force.”
One of the black politicians caught between party and principle was Alderman William Dawson. A Republican-turned-Democrat first elected in 1935, Dawson rose to the top of the machine-dominated Democratic organization. By the mid-fifties, the domain of this South Side mini-boss spanned five wards, and Dawson was thought to control as many as a quarter-million votes, enough to make him by some reckonings the most powerful black elected official in the country.
Richard J. Daley owed much of his early success to Dawson’s black voters, indeed, Dawson one of the party slate-makers who got Daley on the mayoral ticket for the first time in 1955. The two profited by the usual political symbiosis as Dawson votes helped Daley win power, which he shared with Dawson so Dawson could influence more votes. The partnership worked until the civil rights era, when the Democrats’ restive black wards now became a potential source of challenge. Dawson could no longer guarantee their allegiance to the Daley candidates, so the Machine stripped Dawson of his patronage power, the main means to discipline wayward organization members. What the Machine giveth, the Machine taketh away.
Unlike DePriest’s, Dawson’s allegiance was to party, not race. Not only did he not fight for civil rights measures, he occasionally fought against them. (“Uncle Tom” was one of the least nasty terms used to describe him.) This was not just kow-towing; segregation kept the black vote concentrated, and dispersal into mixed-race neighborhoods would erode Dawson’s power base. But because the Machine was by then allied with racist whites, it was only a matter of time before the black vote would split between those who wanted to use politics to wedge a way into a enter wider world and those like Dawson who preferred to rule the small part of it set aside for blacks by their white overseers.
Independence, and commitment to what was by now a distinct black agenda, would have to be expressed outside the regular Democratic organization. A coalition of seven independent African American aldermanic candidates in 1963 stood on a joint platform to fight segregation and discrimination—and to fight Daley, who was the agent of both in Chicago. One of the renegades won and portended a shift that might remake the Democratic Party, if not the city.
The black vote for a time after Daley’s death in 1976 was unanchored. Disenchanted with the Daley Democrats, voters found no alternative road to power through a moribund GOP. The city’s black voters gave upstart Jane Byrne a significant but not huge majority, presumably because she was running against a City Hall faction that barred black alderman from succeeding Daley. Those same voters turned on Byrne, however, after she’d broken too many promises to them; if African American interests were to be advanced downtown, many concluded, it would have to be by a black person.
That person was Illinois state senator Harold Washington. African American leaders drafted Washington to run in the 1983 primary. His candidacy sparked the signing up of 200,000 new black voters and later mobilized an unprecedented black turnout. In a three-way primary, Washington won with 37 percent of the vote. That contest was proof that, among Chicago politicians, blood is not thicker than politics: Washington was opposed by 18 of 23 black state legislators and nine of 15 black aldermen.
Washington went on to win the general election and would win a second term before he died in 1987, raising hopes for a new era in which African Americans would dominate the machine as the Irish long had. As recently as 1990, learned commentators such as Michael Preston were predicting a new era of black political domination in Chicago.
It never happened. The trends that progressive reformers saw as so promising in the 1970s and ‘80s, such as black wards delivering most anti-machine vote, were reversed. The city’s black population was shrinking in absolute and relative terms. African Americans were doomed by demographics to become the second-largest minority in the city after Hispanics, and thus would never be able to put anyone in the mayor’s chair by themselves. Post-Washington relations between City Hall and the black wards reverted to an old model—what Timuel Black and other chroniclers of the South Side sneered at as “plantation politics.”
The return of a Daley to the mayor’s chair in 1989 brought a return to the accommodation worked out by his father in his first few terms. Political loyalty was bartered for patronage, often administered through the same community institutions—the black churches—that had been crucial to Washington’s success. Richard M. Daley got just seven percent of the black vote in 1989, but in 2003 he carried every ward in his bid for a fifth term, winning an estimated 60 percent of the African American vote, running against three African American opponents. Like they say, the city that works.
Present at the nomination:
Political conventions in Chicago
Chicago has always been a great convention town, and the major political parties have held their nominating conventions here more often than in any other U.S. city—25 times since 1860. (In 1956 both GOP candidate Dwight Eisenhower and his Democratic opponent, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, were nominated in the city.) Whatever their other differences, presidents Taft, Garfield, Harrison, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Harding, Hoover, FDR, and Clinton are alike in beginning their trips to the White House in Chicago.
Some of those conventions have entered into American political fable. In 1896, William Jennings Bryan electrified the Democratic convention here with his famous “cross of gold” speech. In 1968 the “whole world was watching” while police and anti-Vietnam demonstrators disrupted the nomination of Hubert Humphrey. (The events of that August shamed the city in the eyes of many, including the Daley family, whose scion exorcised it by organizing a peaceful meeting of Democrats in 1996 at which Bill Clinton was renominated.)
The Chicago party convention with the most import for the nation was held in 1860. That year, in a hastily-built wooden structure called the Wigwam, ten thousand delegates of the young Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S. presidency. The structure stood at what is today the southeast corner of Lake Street and Wacker Drive, but all that marks the spot today is a sidewalk plaque.
“The only completely corrupt city in America”
“Chicago is unique. It is the only completely corrupt city in America,” said professor Charles Merriam after his mayoral race in 1911. Spoken like a true reformer who has just lost an election. Chicago was not even the most corrupt city in Illinois during some eras. However, it was corrupt. Donald Tingley, in his history of turn-of-the-20th-century Illinois, states that “some of the ward politics of Chicago left something to be desired” in the first two decades of the 20th century. This is not necessarily true—not if your standard was the three-ring circus, the protection racket, or the gang war.
Even the reformers are crooked in Chicago! The most recent example of this is Lawrence Bloom, independent Democrat and clean-government champion from Hyde Park, who was caught and convicted of accepting bribes in operation Silver Shovel in the 1990s. As Lynn Becker phrased it in The Reader, Chicago is “The City That Works—Sometimes, and for the Right People.”
Influence peddling, kickbacks, vote buying, bribes, contract fiddles, thuggery and theft on election days—all were—and are—practiced if not perfected in Chicago. The political lexicon has been enlivened by such Chicago coinages as “ghost voters” and “gray wolves,” the latter the aldermen who in Upton Sinclair’s poetic phrase, “gave away the streets of the city to the businessmen” by selling to the highest bidders municipal franchises for gas mains and trolley lines. You could even buy a U.S. Senate seat, and William Lorimer did in 1909 when he bribed the General Assembly to name him to that post. (In 1912 the U.S. Senate made him give it back.)
The younger Carter Harrison minced no words in his memoir of his years at City Hall. He called the aldermen of the 1890s “a low-browed, dull-witted, base-minded gang of plug-uglies, with no outstanding characteristic beyond an unquenchable lust for money, with but a single virtue, and that not possessed by all, a certain physical courage that enabled each to dominate his individual barnyard.” Reacting to advice from an out- of-state reformer to concentrate her reform efforts in wards likely to elect “good” aldermen, Jane Addams explained that it was “difficult to divide Chicago into good and bad wards”—a circumspect way of saying that no ward was good in the way he meant.
In Nelson Algren’s phrase, Chicago was a “city on the make.” That Chicago is looked back upon today by the city’s many nostalgists of corruption as fondly as classicists look back on Athens under Pericles. The system in its purest form was on display in the old First Ward under Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna. The younger Carter Harrison, who relied on their votes, described them as “picturesque worthies,” adding, “nothing that could be said of them would seem extravagant.”
These aldermen—each ward had two in those days—offered free meals to the bums and jobs, largesse paid for out of the one-stop-shop they had set up for municipal services. For $25 to $100 a week they offered tavern owners protection from police too eager to enforce laws against gambling in taverns and other untoward policies. For larger fees they would get indictments quashed for embarrassing crimes such as pandering and graver ones such as kidnapping. For the progressive businessman they could make certain that the paperwork of zoning variances, permits, tax deductions, licenses did not get clogged in the gears of the city’s economy. Coughlin and Kenna paid for these favors by delivering votes to City Hall; Kenna for instance was a saloon keeper and he devoted himself to turning winos and bums into conscientious citizens who cold be counted on to vote every election day with the help of war booze food, and a warm places to sleep.
Ballot-box rigging was endemic in a city whose voters, it was joked, were encouraged to “vote early and vote often.” The subject has inspired much of the wit, as it is, in Chicago. ("Some of its most diligent citizens reside in Mt. Olive Cemetery; they’ve been voting for 100 years.") In a 1963 nightclub performance, comic Dick Gregory, who lived in the city and knew it well, ad libbed to a Chicago audience, “In most places voting is a privilege. Here it’s a sport.” In 1966, Gregory ran for mayor—not the first funny person to do that, although probably the first candidate who was knowingly funny.
When the cost of corruption is examined, it is often dismissed as merely wasteful, but the system imposed real costs on real people. We need not comment about how victims of kidnappings or beatings or thefts were unable to get justice because of the culprits' interventions with judges and cops. City inspectors could also be bribed to overlook health or safety rules, sometimes with horrific results. On December 3, 1903, a fire in the newly opened Iroquois Theatre in the Loop killed more than 600 people; in the rush to open, the building owners had bribed city inspectors to overlook such fire code violations as a defective fire curtain and locked or blocked exit doors. No official guilty of such dereliction was ever punished.
The poor city services that resulted especially punished the average guy of course, because he and his family who depended on them in ways that wealthy did not. A good example was public transit. The bribes paid by trolley companies to secure rights-of-way on public streets—often astonishing large for the day—had to be earned back and the only two ways to do it was to either raise fares or cut costs. Raising fares was proscribed, as ordinances set fares at a nickel a ride (in effect, bribing voters) so streetcar magnates like Charles Yerkes made certain that riders had to take as many rides as possible. The lines that made up the system—built separately over many years—were not connected nor did they offer free transfers, with the result that crosstown riders had to make their trips via two or even three lines, each of which charged a nickel.
Worse was skimping on service, maintenance, and repairs that led to breakdowns, delays, and accidents. The consensus at the turn of the 20th century was that Chicago suffered from the worse public transportation in the world. So egregious were the failures of public officials to regulate capitalist public transit that Chicagoans briefly flirted with municipal socialism as a cure; if you can’t beat ‘em, the reformers said in effect, replace ‘em.
Of course, it takes two to pull off a bribe. The bribees included relatives trying to get a kid off a charge, or homeowners who needs a permit to fix up the house. But the big bribes were paid by people of business. One of the most infamous was Charles Yerkes. Yerkes, more any one man, was responsible for building the city’s public transportation system. He was an innovator but also a bully and a blackmailer and a crook. “Ruthless” is one of the nicer things said about him. About Yerkes—whom Theodore Dreiser fictionalized as Frank Cowperwood in his novel The Financier—longtime foe Mayor Carter Harrison wrote, "He saw a roseate future ahead for the man who would apply eastern methods of official corruption to the crude halfway measures so far practiced by the novices in Chicago's best financial circles.”
A name scarcely recalled today, in his day Yerkes was easily the most despised man in Chicago. In 1899, when Yerkes attempted buy a 100-year extension to one of his street railway franchises by bribing aldermen a million dollars, a mob surrounded City Hall to protest, and the cowed aldermen did not award the franchise. In time Yerkes would be practically hounded out of town.
The Yerkes story is often offered in black and white, but there’s lots of gray in it too. As a briber of public officials, Charles Yerkes was indeed nonpareil. He bought aldermen the way other businessmen bought raffle tickets. So avid was he that he embarrassed even some aldermen. But while Yerkes was a stain on the municipal escutcheon, only such methods could have brought order out of the chaos that was Chicago public transit.
Businesspeople of all sorts made accommodations with City Hall, and City Hall made accommodation to all sorts of businessmen. So intimate have been the relations between organized crime and ward organizations in Chicago that political reform and crime-busting mean largely the same thing.
Some historians of the Chicago Mafia—or Mob or Outfit— date the founding of local organized crime to the 1870s. Michael McDonald owned a tavern at Clark and Monroe that was to drinking and gambling what Marshall Fields was to ladies’ frocks. His operation was threatened by the reformist mayor Joseph E. Medill. Unseating Medill prodded McDonald to civic involvement. The tavern keeper organized Chicago’s saloon and gambling interests into a bloc that came to be known as "Mike McDonald’s Democrats," who helped boot Medill from City Hall after four years, in 1873. McDonald then set about seeing to it that he was not inconvenienced again. He formed what has been called the first criminal syndicate in Chicago, composed of gamblers and compliant politicians.
Similar operations were set up in other parts of the city, usually in the ethnic wards. Local villains kicked back profits from crime to the ward boss, who use it to buy votes and pay other expenses of representative government. That also meant that the ward boss, to the extent he became dependent on his minions, was in thrall to the gangs. The gangs also were persuasive, it might be said, in convincing voters to back candidates amenable to the gang’s presence in each ward. In wards where the gangs were busiest, in short, the ward bosses were mere agents of the real bosses. The relationships built up to protect gambling and prostitution served well when Prohibition was passed, since the rum runners already had in place the political connections they needed to keep the police at bay.
One of the first of the real Chicago crime gang leaders in the now-familiar style was big Jim Colosimo. He started as a street sweeper for the city who could deliver the votes of street sweepers and the Italians south of the Loop, then was promoted to the position of bagman for Coughlin and Kenna. He never looked back; among the honorary pallbearers at Big Jim Colosimo’s funeral in 1920 were eight aldermen, two congressmen, a state senator, and two judges.
The mob was no less civic-minded than other business organizations, meaning they could be roused to political involvement when its economic interests were threatened. The alliance between corrupt government and organized crime was made clear by Big Bill Thompson’s return to the mayor’s office in 1927. Historian Robert P. Howard carefully states only that Thompson “fostered the environment in which . . . Capone thrived.” (The price of protection was steep—reportedly 40 percent of a gambler’s net—went to City Hall.) Capone gangsters reportedly even worked in Thompson’s campaign headquarters, and Capone himself supposedly donated $260,000 to Thompson’s reelection fund. As one historian of the Chicago mob has put it, “The Capone syndicate was now the official mediator between the underworld and Chicago’s established political structure.”
A brief crackdown during the William Dever administration drove the mob to relocate operations in suburban Cicero, where its leaders entered into a similar arrangement with local politicians. The mobsters helped the local GOP win city hall in the 1924 election in return for the Republicans giving the gangs a free hand in running their booze and gambling operation in the suburb. On election day, two hundred Capone gunmen are said to have served as pollwatchers to ensure a favorable vote for the GOP. Other towns posted signs banning campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place; in Cicero the signs would have had to include murder. Gun fire broke out when county deputies intervened; the cops killed Al Capone’s brother, among others.
A culture of corruption
It is an exaggeration, if not a boast, that Chicago was, or is the most politically corrupt big city in the country. As noted, Chicago does not necessarily produce the most crooked pols even in Illinois. Chicago pols for years complain that their country cousins Downstate are every bit as crooked as they are. The public and press largely ignored that truth, but historians have confirmed it repeatedly. The difference between the good ol’ boy like Paul Powell and the Chicago politician is mainly one of accents. While Mayor Fred Busse died and left behind a safe-deposit box full of stocks in the company that sold the city its manhole covers, it was not worth nearly as much as the roughly $800,000 in cash that was found in shoeboxes in the hotel room of Paul Powell, Anna’s gift to Illinois politics and Speaker of the Illinois House. And four of the state's governors—only one from Chicago—have been indicted for corruption in the past half-century.
However, it is probably true that Chicago is the U.S. city that seems to be most proud of its corruption. The poets of the Chicago romance have turned crooks thieves and swindlers and bullies into lovable lunks; most historians will forgive anything in a man so long as he is “colorful” enough to enliven their dull books. And most citizens, too, having lost faith that their elected representatives have ever been capable, accept that politics is merely a machine for enrichment—a state of affairs they don’t mind as long as it does not cost them too much directly. Thus columnist Mike Royko’s unofficial city motto: "Ubi Est Mea,” or “Where's Mine?”
Accounts by the many academic students of the city dig a little deeper. They have sought explanations for the local political culture in terms of racial dynamics, class resentments and anxieties, or anthropology. Sociologists, for example, explain that Chicago was settled largely by people whose political cultures would be labeled “individualistic”—a what’s-in-it-for-me ethos that was pragmatic and profit-oriented rather than moralistic. As Robin Einhorn explains in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the individualistic political culture was strong in immigrant communities (including African American ones) where “private-regarding” rather than “public-regarding” politics was the norm. What was for decades seen as a moral fault in those cultures by mostly affluent Anglo-Saxon “good government” types is today respected by academics as merely a cultural difference. Indeed, in its more extreme formulations, the culture of political corruption is presented as a diversity issue.
Why Chicago Never Changes
Chicago politics has been reformed lots of times. It just hasn’t ever been changed. In his book Grafters and Goo-goos—one of the better examinations of the topic—veteran journalist James Merriner asked how is it that so many Chicago-area politicians are crooks, even after more than a century of good-government reform campaigns, with reformers among the city’s most lauded citizens? Among the reasons:
Because the professional managers installed by each reform mayor seldom survive his departure, if they last even that long. Reform mayors either neglect to or lack the time in office to install a fully professional civil service, or to build a lasting political bloc committed to reform.
Because it is the boss city of Illinois, which is one of the more corrupt states in the union.
Because the bad guys work constantly and reformers only fitfully.
Because reformers are usually lousy politicians. This is to be expected among a class that, in general, disdains not merely corrupt or incompetent politicians but politics itself. Chicago reformers exerted themselves for decades to make politics nonpartisan and professional—in short, unpolitical. Not surprisingly, the few politicians who actually reformed anything usually were also adroit politicians—Carter Harrison II comes to mind—who realized that if you want to clean up government you will have to get your hands dirty.
Because reformers make indifferent democrats. Reformers have generally shrunk from a central truth, which is that reform is merely politics pursued by different means by different classes for different but equally self-serving ends. Merriner is certainly correct to insist that the reformer demanding more efficient City Hall administration, like the ethnic who demands a little beer money on election day, is using the system to win advantages for his own class. The LaSalle Street banker has his connections, the ward coal dealer has his. Both exploit those connections for profit. As for the sort of alderman from Hyde Park or the lakefront usually labeled as “independent” or “reform,” he or she is merely trying to provide the kind of government their constituents want, just like every other Chicago pol. When Mayor Edward Dunne broadened the representation on the school board by appointing non-elites, reformers complained, which led Dunne to reply that labor and middle class people are better able to determine what is good for their children than the Merchants Club. The Merchants Club and their ilk didn’t agree, and Dunne was not re-elected.
Because the average guy doesn’t care or is getting his or doesn’t have the power to effect change.
Because the middle class left town. While there are reform-minded voters in Hyde Park—a bastion of suburban values within the city—and along the affluent lakefront they are a negligible force at the polls in citywide races. Things haven’t changed much since the days of Wild Bill Thompson. Recalling the 1927 race in which the upright William Dever tried to unseat the buffooish Thompson, Will Rogers explained that Dever tried to win with the better element vote. “The trouble with Chicago is that there ain't much better element."
Because it is assumed that corruption in politics is a fundamental aspect of the place. Trying to change it therefore is as pointless as changing its humid summers.
Because people have short memories. Look at what happened to the Municipal Voters League. MVL-endorsed candidates won three of every five aldermanic races between 1907 and 1921. Its very success spelled its doom by making it appear to voters that it was no longer needed. By the early 1920s, the Municipal Voters League was no longer a force on election days.
Because the city’s a tough place when you’re a newcomer. For generations Chicagoans with little talent or training or luck have sought protection from those in power by trading their votes, and their money, for protection.
Because the city is full of Chicagoans—a people worldly wise, unsentimental, knowing if not cynical, too savvy to fall for folderol about honesty and integrity. Better a crook than a hypocrite!
Because Chicago began as a commercial city. It was a city that grew up with no traditions of civic duty, indeed had no civic history at all, and in a city in which everything else was bought and sold, why not sell public jobs and favors?
Because corruption serves a useful social function, by giving those at the bottom a little more than get otherwise, stems the impulse to rebellion, greases the skids on which immigrants clamber toward middle class. “In other words, but not for boodle and graft, farmers with pitchforks and canal diggers with pickaxes might have stormed the Bastille.”
Because reformers seldom agreed about what needed reforming or how to reform it. In the end, it comes down to the simplest of political realities: Reformers didn’t deliver. Voters didn’t want symbolic victories, they wanted practical results, and those were rare and seldom lasted very long. Edward F. Dunne for example assembled a winning coalition that, for a time at least, combined elements of the partisan, pragmatic regular Democrats and the reformist factions. Such groupings resemble zoos more than working associations, and they never last very long; Dunne’s didn’t survive his single term in office—an omen for every would-be reformer since.
Because the system works for a lot of people. Frustrated reformers sometimes posit conspiracies and backroom deals to explain the failure of reform to stick in Chicago, but the truth is simpler: There are usually more votes for the status quo than for reform. Eliminating graft and patronage, expecting public employees to earn their paychecks, or allocating public services equitably means offending everyone whose income or status depends on not doing those things.
A typical result is admirably summed up by John Schmidt, author of The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever.
Once there was a mayor of Chicago named William E. Dever. He built great public works, removed politics from the city schools, revitalized municipal government, cut waste, and ran the gangsters out of town. Not once was there even the hint of scandal in his administration . . . . At the end of four years, he was soundly defeated for reelection by a loudmouthed lout who had barely avoided imprisonment for his outrageous misconduct in the same office. So much for good government.
The individualist political culture endured in spite of reformers because it meshed well with a larger world view that encompassed all of civil relations, indeed took in relations with the next world as well. It is not too fanciful to describe the bribes offered to inspectors or cops as akin to the beneficences that the pre-Reformation Catholic Church sold to sinners to finance its operationss. Catholic historian James W. Sanders drew that parallel when he noted that some of the city reform organizations of the progressive era such as the Chicago Commons, the Civic Federation, and the Municipal Voters League were “as distant from the regular Democratic organization as Martin Luther from the Pope.”
Sociologist Edward Banfield took the anthropological view of the folkways of self-government. Banfield pointed out that Richard J. Daley was not the spawn of the devil, as reformers often imagined. The ethnic big-city machine merely followed a different ethos than did its reformist critics, acting in a cultural style that stressed personal contacts and loyalty rather than official, civil-service-like due process. Each camp acted morally, according to its own lights. This is now a commonplace even among political journalists, but when Banfield pointed it out in the ‘60s, he incurred the wrath of Protestant reformers across the country whose pretensions to speak for a “universal” political morality he had exposed.
In a 2006 essay, Joseph Epstein observed that in Chicago a certain amount of scandal is taken as business as usual. “To worry too much about it is to be thought squeamish, if not indecently delicate,” he observed. Referring to the younger Daley, who was recently reelected with 71 percent of the vote in spite of a scandal-plagued fourth administration, Epstein wrote, “To be denied election Mr. Daley would have to have been proven to have ties to al Qaeda or to have been caught copping quarters from the poor box at Holy Name Cathedral.” The voters would probably have forgiven Daley even for copping quarters from the cathedral if he'd explained that he needed them for the parking meters.
At its most extravagant, Chicago’s political culture resembles the sort of kleptocracy that one finds in primitive (as seen through Western eyes) or immature societies that have not yet evolved countervailing institutions. Italian sociologist Marco D’Eramo noted that such corruption is generally held to be a sign of political underdevelopment, the mark of an imperfect modernity, usually associated with South American dictatorships, African despots, or to modern-looking but still feudal systems such as Japan’s. It survives in Chicago because its population is constantly been refreshed by new immigrants from essentially pre-capitalist societies.
Richard Posner, a U.S. appeals court justice in Chicago, in 2005 speculated that the persistence of corruption in some of our big cities, including Chicago, may reflect the presence of immigrant communities in these cities, in which barter and other forms of reciprocal dealing based on (and constructing) relations of trust, extended family relationships, clan ties, and the like. To such peoples, public officials who "sell" public services to their friends and relatives are not abusing their positions but fulfilling them. Hispanic reform activists in Cicero, for instance, complain that it is hard to stir other Spanish speakers to vote the local GOP machine out of power even though they have the numbers to do so, because most hail from Mexico, where they became accustomed to one-party rule.) That Chicago in that respect more resembles a Third World than a First world city has been much remarked upon, although most shrink from making the comparison out loud, lest they insult the people of the Third World.
Other analyses have looked at Chicago corruption from an economics point of view. Chicago’s newcomers are unable to secure privately the kinds of access and protection that the affluent can purchase for themselves, and so in effect “purchase” them from politicians and cops. Perry Duis made the point this way: “You sold your vote because that was one of the few things that you had to sell. And the matter of morality, the idea of, political participation or citizenship as an abstract phenomenon was simply not a part of their world.”
There is indeed a case to be made for the payoff on grounds of economic efficiency. Posner has argued that bribes are in fact a fee for service, which is better than taxes as a way to finance public services. The people getting the bribed-for benefit pay for it, and bribes can improve efficiency when used to get around rigid or inefficient rules.
While wholesale vote rigging no longer goes on, Chicago pols still trade votes for favors, still accept bribes from people wishing to do business with City Hall, still put pals and relatives on the public payroll. As for the voters, the dreamed-of future imagined by the goo-goos—in which alert citizens vote for the public interest as revealed by study of the facts—never came close to happening. Printed ballots, secret voting, monitoring of the ballots and their counting might have guaranteed that only legitimate ballots were cast; alas, as historian Ernest L. Bogart observed, “little is done by government action, however, positively to assist the voter to cast an intelligent ballot.”
The fabled Democratic Party Machine of Dick Daley may be dead, but in its place is a personal machine commanded by his son. It is the very model of the personal machine of the sort built by the likes of Sullivan, Lorimer, or Dawson. The results can be seen on the front pages of today’s newspapers. The old kickbacks, in which friendly businesspeople doing business with the city got inflated prices for their goods and services, which they kicked back to the officials who okayed the contract; thus was acquired the cash needed to buy votes. Today kickback takes the form of “pinstripe patronage,” in which the mayor doles out city contracts to professional firms that return the favor with campaign contributions; thus is acquired the cash needed to buys the advertising that get votes. After the younger Daley’s landslide win 2003, one unimpressed commentator imagined a victory parade in which Daley rode in a chariot while toga-wearing aldermen strewed rose petals in his path.
Too-seldom addressed in popular accounts of Chicagoland politics is regional politics—that is, the politics that determines relations between Chicago and its suburbs, between suburb and suburb, and between the Chicagoland region and the rest of Illinois. They matter too in an era in which Chicago’s City Hall is no longer the center of the universe, or even of Chicagoland.
Chicago v the ‘burbs
They have politics in the suburbs too. This often surprises Chicagoans, but politics is as constant a reality in the hinterland as traffic. Chicagoland has roughly 1,550 local governments of one kind or another, each with a governing board or commission or council, all of which are elected by processes which, whatever their putative nonpartisanship, are political. Public issues excite passions familiar to Chicagoans. Local temperance referenda alone sparked something like clan wars in some suburbs.
The hinterland also has had its share of colorful politicians. Many observers wish they could see more campaigns like the one Oak Brook millionaire Michael Butler ran in the 1960s; his slogan was “Michael Butler likes polo, parties, and pop art—does that make him a bad guy?"
Alas, Butler was never typical in a place where politics seldom rises above (or sinks below) the budget hearing and zoning committee and school referendum campaign. Political passions, when they are aroused at all, are aroused by tree trimming and whether to install parking meters downtown. It would be a mistake to dismiss such issues as unimportant, at least without acknowledging that Chicago city politics at the ward level is not very different. It is the blessing of life in suburbs that such disputes are all there is left to argue about, contention having been replaced by a happy consensus about more fundamental issues.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, regional politics was about protecting the hinterland against the depredations of the city that was grabbing territory through annexation. An imperial Chicago is no longer a threat—the suburbs took care of that by persuading Springfield to change the annexation laws—but politics is still about protecting local interests against larger entities. For instance, suburban proposals to secede from Cook County have surfaced every ten years or so since the 1970s, usually sparked by complaints about being taxed to pay for services that are mostly used by City of Chicago residents. (In 2004, Blue Island’s mayor tried to float a plan to carve a new Lincoln County comprising 55 municipalities and 900,000 residents out of what is now southern Cook County.)
Even a generation ago, city and suburbs were distinct enough geographically and economically that each could afford to ignore the other, except when one stepped on the other’s toes in Springfield. Since then “the city” in the form of its people and its problems has spread into the suburbs. The suburbs as a result are becoming ever more urban, with the results that two alien peoples are now living in uncomfortable intimacy. Some accommodation was inescapable; when Richard M. Daley ventured to Schaumburg in the 1990s to talk to suburban mayors about common problems in the Chicagoland area, he was playing Anwar Sadat the suburbanites Israelis.
Nonetheless, the City of Chicago and most of its suburbs have few direct political dealings. True, representatives from both realms sit together on a few special purpose-commissions that offer information and advice to policy-makers about problems that transcend municipal boundaries, such as traffic. But Illinois’s system of local government allows these hundreds of towns, villages, and cities to function largely as realms unto themselves. Election to regional bodies like counties or the agencies that provide sewer services is by local district, so even ostensibly regional politics tend to be parochial.
The City of Chicago had wanted to expand O’Hare International Airport for years. Such a move needed state approval and state financial aid. As a result of a cunning annexation by the first Mayor Daley, the airport is an island of Chicago territory in a sea of suburbs. The residents of those towns have complained for years about the noise created by to-ing and fro-ing aircraft. Unfortunately for the city, a succession of powerful legislative leaders represented that part of Chicagoland—Bensenville Democrat William Redmond, speaker of the Illinois House from 1976 to 1981, Wood Dale Republican James (Pate) Philip, Senate minority leader from 1981 to 1993 and later president of that body, and Lee A. Daniels, the Republican from Elmhurst who was House Minority leader from 1983 to 1995 and House speaker from 1995 to 1997. Their opposition kept expansion in a holding pattern until 2005, when a Chicagoan became Speaker of the House and expansion began.
City and suburbs contend mainly in the theater of state politics, over shares of tax revenues and other monies, using the votes they wield for and against each other's favorite projects and programs as bargaining chips. A well-chewed bone is aid to the CTA. Planners, engineers long realized that there is a single transportation system in Chicagoland, not separate systems that serve city and suburbs. Commuters know it too; thousands begin their daily trek by driving cars on suburban streets to a Metra station, from which trains they debark to ride the CTA to their places of work. A transit reform of the 1970s—made necessary because both city buses and els and suburban commuter trains and buses were starving financially on a paltry diet of farebox revenues—was based on a regional political compromise that placed funding for all public transportation systems in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area under a new umbrella agency.
Any hope that lawmakers and voters would come to see their fates, in transit terms at least, as intertwined were in vain. A new tax was approved to provide subsidies, but the proceeds disproportionately favored the suburbs (where most of the money was raised) at the expense of the city (where most of the need was). That split also was manifest in the public referendum approving the new system; enthusiastic Chicago voters outnumbered the dubious suburbanites. Resentment over the RTA tax persisted 30 years later. Budgets and tax disputes involving transit are still not considered regionally. For example, in 2007 a bill to refinancing plan to reform CTA financing was held hostage by suburban legislators until they got money they wanted for new roads.
If Chicago wrangles with its suburbs like neighbors disputing a property line, Chicago’s relations with the State of Illinois resemble an unruly adolescent and an often indifferent parent.
During the first twenty years of Illinois statehood, Chicago was a muddy village on the edge of nowhere, and scarcely existed, politically. That was an era that many Downstaters look back on wistfully. Few tourists these days escape Shawneetown without being told about how Chicagoans in 1830 rode the 300 miles south to that then-financial capital to request a loan of $1,000, which the bank refused (quoting the 1939 Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide) “on the ground that the village was so far from Shawneetown that it could never amount to anything.”
Chicagoans still venture Downstate to ask for money, only now they go to Springfield and the General Assembly. They still usually get a less than friendly reception, too, even though Chicago has amounted to something very considerable indeed in the past 180 years. For decades Chicago itself was as populous as the rest of the Illinois combined and thus was the dominant force politically in spite of malapportionment meant to hamstring the city in the General Assembly.
Chicago's economic and political domination over the rest of the state has not always been wielded subtly, and resentment among its neighbors was perhaps inevitable. By 1900, each of the major parties had split into Chicago and Downstate factions. Illinois has made many accommodations to these realities. For instance, the state’s voters have usually sent to Washington one U.S. senator from Downstate and one from Chicago since the mid-1800s.
One of the odder artifacts of this regional distrust was cumulative voting, which was adopted in the 1870 Constitution and used for the next 110 years. Under the quasi-proportional voting system, each Congressional district had three representatives in the Illinois House. A voter was permitted to cast three votes—one for each of three candidates or all three for just one of the candidates if she chose. By persuading supporters to "plump" a candidate's vote total by casting their votes for him or her, the minority party in a district (or minority factions, such as progressive reformers) usually were able to elect at least one representative in each district. The peculiar system owed to the fact that southern Illinois was so Democratic and northern Illinois so perfectly Republican that minority parties in neither section stood no chance of representing themselves in Springfield.
Such accommodations, while they have kept the political peace, merely confirm the persistence of the division. It persists in part because politicians of both camps exploit these ancient enmities in attempts to rally forces against intrusions of other. The rivalry is not soothed by the fact that Springfield has wobbled in Chicago's orbit for decades, Chicago being Illinois’s capital city in every but the official sense. “Springfield rarely sees their dust,” noted journalist Elise Morrow about the capital’s many Chicago-area office-holders in the 1940s. “They get out of town and home on one of the Alton Railroad’s fast St. Louis-Springfield-Chicago trains as often as possible.”
Not much has changed in the subsequent 70 years, save for the fact that lawmakers these days beat their retreats back to metropolitan Chicago not on fast trains but in even faster automobiles. (Back when the speed limit on the interstate linking Chicago and Springfield was 55 or 60 miles per hour, scolding accounts of cars with General Assembly plates doing 90 on I-55 were a staple of newspaper columnists.) Top Illinois officials are today spared the tedium of even an over-the-speed-limit interstate drive; the state maintains a fleet of small airplanes to shuttle them to and from Chicago. Republican Jim Thompson and his top administrators in effect ran the state from Chicago during his long tenure in the 1970s and ‘80s, a precedent followed with more than the usual nonpartisan enthusiasm by his recent successor, Rod Blagojevich.
While individual Chicago politicians can be popular Downstate, Chicago, or more specifically “the Chicago machine,” is perennially unpopular. Thompson owed his political beginnings to his success in prosecuting Chicago Machine figures on corruption charges; that record played very well Downstate, less because Downstaters are ag’in corruption—Downstate politicians are hardly slouches in that regard—but because many of them are reflexively ag’in Chicago. Even Democrats who win Downstate usually do so by running against Chicago. Governor Henry Horner won a bitter race for a second term in 1936 by running against Kelly-Nash machine that had sought his ouster. Dan Walker—a successful corporate attorney who lived in Deerfield—won election in 1972 by preaching the anti-Machine gospel and traipsing Downstate back roads wearing a red bandana.
The ill feeling between Chicago and Downstate is a commonplace of political punditry. It has been the subject of countless editorials and at least one goodish novel (Brand Whitlock’s Her Infinite Variety). That Chicago and Downstate, whose political interests are so often antithetical and whose political biases were informed by such divergent histories, should find themselves at odds cannot surprise. City and Downstate have always been oriented toward different poles, geopolitically speaking. Journalist Joel Garreau pointed out that Chicago’s role as a border metropolis between the nation’s main farming and manufacturing regions is one reason it gets along so poorly, politically speaking, with the rest of Illinois. “From the point of view of the Chicago businessman in particular, Illinois is parochial,” Garreau writes, “compared to the Chicagoans, whose links are to the multistate region, national. And (of late) global markets.”
That rather oversimplifies the issue. Moline Deere & Co., Peoria’s Caterpillar, and Decatur’s ADM are among the most globally-minded firms in the nation, much less Illinois. Still, the interests of a diverse industrial city jibe only occasionally with a Downstate that is largely agricultural and only reluctantly urban. In every modern era, the list of issues on which Chicago and Downstate have found themselves at odds—labor practices of Chicago department stores, aid to parochial schools, English language instruction, tax assessment practices—is nearly as long as the list of issues in Illinois politics. The armies lined up to fight the Prohibition battles were largely aligned on regional lines, as were the forces that clashed over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
The conventional wisdom in Illinois is that Illinois governors and mayors deal with each other most productively when they are of opposite parties. (George Ryan and Richard M. Daley worked together to win approval for an expanded O’Hare airport for example.) A Democratic mayor who gets anything from a Republican governor is seen as a winner, it is said, while one who fails to get everything from a Democratic mayor is seen as a loser—and vice versa. Also, a governor and mayor of different parties are assumed to be at odds, so when they make each other look good they are seen as statesmanlike; the result is useful compromise. When governor and mayor are of the same party, they are usually rivals for the party’s leadership, and making a rival look good is understood to be stupid; the result is stalemate.
The exception that proved the rule happened in the 1990s. Mayor Richie Daley and Governor Jim Edgar clashed repeatedly and acrimoniously over airports and mass transit and gambling, among other issues. The fuss was widely dismissed as a personality clash, with some reason. The one man’s inveterate Chicago-ness, the other’s inveterate Downstate-ness—Roman Catholic vs. Baptist, Machine scion vs. Young Republican—is wider than even the 185 miles between their hometowns of Bridgeport and Charleston. Reconciling incongruities so vast would have required not a political consultant but a therapist.
Downstaters tend to be skeptical about Chicago politicians, who are presumed guilty until proven innocent. During his first term, detractors of new governor Rod Blagojevich dubbed him with the comprehensive sneer, “Rod Chicagovich.”)
However, Downstaters’ resistance to the charms of their city cousins is often exaggerated. When Chicagoans run poorly Downstate, it is not at all clear that it’s because they are Chicagoan. A liberal in Chicago tends to more liberal than a liberal downstate; a conservative Downstater tends to be more conservative than a conservative in Chicagoland, and moderate Republicans is each region are so moderate as to not seem Republican to anyone who cares. Thus the difficulties encountered in 1994, when moderate Downstate Democrats disdained the gubernatorial candidacy of city-ite Dawn Clark Netsch as too liberal. It happened again in 1998, when most metropolitan liberal and gay voters rejected Jackson County’s Glenn Poshard, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, as too right-wing. Suburban Illinois Republicans in recent decades have become famously moderate, at least compared to rightish national Republicans, being responsible for the election of multi-term GOP governors such as Thompson and Edgar who were pro-choice and anti-gun.
Chicagoans have sometimes in fact made themselves very popular Downstate. Richard Ogilvie and Rod Blagojevich are among the recent governors who hail from Chicago. Several other upstate governors had connections to the city's suburbs, such as William Stratton (Ingleside), Adlai Stevenson II (nominally a Downstater because of his Bloomington upbringing but by class, attitude, and residence a suburbanite, Libertyville), and Dan Walker (Deerfield). All won with substantial support from Downstate voters, which raises the question of where exactly Illinois’s provincial voters live.
After the next election
While Chicagoland politics hasn’t changed much in its essence in the past half century, the environment in which it operates has changed dramatically. Politics is about people, and so reflects the demographic forces that are reshaping the region, specifically the rapid rise of the region’s population and its nearly as rapid dispersal into the suburbs, and the resulting realignment of the representative apparatus that eventually and usually imperfectly, reflects these new demographic realities.
Chicago did not win full representation—and thus did not punch its full weight in Springfield—until the 1970s, when hundreds of thousands of its people were leaving for the suburbs and taking their votes with them. In the 1967–68 session, about one-third of the legislature was elected from Chicago-only districts; by 1985, fewer than one in five members came from city-only districts. However, a lot of those new voters in the suburbs are now Democratic. The Democrats often net nearly a half-million votes in Chicago and Cook County in statewide elections.
The City of Chicago lost 567,000 people between 1970 and 1998 while its suburbs added 1,355,000. In the first decade of the new century was entitled to one fewer U.S. representative—now only four of the state’s delegation of 19—while the suburbs are represented by eight people in Congress, which is one more than now represent all of Downstate. The same proportions, predictably, are found in the membership of the General Assembly. As the new millennium began, there were more Illinois House and Senate districts in the suburbs than in either Chicago or Downstate
Constitutional changes also have worked to reduce Chicago's influence in the General Assembly. Under the new state charter adopted in 1970, Chicago became a home-rule municipality with the power to make the decisions that it once had to get legislative approval for. This autonomy over its own affairs has made Springfield less politically relevant to the city, according to some experts, because it reduced the need for city representatives to do business on a regular basis with the rest of the legislature. James W. Fossett and J. Fred Giertz of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explain:
Since the establishment of home rule, most of the city’s efforts in the legislature have been directed toward defensive attempts to prevent encroachment on the city’s power—as in the O’Hare Airport-Park District case—or large expensive projects—such as the Chicago World’s Fair and subsidies for the Regional Transit Authority—which benefit only the city. Downstate legislators are unlikely to see themselves as having much stake in alliances with the city on either type of issue. In fact, they may have more to gain politically by opposing Chicago initiatives.
The shift of population to the northeast corner of Illinois guarantees that Chicagoland will be the dominant political power in the state. Of late, the legislative leadership, Democratic and Republican, has tended to be from Chicagoland. (Mike Madigan, Democrat from the Southwest Side, had by 2007 served 22 years as the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, longer than anyone else.) The statewide elected offices below governor also have tended to go to Chicagoland personalities. So while the city and suburbs vie for hegemony in the General Assembly, from the point of view of the patriotic Downstater, the regional political wars are over. Save for centrists like Jim Edgar, who was able to appeal to or at least not offend suburbanites, Illinois will be ruled by Chicagoland politicians for some time to come.
Contemplating the holders of major elective office who have represented Chicago and Chicagoland over the past century and a half, one derives no useful generalizations about “Chicago” politicians. Its mayors, governors, and U.S. senators have come in every conceivable type, from bland bureaucrats to poets of the stump, from earnest do-gooders to dour machine mechanics.
Many a novel has been written in which political bosses of one kind or another figure as villains, but seldom has an author dared to make Chicago politicians heroes. As a class, the pols confirm the fact—well-known by newspaper reporters among others—that most politicians are not especially interesting people. Most fade from public memory faster than the ink on their headlines
Inevitably, it is the politicians usually described as “colorful” who populate the popular histories. Such men (and a few women) have seldom been among the region’s best elected officials, although often they were superb candidates.
Consider Chicago’s mayors. The mayor’s office is situated on only the 5th floor of City Hall in a city crammed with skyscrapers, but it is thought to loom above all other elected posts in importance. Being President of the U.S. was more prestigious undeniably, but if one wanted real power one had to become a mayor of Chicago. A sampling of the characters who have occupied the mayor’s chair over the years, however, finds that most were nondescript party hacks. The few seriously reformist mayors offered more possibilities, but never achieved much, save to cement City Hall reputation as impervious to improvement.
The city's congressional representatives in both houses seldom rose above that standard. A good, or rather bad example of the local type was Dan Rostenkowski, scion of the Polish Northwest Side. “Rosty” spent nearly 36 years in the House of Representatives beginning in 1959, rising to the chairmanship of what is inevitably described as the “powerful” Ways and Means Committee. In 1994 he was indicted on corruption charges and forced to resign his leadership posts; the scandal cost him re-election that fall. In the end he was was fined and was sentenced to 17 months in prison, although he was pardoned in 2000 by President Clinton.
A few Chicagoland politicians have brought honor to the region, themselves, and the institution by their service in Congress. Among the more recent examples was Paul Douglas, the Hyde Park economist-turned-reform-alderman and war hero who was elected to the U.S. Senate three time beginning in 1948. There he lectured his colleagues in much the way he had lectured his fellow aldermen—he was often referred to as “the conscience of the U.S. Senate”—and, sadly, with no better results.
For every Paul Douglas there’s a William Lorimer. Lorimer was the head of his own faction of the GOP, the “Blond Boss” of West Side Republicans, back in day when there were West Side Republicans. Historian Robert Howard called him a “harmonizer,” although other see in him a pragmatist in the Illinois tradition. Lorimer backed one of Illinois’s best men for governor—Frank Lowden—and one its worst in Len Small. He had a hand in election of mayors like Fred Busse, governors like John Tanner and Richard Yates the younger, among many others.
“The great manipulator” of Chicago politics rose in the usual way—streetcar conductors union, the Sixth Ward Republican Young Men’s Club. He made money in banking (in part by laundering money for pols), city contracts, and bribes (He was in effect a pimp for Yerkes when latter bought street railway franchises from the City Council.)
Lorimer was elected to Congress seven times, and in 1909 was chosen by the General Assembly to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. His term was darkened by scandal that erupted when a state legislator confessed to have taken a bribe to vote for Lorimer in Springfield. Progressive and reform types in Chicago and the Senate pressed for his removal but the Senate shrank from fratricide, which caused such public outrage that the members quickly sought atonement by passing a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to leave the election of senators in the hands of voters rather than lawmakers. New charges led to the reopening of the case against Lorimer, and in 1912 the Senate finally declared Lorimer's 1909 election invalid on grounds that “corrupt methods and practices were employed in his election.” That was grounds for ousting most of the body, but Lorimer was the sacrificial goat.
A few stand out in the history of the city, for their personality, for their political acumen, or their mendacity, and some for all three. Wentworth and Ogden. The Harrisons, father and son, the first City Hall dynasty. Thompson, Chicago’s “cowboy statesman” whom even circumspect historians have called “a windy buffoon.” Cermak and Kelly, the architects of the Democratic machine of legend. Jane Byrne, because she was the first woman mayor, and Harold Washington because he was the first African American one. And of course the Daleys.
William Butler Ogden
On that roster, the first and in many ways the most representative was William Butler Ogden, the first mayor of the newly incorporated City of Chicago. It is sometimes said that Chicago was such a miraculous place in those days (he served 1837–1838) that a mayor could get rich more or less honestly, but the fact is even more strange: old Chicago was a place where rich men condescended to serve as mayor. As Donald Miller notes in The City of the Century, Chicago’s founders conducted business to aid their city, and went into politics to aid their business. The foundations of a city—passable streets, sewers, proper courts, and police—was the foundation of great fortunes too. Miller notes that only two of the first nineteen mayors of Chicago were not notable businessmen.
These men didn’t just vote for improvements, they built them. Ogden was father to the city’s first railroad—the Galena and Chicago Union, which opened in 1848 and would grow into the great the Chicago & North Western Railway. Ogden also designed the first bridge over the Chicago River that did not impede river traffic, wrote its first charter, and kept the city afloat financially during the depression of 1837. Ogden thus can be said to have been father to modern Chicago as well. Given the energy with that his generation brought to such affairs, one wouldn’t be surprised to read that he laid the brick for the first city hall.
John “Long John” Wentworth
The only graduate of Dartmouth College to grace the halls of municipal power in Chicago was John Wentworth. Known as "Long John" Wentworth because of his six-foot-six height, Wentworth was a newspaperman and lawyer, By the time he was elected, in 1860, Chicago’s mayor office tended to be filled by men who were politicians first and businessmen second, a reversal of their forerunners’ priorities. In addition to his two terms in City Hall (1857–1858 and 1860–1861), Wentworth, a founding member of the Republican Party and friend of Lincoln, served six terms in Congress.
Wentworth was the sort of fellow usually described as flamboyant. His feats at the dining table were legendary. And it was Wentworth who famously introduced the visiting Prince of Wales from the balcony of the Tremont House Hotel to members of the press gathered below by saying, "Boys, this is the prince. Prince, these are the boys.”
More substantially, Wentworth secured Chicago’s future as an Illinois city. Wisconsin members had forced a vote that would restore to that state the strip of Illinois between the state line and the southern tip of Lake Michigan that had been (Wisconsin felt) stolen from it by Nathaniel Pope in 1818. The story goes that then-member Wentworth was promised a Senate seat if he backed Wisconsin’s claim but he declined, like a true patriot.
The Carter Harrisons
Chicago politics in the thirty-five years before the outbreak of World War I may be termed the Age of Harrison. The Carter Harrisons, father and son, won ten of the seventeen mayoral elections held in those years, five each. Not all politicians are good at playing politics—the Harrisons were. Biographer Edward R. Kantowicz notes that Chicago politics in their day was a bipartisan jungle teeming with rival bosses and factions. Assembling winning coalitions was a challenge; keeping them assembled took something like genius. “The Harrisons owed their success to personal skill and charisma," writes Kantowicz, "not to the support of a disciplined machine.”
Kentuckian Carter Henry Harrison, Sr. served four terms as mayor, from 1879 until 1887 and was elected to a fifth, in 1893, but was assassinated by a deranged office seeker before completing his term. (He was one of the two great Chicago politicians whose lives were cut short by assassin’s bullets, the other being Anton Cermak.)
Harrison put together a winning coalition by offering money-saving reform to the business classes and offering an open hand to long-outcast ethnic and union factions. Known as “the common man's mayor,” Carter Harrison I ensured that the former’s pleasures—principally drinking and gambling—were un-interferred with in Chicago. The working man unions were respected as well; before the bomb went off that sent the Haymarket demonstration into history, Harrison had mingled with the gathered anarchists and advised the police to leave the demonstrators alone. He hosted the world at the World’s Columbian Exposition; his murder just days before its official close led a genuinely mourning city to cancel the fair celebrations and hold a public memorial service; so many people crammed the streets round City Hall where Harrison’s body lay in state that streetcars could not pass.
Carter Harrison II first took over the mayor’s chair in 1897, which he filled for consecutive terms until 1905, which were followed by another term from 1911 to 1915. The younger Harrison’s background suited him perfectly for a career in Chicago politics. A Protestant by birth, educated in Germany, at Irish-Catholic St. Ignatius, and at WASP-y Yale, and married to a Catholic, he was, as Kantowicz has put it, “nearly a balanced ticket all by himself.” (It says something about the immigrant nature of Chicago’s early populations that he, the thirtieth Chicago mayor, was the first one to have actually been born in the city.)
Father and son were much alike. Each was comfortable with the full spectrum of city life, each appealed to ethnic and working voters (his family newspaper was the only local newspaper to support the Pullman strikers in the mid-1890s), each pushed for good-government reforms—the younger Harrison was a sworn foe of transit magnate Charles Yerkes—while leaving morality to the churches. He was a substantial enough political personage that people talked seriously about him as a Democratic Presidential nominee.
William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson
While still a boy, William Hale Thompson and his family moved to Chicago, where young William attended public schools. Most budding Chicago pols get experience rounding up wayward voters in the wards, but Thompson rounded up real doggies when he worked as a ranch hand in the West through his teens. He came back to Chicago in 1891 to run the family’s thriving real estate business and undertook the life of the companionable businessman. His political career began in 1900 with election as alderman and later as county commissioner; his legacy to the city during that apprenticeship was Chicago’s first municipal playgrounds for children.
Thompson ran for mayor and won in 1915, and won again in 1919, and in 1927. He was a builder in the Dick Daley mold, but it is not his record per se but the man that attracts historians. No figure makes clearer that the Chicago of a century ago was a different kind of place than Thompson’s. He was xenophobic and crooked as an old stick; his governing coalition included the Capone mob, and he shook down city employees. He also was a populist demagogue who campaigned against England during World War I, and his foreign policy consisted of his promise to punch King George in the nose; he even fired Chicago’s school superintendent for encouraging the use of pro-British histories in the classroom. His interest in geopolitics was convenient; bashing the Brits made him a hit in the powerful German wards.
Harold Ickes likened Thompson to a dim Huey Long. The mayor had no philosophy save telling people whatever they wanted to hear, and to lay it on thick. Tales of his exploits have filled more than one book, and a thousand editorials. As columnist and critic M. W. Newman put it, no one could surpass Thompson for sheer oafery and brute cunning. He was a one-man Jerry Springer Show who wins worst-mayor contests going away. He does have one distinction: The reigned on the verge of the Great Depression, which event would reorient partisan allegiances in the city so that Big Bill turned out to be Chicago's last Republican mayor.
Anton Cermak was born in 1873 near Prague. His father was a coal miner, and on arrival in the U.S. the family settled in Braidwood in Will County’s coal district. A future as a mule driver in the coal pits did not appeal to young Tony, so at seventeen he moved to Chicago, where he eventually made a living selling scrap lumber.
Business success bought Cermak into banking and real estate. Political success was owed to the Democratic Party, through which he rose to become ward chairman in Bohemian Pilsen. A four-term career in the Illinois House—he was elected Speaker—ended when he was expelled for selling his vote.
Cermak was named to the Cook County Board of Commissioners, a body that was less fastidious than the Illinois House about what a man did with his vote. Lots of Chicago pols campaigned in taverns, but Cermak campaigned for them; his constituents liked their beer, and he liked the campaign contributions of the tavern and brewery interests. (He was secretary of the United Societies for Local Self-Government, the industry anti-Prohibition lobbying arm.)
Cermak’s gifts as a politician saw him rewarded with a term as chairman of the Cook County Board in 1922, and the party chairmanship in 1928. From that base, in 1931, he ran for Chicago mayor and won. His victory came in part because voters were disgusted with the coarsening effects that Prohibition—or rather the city’s widespread resistance to it—was having on Chicago.
As mayor, Cermak assembled a multi-ethnic, or at least a, multi-European ethnic coalition. (Big Bill Thompson, his opponent in the 1931 race, recalled Cermak’s past when he sneeringly referred to him as “Pushcart Tony,” but that was not a background that thousands in Chicago found sneerworthy.) Cermak thus put together the basic parts of what became famous as the Cook County Democratic Machine.
Cermak put that machine at the service of liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and the young governor-to-be (and son-in-law) Otto Kerner Jr.. It was while campaigning for FDR in Miami that Cermak was killed in 1933 by a bullet many assumed had been meant for the president; many (including the President) came to believe that Cermak had been targeted by the mob angry about his threats to clean up Chicago. Cermak’s career may thus be summarized in the titles of books written about him, such as Boss Cermak of Chicago and Anton the Martyr.
Edward J. Kelly
Largely forgotten these days, former park board president Edward J. Kelly’s fourteen years on the 5th floor of City Hall was the longest tenure of any Chicago mayor prior to the rule of Richard J. Daley. The first of the Bridgeport mayors, Kelly was named to fill the term of the murdered Anton Cermak and went on to win election in his own right.
Kelly was never just another Irish pol from Back of the Yards. He was for years the respected chief engineer of the not-quite-so-respected Sanitary District of Chicago—and as president of the South Park Board in the 1920s he shepherded lakefront beautification and construction of the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and Museum of Science and Industry.
Kelly allied himself with the Democratic machine then run by Pat Nash (the inheritor of the machine built by Cermak) and solidified its hold on the city, mainly by bringing blacks voters into the Democratic camp. With Nash tending the machinery and Kelly the government, Kelly was formidable force. He was as able a mayor as he was a politician. Among the achievements of his regime were new subways, improvements to fire departments, and the first expressways.
Politic expediency and, apparently personal conviction, led Kelly to also back open housing. That policy was as politically fatal in the 1940s as it would remain for rest of the century. Party leaders wanted a clean new face for the 1947 race, and Kelly dutifully stepped down.
Richard J. Daley
Richard J. Daley is the man most people think of when they think of Chicago mayors. He was born in Bridgeport, which had long been to Irish pols what the South Side was to blues guitarists. His was a classic American rise—night school, a day job (clerical) at the stockyards in the old neighborhood, precinct captain, ward office, secretary of Cook County Democratic Central Committee. Daley’s career in office began in 1936, when he was elected to the Illinois General Assembly; he later served in the state senate.
Daley was elected Democratic Party chairman in 1953, and mayor two years later. This made him a unprecedented political supremo, since the jobs of mayor and party had always been allocated to two men. He was both a master of patronage and an efficient administrator who managed to put more people on the payroll and more money in the city treasury at same time. He was at his peak a national political power. Even Presidents courted him, and while he might not have won the White House for John Kennedy in 1960, he was happy to let others think he had. Saul Bellow wrote of him, “The manifest Mayor Daley was incoherent and sometimes vulgar. There was another Mayor Daley, who was infinitely knowledgeable and subtle. Both of these Daleys were real. The relations between the two of them must have been fascinating.”
However, Da Mare's s reputation has suffered in retrospect, and his name is associated in the minds of younger Americans with segregation, street violence, and corruption. During Daley’s reign, the public schools declined and white Chicagoans fled to the suburbs by the hundreds of thousands. That things might have been worse without him is not a question that can be answered, but it is worth noting that other big U.S cities fared not as well as Chicago during the 1970s.
Jane Byrne became the first woman to be elected Mayor of Chicago in 1979, an achievement that also made Chicago is the largest city in the United States served by a female mayor. Not much else about her one term in office was historic. Byrne ran as a reformer even though she’d spent her entire political life cosseted by the Daley Machine; in a contest between a known party stalwart and a woman whom few voters recognized as one, Byrne won in an upset.
She made a few front-page gestures to consolidate her reputation as a progressive. (She once said, “City employees will be hired and promoted because of their abilities—without outside interference”—outside of City Hall anyway.) Her heart wasn’t in it, however. She had been elected with the support of many disaffected African American voters, but her program to clean up Cabrini-Green was to move in for three weeks as a publicity stunt while filling three vacancies on the Chicago Housing Authority board with white hacks.
Byrne owed her office to a combustible coalition that quickly fell apart, and, embattled and alone, she was never re-elected to major local office. Her other claim to fame is fact that she was challenged in the 1983 mayoral primary by the son of her old mentor, Richard M. Daley, and by splitting the white vote the two allowed African American Harold Washington to win nomination as the Democratic mayoral candidate. It arguably was the most progressive thing she did as a politician.
Whatever history’s verdict about him might be otherwise, Harold Washington will remain in the history books as Chicago’s first African American mayor. He was born in Chicago in 1922, the son of Democrat precinct captain. Trained as a lawyer, and retaining ties to the Machine, he was awarded with a job in 1954 as assistant city prosecutor and later with a post with the Illinois Industrial Commission.
Electoral politics was next—six terms in the Illinois House of Representatives beginning in 1965, followed by three years across the statehouse in the Illinois Senate. He forged a record as a classic Hyde Park liberal, being especially strong on civil rights and civil liberties.
It was race that led him to sever his ties to the Machine as the Daley regime shifted its base of support from black wards to white ethnics as African American pressed for more open housing and better schools. In the 1960s and ‘70s, police brutality was one of the issues on which Washington campaigned in his first try for the mayor’s chair after Daley’s death. Defeated, he ran for Congress and spent a term in Washington arguing the liberal case for social services in what had become an ideologically hostile capital.
A weak incumbent and the unsettled state of the Democratic machine after the death of Daley offered another opportunity for the mayorship. Washington chose to run in the 1983 primary against incumbent Jane Byrne and Richard A. Daley. Washington won after a campaign in the black wards that was a cross between a revival and a civil rights rally. The general election was ugly, and the first term even worse, with a bloc of 29 white aldermen obstructing the new mayor’s key initiatives and appointments.
These “Council wars” blighted Washington’s first term, but he did enact some of his reform agenda—more minorities and women in key posts, constraints on patronage, a reduction in the budget deficit. He was re-elected in 1987 with a more cooperative council, only for the promise of that term to be cut short when he died of a heart attack late that year.
In addition to Chicago mayors, Chicagoland has produced politicians who achieved much in the minor realms of Congress, the White House and the Executive Mansion in Springfield.
It might seem demeaning to Abraham Lincoln to recall him as a mere politician rather than a secular saint, and even more insulting to list him among Chicago politicians, but he was a frequent visitor to Chicago, where he was especially popular among the sizable antislavery faction and recent German immigrants. There are many spots in city and suburbs where the great man made a speech, met with clients, or visited friends, and of course he was nominated as the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate in 1860 in Chicago.
Downstate towns may brag more loudly that “Lincoln slept here”—he was usually the only famous person to have slept in many of them—but Chicagoland towns are happy to claim that honor as well. A visitor to Lake Forest, for example, who is not told that Lincoln visited briefly the Gilbert Rossiter house on April 2, 1860, is entitled to feel cheated.
Indeed, the lives of Lincoln and his family are threaded through Chicagoland history. Lincoln’s body was carried to its grave from Washington aboard one of the railroad cars made by George Pullman’s firm—the publicity for the product was priceless, and helped spawn an industrial giant. (Lincoln’s eldest son Robert went on to the president of the Pullman Palace Car Company.) After his death, wife Mary Todd was briefly confined to an asylum here—Bellevue Place, on South Jefferson Street, west of the Loop.
Adlai Stevenson II
Adlai Stevenson II was handpicked by then Democratic Party boss Jake Arvey to run for Illinois governor in 1948. He won, and his success convinced the national party to run him for the Presidency in 1952 and 1956. Stevenson unfortunately came up against the war hero Dwight Eisenhower in both campaigns, and lost. He is perhaps best remembered today as John Kennedy’s Ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuba missile crisis.
While a Downstater (he is a Bloomingtonian by birth and upbringing) Stevenson was a Lake Forestan by sensibility. (His "farm" on the outskirts of Libertytville can fairly be described as being in suburban Lake Forest.) He had family connections to the North Shore. He worked as a Loop lawyer in Chicago after college, in the prestigious firm of Sidley & Austin and summered in Lake Forest as an “eligible young bachelor.” (The last was perhaps a better preparation for politics than is generally recognized) and eventually took a socialite wife. Biographer John Barlow Martin noted that when Stevenson ran for the governorship in 1948 many of financial backers were of his social set in Lake Forest who donated money but probably couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him because of the “liberal” views of this centrist Democrat.
John Peter Altgeld
John Peter Altgeld is the earliest of the Chicagoland-linked governors who survives in public memory. He was a German-born lawyer—he would become the first foreign-born man elected governor—working in Chicago when he was elected to the Superior Court of Cook County in 1886. The city was in the throes of a bitter and violent contest between workers and owners over who would control capitalism, and Altgeld, like so many of his countrymen, sided with the workers. He was elected governor in 1892 as progressivism was gathering force.
Altgeld was a man for the time in every way. His perspective was urban and cosmopolitan rather than rural and Midwestern, and he ran a campaign that was not dependent on donations from special interests, as he financed it largely out of his own pocket. The younger Carter Harrison, a political ally, said that Altgeld’s was perhaps the most brilliant mind he had encountered in politics. Altgeld was “a radical who, though he had become comparatively wealthy by fortunate real estate investments, had preserved his sentiments of comradeship with what he was fond of terming ‘the plain people of the land,’” wrote Harrison. “Without his wealth his leanings would probably have carried him to affiliations with the Socialist party, if not indeed into the outright anarchistic group.”
As governor, Altgeld backed prison reform (he had written the book, Our Penal Machinery and its Victims in 1884). He pushed to abolish child labor and expand the state university system. He pioneered in the appointment to key state posts of women such as Hull House luminary Florence Kelley, his inspector of factories. Altgeld also proved a fiscal whiz, taxing corporations to the benefit of the chronically strapped state treasury. He was personally honest—Altgeld was one of the few Illinois pols to turn down a bribe from Charles Yerkes—and some have speculated that the national Democratic Party might have turned to him as a Presidential nominee had not his German birth barred him from that office.
The pivotal events of the Altgeld administration were his decision to oppose President Cleveland’s decision to use federal troops to break the Pullman strike in 1894, and his pardon of the three surviving defendants in the Haymarket trial of 1886 on the grounds that they had not received a fair trial. The pardon in particular stirred protest, and Altgeld was defeated in 1896 after a re-election campaign whose nastiness was recalled by poet Vachel Lindsay in “Eagle Forgotten:” “They had snarled at you, barked at you, foamed at you, day after day.”
For taking stands that are almost universally regarded today as right and brave, Altgeld was awarded only a single term in Springfield by the people of Illinois. Apart from a failed attempt to run for mayor at the head of the Municipal Ownership Party in 1899, Altgeld spent the rest of his life in private law practice (with Clarence Darrow). He died young at 54, ill and broke.
Frank O. Lowden
Frank O. Lowden was a Minnesotan by birth, a rich Chicago corporate attorney by endeavor, a socialite by marriage, and a reformer by temperament and conscience. Lowden joined the Chicago ruling elite—he married George Pullman’s daughter—and became active in Republic Party politics. He was elected to two terms in Congress, where he earned reputation for helping the farmers that would serve him well in Illinois statewide politics. In 1916 he defeated incumbent Democrat Edward Dunne for the Illinois governorship.
Lowden was a progressive of the Minnesota type, interested in scientific agriculture and—to the extent the term means “fact-based”—scientific government. Lowden backed women’s suffrage and laws against religious and racial discrimination. He also built 3,000 miles of new cement roads by 1920, financed by bonds backed by car license fees; most Illinoisans, forever bogged in mud, regarded that as an achievement of a real progressive.
Lowden was a fiscally conservative Republican who believed that government should operate with businesslike efficiency. That made him a reformer in an era in which patronage and other abuses led to anything but efficient use of tax dollars. He backed a successful referendum calling for a constitutional convention and accumulated a budget surplus while reducing taxes.
The keystone of Lowden’s administration was the Civil Administrative Code of 1917, which reorganized Illinois government to be more efficient, economical, and (thanks to centralized budgeting) accountable. This is an undertaking that almost all Illinois governors have felt obliged to promise, and a few even to attempt, but Lowden pulled it off. Gubernatorial historian Robert Howard calls the Civil Administrative Code one of the two most important laws ever enacted by the state legislature. However, Lowden left Springfield after only one term, There were sporadic attempts to run him for national office, but he spent most of his last 20 years on his farm estate in Ogle County.
Henry Horner—a Jewish bachelor Democrat, who thus departed from the Downstate norm in three crucial ways—was very popular Downstate. Horner was an outstanding Cook County judge from 1914 to 1933. During that tenure he exhibited the traits—a desire to make the administration of government services more efficient and more accessible to the poor—that would serve him well as governor of Illinois during the Great Depression.
The state’s problems were grave, and Horner did as well as any governor could have and better than most. He saw into practice new state programs to help farmers with debts, to raise state revenues, and boost aid to the unemployed and otherwise needy. Horner also ushered most of FDR’s New Deal legislation through a resistant General Assembly.
Dealing with the Depression, however, was nothing compared to dealing with Ed Kelly’s Chicago machine. Kelly tied to unseat him—Horner was not cooperative in making patronage available to the bosses—and hi reelection campaign of 1936, which he won, left him embittered and exhausted. (Unusually for a Chicago governor, it was his strong Downstate support that carried the day.) Horner fell ill two years into the new term, and after a protracted period of incapacitation died in 1940.
Horner was renowned for his common touch. Biographer Tom Littlewood tells this charming story:
Two newsboys who delivered papers to the mansion were sometimes invited in for a chat and a snack by the governor. One day they showed up at the Statehouse to announce that they were returning the favor by taking the governor to lunch. The three went to a hamburger stand in the governor’s limousine and sipped pop from a bottle with three straws.
Horner achieved a couple of firsts of the sort usually thought to be important. His victory made him Illinois’s first Jewish governor and the first governor to be born in Cook County. More importantly, Horner fathered the Illinois sales tax, which earned him the not-meant-to-be-flattering tag of "High Tax Henry." Under duress, the legislature under Horner acted on reforms that in some cases had languished for 20 years—laws limiting the work week to six days, an eight-hour day limit for women workers, unemployment compensation, among others. One can exaggerate Horner’s courage and concern—one didn’t have to be much of a humanitarian to stand out in the Illinois of the early 1930s—but he earned Carl Sandburg praise as “the Real Goods.”
Otto Kerner, Jr.
Chicagoan Otto Kerner, Jr.’s political life began after the war. He was scion of the old Cermak machine, indeed he would marry Helena Cermak, daughter of the late Anton Cermak. Kerner was anything but a machie hack, however. His father was a judge, and he himself attended an Ivy League University and Cambridge University before studying for the bar at Northwestern University. A successful corporate lawyer, Kerner enlisted in the U.S. Army as World War II loomed, was decorated for courage in combat, and continued his military career after the war in the Illinois National Guard, retiring as a major general.
Kerner was on the Cook County bench in 1954 when the machine was looking for a unimpeachable candidate to put up against the scandal-plagued William Stratton. Kerner had the bearing of a solder and looked great in a uniform, and in effect ran as a soldier when he campaigned in 1960.
In office Kerner proved a modest reformist by backing a fair employment practices law, a consumer credit law, and modernization of the state’s criminal code. Kerner was, like Henry Horner before him, one of those rare Chicagoans who liked, and was liked by, the people of Springfield. Though nominally a Chicago ethnic, he had patrician airs (which endeared him to local swells) and plebian habits (which endeared him to everyone else). He actively promoted local projects, even helping to raise funds for the local YMCA, and was a regular sight on the local links. Kerner even used to shop in neighborhood supermarkets—a sight almost as astonishing in the 1960s as it would be today.
Kerner was re-elected in 1964, but after two terms that have to be considered successes—including nudging Illinois toward some accommodation with the civil rights movements—he ended up on the federal bench, on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago.
Kerner became known to the rest of the country when he accepted the chairmanship of thee National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders that had been established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the rioting that had scorched American cities in the summer of 1967. Popularly known as the Kerner Commission, the body concluded famously that, in its most famous phrase, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal" and called for renewed commitment to racial integration. The report had little practical effect but remains a modest monument in the history of good intentions.
Kerner’s past came back to haunt him when he was indicted and convicted of bribery, conspiracy, income tax evasion, mail fraud, and perjury charges resulting from a racetrack stock deal he benefited from while he was governor. Many observers thought he was a victim of a dubious legal theory wielded by a politically ambitious young U.S. Attorney. He did jail time before being released because of ill health, and died in 1976.
James R. Thompson
The most popular Illinois governor ever—as measured by vote margins and consecutive victories—was Chicago-born-and-bred Jim Thompson. He was born in Chicago, the son of a local pathologist. After a youth in Garfield Park, he graduated from the Northwestern University School of Law. A career as lecturer on criminal law led to various posts including, in 1971, U.S attorney for the Northern District of Illinois
Over the next five years, Thompson garnered convictions against corrupt politicians—famously against former governor Otto Kerner—that allowed him to fulfill his lifelong ambition and enter politics.
“Big Jim”—he stood well over six feet in height—was gregarious, smart, and politically adept. He was usually characterized as a moderate Republican, but pragmatism was the hallmark of his administrations. (“This isn’t heaven, this is Illinois,” he once said in reply to a suggestion he found Utopian.) He was a competent administrator but a better politician. He was effective dealing with legislative leaders (as predecessor Dan Walker had not been); as for the voters, he never seemed happier than when pressing the flesh at the state fair every August, a duty that many an Illinois governor dreaded. During the height of his fame he was talked about seriously as Presidential material, but his views were insufficiently right-wing for his party at the time.
His heritage as an office-holder is bit vague; best remembered for redecorating the Executive Mansion and for having occasioned a new term that was quickly added to the Illinois political lexicon—pinstripe patronage, the latter describing Thompson’s practice of awarding no-bid state contracts to consultants and professionals who showed their gratitude by making generous campaign donations. But the free-spending Thompson managed—barely—to keep both the state solvent and the voters satisfied—no mean feats.
By the time he decided not to seek re-election, in 1991, Thompson had become Illinois’s longest serving governor—14 consecutive years. Upon leaving Springfield he accepted a post with one of Chicago biggest law firms, a lucrative post in which he amassed the fortune that his long public service had denied him.
After the cheering stops
Judging from its public works of art, Chicago is a city that is conscious of history—just not its own history. For example, most of the monuments and memorializations to political figures in Chicago recall not Chicago’s famous politicians but famous politicians who were from Chicago. There is no lack of reminders of the presence in the city of Stephen A. Douglas, for example. The neighborhood that grew up on land he purchased along the southern lakefront is today known as the Douglas neighborhood. The Little Giant stands forever atop an anything-but-little column—it’s 86 feet tall—topped by a statue by Leonard Volk that overlooks his 53-acre estate, "Oakenwald," at 35th Street and Cottage Grove.
Only a few of Chicago’s heroes are recalled in public places at all. The Hamilton Park fieldhouse bears murals showing the founding fathers, but, perhaps wisely, no school or park building offers the example of Chicago pols as models to the young. There are no statues to Hinky Dink or Bathhouse John., no commemorative plaques identifying the residences of the Thomas Keanes or the Pinky Cullertons, to name two briefly crooks famous from the reign of Daley I. Of the more modern mayors, only Harold Washington and Richard J. Daley have been commemorated by the renaming of public facilities or art works.
Memorializations of individual politicians exist, but they are less numerous than one might think—a result perhaps of the fact that so many of Chicago’s pols were not its best men. Frederick C. Hibbard’s likeness of Carter Harrison stands in Union Park on the West Side. The office building that is part of the massive Federal Center in the Loop was renamed in 1975 in honor of U.S. Representative John C. Kluczynski, from Illinois from 1951 until his death in 1975. usually described as a “Machine stalwart” (He was Dick Daley’s congressman in every way, since the mayor lived in Kluczynski’s district.)
Across the street is the U.S. Courthouse, which is the most likely place these days to spot a Chicago pol. The courthouse in 1969 was renamed for longtime Illinois senator Everett M. Dirksen, the Downstate Republican and long-time Senate minority leader. (A bust of the hero of Pekin adorns the lobby.) Thus does fate add insult to injury by ending the careers of so many Democrats in a Republican building. ●