Selling Senate seats? A Chicago political tradition.

July 5, 2011

We've heard much lately about selling a U.S. Senate seat. This is really nothing new. The most notorious case took place a hundred years ago. As you might expect, a Chicago politician was at the middle of it.

William Lorimer was English in origin, born in Manchester in 1861. He grew up poor on the West Side of Chicago. After bouncing through a series of jobs, he started making some serious money manufacturing bricks and trading real estate.

People liked Billy Lorimer. He was charming and he was smart. He went into Republican politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894.

Even while in Washington, Congressman Lorimer never forgot his Chicago base. He built a powerful political bloc on the West Side and ran it like a general. The press called him the Blond Boss. Lorimer was involved in some shady deals, but always managed to wiggle out of trouble.

 

In 1909 U.S. Senators were chosen by the legislature of each state. One of the two Senators from Illinois was scheduled to start a new six-year term in March. So in January the Illinois legislature began voting on whom they'd send to Washington.

The vote deadlocked. Weeks passed--60, 70, 80 ballots. At first Lorimer wasn't even considered. Then one of his allies introduced his name, as a compromise candidate. On the 95th ballot, Blond Billy was elected. Nearly half of his votes came from the Democrat side of the aisle.

Lorimer was seated by the U.S. Senate in June 1909. A year later. the Tribune dropped a bombshell--one of the legislators confessed he'd been paid $1,000 to vote for Lorimer. The man claimed that other legislators had also been bribed.

Lorimer demanded the Senate investigate the charges. A committee was formed, came to Illinois, held hearings, and cleared him.

The committee did find bribery in Lorimer's election, but said Lorimer didn't know anything about it. Anyway, those bribed votes hadn't mattered. Lorimer's winning margin was so big, he would have been elected without them. Therefore, there was no reason to throw him out of the Senate.

Many Senators--even many Republicans--thought the investigation was a whitewash. The Blond Boss didn't know that his stooges were making payoffs? Did anyone really believe that?

In March 1911 the full Senate voted. Lorimer kept his seat, 46-40.

Meanwhile, back in the Land of Lincoln, new information was surfacing. Lorimer's buddies had spent over $100,000 in bribes to buy his election. One Chicago businessman had put $10,000 into the pot because he knew Lorimer favored a high tariff. Now the Illinois legislature was launching its own probe of the 1909 Senate vote.

So in June 1911, the U.S. Senate appointed a second committee to investigate Lorimer's election. After six months, the second committee also cleared him.

But by now, Lorimer was becoming an embarrassment. The Republicans were running for cover. Ex-President Roosevelt refused to attend a party fund-raiser until the Senator was un-invited. Vice President Sherman publicly asked Lorimer to resign.

Defiantly, Lorimer said he would fight on. He was being smeared because of politics! The newspapers were out to get him! He was the champion of the people! He had been honestly elected to do the people's business! He wasn't a quitter--he wouldn't quit!

On July 13, 1912 the full Senate once again voted on the Lorimer case. The Seantor claimed that he was being subjected to double jeopardy, that he'd already been cleared once by the Senate. His arguments were ignored. The report of the second committee was ignored. Senator Billy Lorimer was expelled by a vote of 55-28.

He came back to Chicago. In 1914 Lorimer was indicted for misusing money in the bank he owned, but was acquitted. He was never elected to another political office. The old Blond Boss died in 1934.

The stink of the Lorimer case led to a change in the U.S. Constitution. The 17th Amendment was quickly adopted, and went into effect in 1913. Now U.S. Senators were to de directly elected by the people.

And as we know, that has ended the bribery and fraud.