Chicago has an unrivaled legacy of dubious political practices, and in many ways, we still define our city by a history of suspicion and intrigue. Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit still haunts the west side, the gate to the Union Stock Yards casts its shadow over Halsted as a present reminder of the storied meatpacking industry, residual excitement surrounding the 1893 World’s Fair still brings tourist buses to the Midway Plaisance. The popular imagination of Chicago still revolves around the rampant municipal corruption of the early 20th Century and the decadence and indulgence of the turn-of-the-century Millionaire’s row on Prairie Avenue, where the wealthiest (and most corrupt) of Chicagoans once resided.
But the politics of Chicago are not those which governed the city one hundred years ago, and with a Chicagoan in the White House, a new primetime TV show about Chicago corruption, and the mayoral race gaining national coverage, the terms “machine politics” and “Chicago Style politics” are getting thrown around loosely. The original meanings of these words are part of a far deeper history than any of these passing references indicates.
Up until the 1930’s, political power was consolidated in informal institutions and corruption ran rampant throughout the ranks of the city’s elected officials, with cigar-filled back rooms and vice districts running the city. This reached a pinnacle in William Hale Thompson, whose residency in the mayor’s office coincided with most of Al Capone’s reign over the city. A colorful character, Thompson once held a mayoral debate between himself and two rats (he won). It’s no coincidence that Thompson is considered one of the most corrupt mayors in American history.
But this earlier version of Chicago politics began to give way to an even more infamous establishment: the democratic machine. The 1931 mayoral campaign of the Czech immigrant Anton Cermak marked the first time any politician had succesfully unified Chicago’s disparate ethnic communities, who had been largely politically fragmented up to that point. Elected over Thompson, Cermak lasted only two years in office before he was assassinated in early 1933. Accepted history holds that the assassin’s target was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was present with Cermak, and that an errant bullet caught the Mayor. But, as with all assassinations, alternate ‘truths’ have surfaced: many assert the killing was a hit ordered by the Chicago mob.
While Cermak died within a month of being shot, the system of networks and connections amongst the city’s various immigrant groups was just coming into its own. The Irish Catholic community quickly seized Cermak’s Democratic Party and the neighborhood of Bridgeport rapidly grew to be the seat of political power, an influence that remains up to the present day in Mayor Daley.
Cermak’s position as both mayor and as head of the Democratic Party transitioned rather quickly into the hands of Edward Kelly. Through his mayoral term, lasting until 1947, and the successive terms of Bridgeporters Martin Kennelly and the first Mayor Daley, the Democratic Party flourished on a system that exchanged patronage and political favors for personal deeds. (The effectiveness of this system in securing a democratic allegiance is still evident today: the lone alderman registered as a Republican, the 41st Ward’s Brian Doherty, is not seeking re-election this year.)
This machine, reaching a form of perfection in Richard J. Daley’s office, was quick to fall apart following his death midway through his 6th term as mayor. While whispers and allegations of “the machine” still get tossed around, no one has had as much unilateral control over the city’s Democratic Party and political landscape as the first Mayor Daley (though not for lack of effort).
The legacy of patronage and connection-based politics has been slowly dwindling as the city’s recent past has been dominated by a series of power struggles. Succeeding Mayor Daley was a product of his administration, Jane Byrne, the first and the only female mayor of Chicago. While her campaign was at first widely discredited, the snowstorm of 1979 turned into a major political issue when the city was ineffective in clearing the streets (sound familiar?), which she was able to exploit to her advantage. To this day, Chicago stands as the largest city in the United States to have had a female mayor.
Byrne was narrowly defeated in the 1983 Democratic primaries by a high school drop out, World War II veteran, and Illinois political veteran by the name of Harold Washington. The first and the only elected African American Mayor of Chicago, Washington presided over one of the most racially heated and politically intense periods in Chicago history. Labeled the “Council Wars” in reference to the franchise “Star Wars,” Washington struggled with a faction of 29 all-white aldermen headed by the 10th Ward’s Eddie Vrdolyak and the 14th Ward’s Ed Burke. The aldermen refused to approve the Mayor’s most important appointments to city-run agencies such as the Board of Education and the Chicago Transit Authority. When Washington and his loyal 21 aldermen walked out of the meeting, Vrdolyak and Burke took the opportunity to make their own appointments. From that point, Washington ruled by veto and the city came to a near standstill until court-ordered special elections in seven newly redistricted wards brought in enough new aldermen to break the stalemate.
Washington died of a heart attack in the midst of his second term, prompting another power shift in City Hall. This vacuum created the opening for our not-for-long current mayor, Richard M. Daley. Son of the aforementioned Richard J. Daley, Daley the younger has held office since 1989, his 22-year tenure making him the longest serving mayor in Chicago history. Stories abound of his seemingly short-tempered and impulsive political style. One of the defining moments of his time as Mayor revolves around the closure of Meigs Field, an airstrip located by Soldier Field. After repeated political negotiations spanning almost ten years failed to close the airstrip, Daley decided to act single-handedly, hiring a crew of private bulldozers. Moving in on the night of March 31, 2003, the crew tore giant crosses into the runway. But while diplomatic acts like this have yielded comparisons to his father and other past politicians, Daley’s tactics have been mild-mannered relative to the giants of the past. If anything, the public backlash over the closure of Meigs provided evidence that Daley didn’t have the same hold over the the city as his father had.
Mayor Daley now transitions out of office with a rather ambivalent legacy behind him. His charter-school focused education programs have found, at best, mixed results in improving the quality of education for children across the city. And his ambitious housing program, “The Plan For Transformation,” which set out to replace housing projects with mixed-income housing, has caused as many problems as it set out to solve. But Daley is also credited with raising Chicago’s profile in terms of business and tourism, making Chicago a relevant player on the world stage.
Whoever takes the city helm come May 16 will encounter a completely different city than that of a century ago. Today, “Chicago Style” is most applicable to hot dogs and document formatting; for politics, it’s an antiquated reference to a city that no longer exists. As Chad Broughton, head of the Chicago Studies Department at the University of Chicago, explains, “Corruption in Chicago politics has become caricature, an easy way for some to dismiss a complicated political and policy-making system.”
And as a new era of Chicago politics is ushered in, that system is changing. What this chapter in mayoral history entails will be the subject of much speculation, much gossip, and much abuse of words. On February 22, voters will give “Chicago style politics” a new significance.