Great (and not so great) moments in mayoral inauguration history

May 16, 2011

(Flickr/PaxPaig)

Rahm Emanuel was sworn in as Chicago's mayor on Monday, the first inauguration of a new mayor in this city in more than two decades. Emanuel has been inaugurated before (to Congress), and has attended his fair share of inaugurations as a politician, but this is the first time all the attention will be on him.

We perused some of Chicago’s previous mayoral inaugurations to find the lessons to be learned from the triumphs and mistakes of past Chicago mayors.

Be able to predict the future

Roswell B. Mason, mayor during the Great Chicago Fire, ironically said very little about the fire department during his speech (it was typical at the time to pontificate about the status of important city departments). Mason included only one sentence on the subject, saying, “The Fire Department, I believe, is well disciplined, prompt and reliable, and justly merits the high appreciation in which it is held by the public.”

Mason was later kicked out of office by Joseph Medill (yes, the Medill who was co-owner and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune) who aligned himself with the newly formed “Fireproof“ party. Unsurprisingly, Medill had a hard time in office; dealing with a crumbling city, he did not finish out the last three and a half months of his term, and departed for Europe on a sick leave.

Invite a wide variety of guests

When he was first elected to office in 1989, the currently departing mayor Richard M. Daley was criticized by an Alderman for not inviting an ethnically diverse group of Chicagoans to his festivities, with The New York Times reporting that “A relatively small proportion of the guests in the vast hall were black.” Saul Bellow was invited though, and made remarks.

In contrast, Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, declared his inauguration the “people’s ceremony.” He featured “music, prayer and poetry, which emphasized the city’s ethnic, religious and racial pluralism and the grassroots support that swept him into office,” The Los Angeles Times reported. He included readings by Studs Terkel and Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as prayers from a variety of religious communities. To top it all off, a multi-ethnic children’s choir sang both Spanish and black national hymn.

Be careful where you stand

During Mayor Francis C. Sherman’s celebration, three citizens were injured by standing in front of a cannon that discharged as part of the celebration.

Don’t expect your constituents to respect you just because you’re now mayor

On March 9, 1840, Chicago's fourth mayor, Alexander Loyd, delivered the first mayoral inaugural address on which archival evidence still exists. Just because it was the first doesn’t mean it was well received; popular newspaper of the time The Chicago Democrat didn't even mention it (despite the fact that Alexander was a democrat), while a Whig Party newspaper said Alexander's inauguration speech which “considering his embarrassing situation and that he was probably totally unaccustomed to public speaking, was as appropriate and well as could have been expected."

If you want to get your picture taken with the Mayor, it might not happen the way you expectJames J. Laski, a former city clerk who was convicted in 2006 for stealing tens of thousands of dollars in bribes as part of the Hired Trucking Scandal, got more than he expected when he met with Mayor Richard M. Daley on inauguration day.In Laski’s book, he writes of being told by Mayor Daley’s office that he and his family might not be able to get their picture taken with the Mayor on inauguration day because of a scheduling conflict. Instead, they all ended up getting their picture taken with the Mayor and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who was then running for President. The kicker: Laski’s son accidentally said congratulations to the Senator instead of Daley.

Don’t assume history will remember your inauguration very well

It’s unclear when the exact date of Mayor Francis C. Sherman’s inauguration was; though the civilian injuries occurred on March 4, Sherman did not file his oath of office until the 6th of 1841, and his speech was not published in the paper until the 10th.

There’s always next year (or a few years after)

Many of our mayors got to experience inauguration in non-consecutive terms, a practice that appears more common earlier in Chicago’s political history. Benjamin Wright Raymond skipped a turn, serving from 1839–1840 and then from 1842–1843, and he’s one of many. But most impressive is Francis C. Sherman: he skipped 20 years between two of his terms.