Question Answered: Why has Chicago had so many Democratic mayors?

Question Answered: Why has Chicago had so many Democratic mayors?

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Think you know your Chicago mayoral history? Take the quiz at the bottom of the page before you read this article. Better yet, take it again after you’re done reading and compare your scores! Let us know how you did.

Plenty of things about Chicago politics have changed since 1969. For one thing, the Shakman Decrees prohibit hiring or firing of most public employees for political reasons. For another, we are living in the post-Daley era. And of course, these days, our mayors don’t even have political affiliations; that office has been non-partisan since 1995. But this is still Chicago and the city’s bluer than ever. Every single one of our fifty aldermen is a Democrat (Republican Brian Doherty of the 41st Ward left office in 2011), and our current mayor’s last gig was working with the country’s most recognizable Democrat: President Barack Obama.

It was this situation that led a Curious City listener to ask this question: 

Why have all the mayors of Chicago for the past 80 years been Democrats?

He also added: “This is longer than the one-party system of the former Soviet Union.” Alas, my grasp of Russian politics is shaky, so my editor and I chose to glide over that part, and maybe it’s justifiable: Several people posed the “why Democrats reign supreme” question. That’s a decent amount of interest, despite the fact that nearly every Chicagoan alive today has had a Democrat as mayor. 

Many Chicagoans have heard stories about dead people voting or exchanging votes for a turkey dinner, but the power of the machine is in its nuts and bolts. It’s lots of small parts working together. To really understand just how completely it controlled this city, I had to call a man who beat the machine, only to have the machine bite back. Hard. 

How tough can it get?

The guy in question is Bill Singer, and we include him despite the fact that he was (and remains) a Democrat and, if you grasp what he went through to fight Mayor Richard J. Daley, you can better understand why Republicans haven’t put up much of a fight lately.

When Bill Singer ran for alderman in 1969 there were only four members of City Council who considered themselves independent from Mayor Daley and the Cook County Democratic organization, which Daley also headed at the time. With the help of campaign manager Dick Simpson, Bill Singer won his election and, as 44th Ward alderman, he became the fifth independent liberal member of Chicago’s city council.

The victory, which occurred in a runoff, came at great financial cost to Mr. Singer, but it was a calamity to Edward Barrett, who served as both the ward’s committeeman and county clerk. As such, it was Mr. Barrett’s responsibility to shepherd party officials’ pick — James Gaughan , an Irishman — into office. Bill Singer, now a successful lawyer, says of his 1969 victory, “Essentially what we did was beat them at their own game, by out-organizing them.”

What price did Barrett bear for his failure? According to Bill Singer “Eddie Barrett fired about forty people in his office because they had lost their precincts to me. Fired them the next day … They lost the precincts and they were gone.”

Richard J. Daley at the 1968 Democratic Convention

While going through periodicals from the period, the only mention of this incident I could find was another alderman accusing Barrett of firing three named county employees as a result of electoral loss. Whatever the exact number, it is true that Barrett’s political career ended after he was found guilty of accepting bribes, among other crimes of a political nature. He was sentenced to six years of house arrest.

Bill Singer was one of less than a handful of independent Democrats on City Council. Singer describes the years after he won that election as an exciting time, one where there was real opposition and discussion of the issues. By 1975 Singer decided he’d take a run for mayor. He says he had reason to be optimistic: He was a veteran of a successful anti-machine aldermanic campaign; he’d been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune as well as the major unions; and he was an effective fundraiser. Another major reason? He wasn’t sure if Daley was going to run. 

In May of 1974, Daley suffered a mild stroke while signing a document at his desk. He underwent surgery to remove a blockage, and then retired to the family vacation compound in Grand Beach, Mich. The press was held at arms length to prevent any signs of wear and tear from showing; the account in American Pharaoh says his own Press Secretary didn’t even know the actual diagnosis until days afterward. According to the Chicago Tribune, Daley returned to City Hall in September and ran a staid campaign. The health scare was significant, though, and caused Chicagoans to realize — maybe for the first time — that Richard J. Daley wouldn’t be their mayor forever. As longtime WBBM reporter Bob Crawford put it, Daley was “still the leader, but no longer the Boss.” 

Nonetheless, Singer lost the race.

“I once ran into a guy many years after I ran for mayor,” Singer says. “ I was introduced to him by a third party, and the third party said, ‘Mr. X, do you know Bill Singer? And he said, Sure, I voted against him seven times when he ran for mayor.’ I know the fellow, and I believe him to be telling the truth.”

Origin of the machine

Chicagoans, as Singer says, like their mayors, and they like continuity; both sentiments have certainly contributed to the 80-year Democratic streak. In the 1975 race that Singer participated in, Republicans couldn’t even convince a new candidate to run. After losing the last Republican seat on city council, John Hoellen agreed to run until he knew his opponent would be Mayor Daley, at which point he dropped out, saying “It’s obviously impossible for me to run. … I’ve had it. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

Anton Cermak is glad it was him instead of you.

So, just how Democratic is Chicago? So Democratic that Republicans don’t even bother to run for the city’s highest office. Just how corrupt was that machine? Enough to be a cocktail party joke. And how much did Chicagoans rely, at least in their minds, on Richard J. Daley? Again, enough to elect him even when he was basically incapacitated by a stroke. 

Almost every other major city that existed in the early 20th century experienced machine politics to some degree; political bosses successfully manipulated the vulnerable immigrant underclass, milking them for political power in exchange for measly services. But by the time other famous machines were collapsing, like Tammany Hall in New York, Chicago’s Democratic organization was just kicking into high gear. 

The intersection of ethnicity and the politics of alcohol

Eighty years ago Chicago’s mayor was Anton Cermak, a Democrat born in what today would be the Czech Republic. Cermak’s ethnicity made him an unlikely candidate for mayor in a town that was then still dominated by western Europeans — the Irish and the Italians — but it was also what made his terms as mayor a turning point in history. Cermak’s success created a multiethnic coalition within the Democratic party. These populations had been growing in Chicago throughout the 1920s and, according to Roosevelt University’s Professor Paul Green, co-editor of The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition, Cermak realized that by uniting these ethnic groups, he could solidify the political power of the Democratic party.

Professor Richard Schneirov, author of Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97, thinks Chicago’s history as a liberal town goes back even further than Cermak. Schneirov says that because Chicago industrialized more rapidly and not as gradually as other American cities, it developed a radical labor class in a way that cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New York never did. 

“Suddenly,” as Schneirov put it, “[Chicago] had a working class to defend.”

Chicago quickly became the American — and maybe even global — center of the labor and socialist movements, which drove progressive causes for decades to come. According to Professor Schenirov, the women’s movement was instigated by labor leaders, as was the Civil Rights movement, before the church took it over. Chicago’s liberal leanings, evident today in both local and national elections, can thereby be directly connected to its affinity for the working class.

While New York’s working class diverged along ethnic divides, Chicago’s burgeoning labor movement spanned them, and one mayor in particular pushed things along: Carter Henry Harrison. When Harrison became mayor in 1879, the city had a large population of Germans who considered themselves Republicans — despite their radical dedication to the labor movement. However, they also liked to drink. By refusing to enforce temperance in Chicago, Harrison turned the German population into Democrats, using a non-political social issue to solidify a multiethnic powerbase.

Harrison was also known to go around to African-American communities bragging that, since he was born in Kentucky, he surely had some slave ancestry. He also united Jews and Catholics as immigrant workers, leaving the Republican party in disarray. Schneirov stresses that, while Harrison did begin to create the coalition type of government we associate with Chicago, it wasn’t really a political machine; Harrison came from too wealthy a background and his grip on power was as yet too insecure.

Mayor Martin Kennelly attends the opening of the 20th Century Train line.

Carter Harrison didn’t spell the death-knell for Chicago’s GOP, and neither did his son, Carter Henry Harrison II, Chicago’s first political dynasty. Chicago’s last Republican mayor (and possibly its most corrupt) was William “Big Bill” Thompson, who was rumored to govern with Al Capone as his right hand man. The Roaring ‘20s brought another wave of immigrants to Chicago, providing Anton Cermak, the great Bohemian unifier, with plenty of supportive, working class voters to manipulate through patronage jobs and other political machinations. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, this population was all the more vulnerable and all the more ready to support FDR, the great Democratic defender. It turned out that Cermak himself was a “Democratic defender” in a more literal sense; he died in 1933 by taking a bullet intended for the president. 

Cermak was succeeded by Ed Kelly, an Irishman who held an engineering degree. According to Professor Green, the education of Chicago’s bosses played a large part in their success. “These were not just a bunch of drunk saloon keepers,” he says. 

Kelly retained a friendship with FDR, and also allied with Bill Dawson, a formerly Republican African-American leader who helped Kelly win over the city’s Republican stronghold, which at that time happened to be two African-American wards. As wealthier, white Chicagoans abandoned the city for the suburbs, Catholics, Jews, immigrants and African-Americans became Kelly’s powerful voting base.

The machine gets humming

At this point, Chicago’s political machine was fully underway, and office-holders began to perfect their tactics. This era spawned the legends that Chicagoans are practically raised on. Dead men registering to vote. Homeless people exchanging votes for bottles of liquor. A precinct captain comes by to drop off your garbage can or shovel your sidewalk, and leaves a list of names telling you whom to vote for.

Elizabeth Taylor, co-author of the Daley biography American Pharaoh, says Chicagoans put up with this system for so long because they would traditionally “rather have clean streets than a clean city.” She sees the Daleys — both Richard J. and Richard M. — as apolitical managers who masterfully manipulated the machine. Richard J. Daley nearly lost the office in 1966 when liberal Republican (and former Democrat) Ben Adamowski won the majority of the white vote. Daley, ever the coalition builder, focused on and succeeded in capturing the black vote and retained his office. To prevent future challenges from faux-Republicans, Daley became a much more conservative leader in subsequent terms. Daley primarily thought of himself as a businessman, and didn’t hesitate to befriend Republican businessmen from the collar counties. Maintaining power was the priority, and party affiliation was merely the means to that end.

Richard M. Daley donned leprechaun green for this Irish-themed event. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Public Affairs, Midwest).

Experts who helped answer our Curious City question say that the Daleys and their organization didn’t stay in power simply because nobody bothered to get rid of them. Harold Washington was elected as Chicago’s first black mayor (unless you believe Carter Harrison was black, and few people do) in 1983. That vote was split between multiple white candidates, allowing Washington able to win by simply taking the black vote. Much of Chicago rejoiced after Washington’s election, believing he would herald a new age of race relations in the city. After his sudden death by heart attack in 1987, an independent, anti-Democrat organization called the Harold Washington Party sprung up in his wake. 

The problem was, the new party threatened to peel black voters away from Democratic organization candidates, something Democratic leaders couldn’t stand. In 1990 they successfully had the Harold Washington Party’s removed from a countywide ballot after a judge ruled they had violated election laws by failing to present the appropriate number of signatures. No comparably organized opposition to the Democratic majority has sprung up in Chicago since. By 1995 mayoral races were non-partisan, though in 1996, the non-partisan mayor (Richard M. Daley) heartily welcomed the Democratic national convention to town, feting the nation’s most famous party members, including President Bill Clinton. 

When I talked to Bill Singer about his experience with local politics in Chicago, I also asked him what he thinks of the city today. Is it the same place? Does it have the same political culture that he was steeped in? 

“Is there still patronage? Yes,” Singer says, “But the dependency factor is far far less. It is less and less important every year.” He says there are still one or two wards here and there that are probably run the same old way, but he doesn’t think citizens would sit and watch Rahm Emanuel become Chicago’s next kingpin.

“Chicago likes it’s mayors, Chicago likes continuity,” Singer says, “But I do think that days of 20, 22-year reigns are over. … I don’t think that will happen again.”