If you were to ask anyone about what’s wrong with the state of politics in America, three words would help in defining their frustrations—Chicago-style politics. Defined by legendary examples of corruption, patronage, and disruption, Chicago has become in the eyes of many a national example of everything that is broken in government today. But where did this perception come from and is it really as bad as everyone says?
To pinpoint the origin of Chicago’s political narrative is difficult. Early examples of Chicago-style politics include the story of Richard J. Hamilton, the appointed Cook County school commissioner, who loaned the City’s school fund to private real estate speculators who defaulted on their loans. A few decades later, the 1871 municipal election rallying cry of Mayor Joseph Medill for the “Fireproof” ticket was to “vote early and vote often.” Throughout the past two centuries, political scandals of different forms and fashions have captivated Chicagoans and bewildered the rest of America.
However, the history of Chicago politics is more than a chronicle of tabloid scandals. It is a story about democracy in practice.
Chapters of Chicago’s story would undoubtedly be titled by the names of the individuals who have led the city as mayor. Names such as Thompson, Daley, Cermak, Byrne, and Washington have become integrally connected with the city itself.
The first truly notable mayor following the Great Fire of 1871 was Republican three-term Mayor William Hale Thompson. Thompson’s time in office was characterized by high levels of corruption, including partnerships with famed organized crime leader Al Capone, and use of crude ethnic patronage.
Every mayor since Thompson has been a Democrat, beginning with Anton Cermak, who built a broad coalition of ethnic and working-class voters along with progressives such as University of Chicago professor Charles Merriam, business leader Julius Rosenwald, and social reformer Jane Addams to defeat the incumbent mayor Thompson.
The Democratic Party would become stronger throughout the city and reached its peak during the tenure of Richard J. Daley from 1955 to 1976. Daley, a career politician from the Irish American Bridgeport neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, would become the longest-serving mayor in Chicago’s history at that time. Daley emerged as a political force in the early days of the New Deal and developed a reputation for working to keep the city financially sound by exploiting the state's decision to divide the financial budgets of the city and county governments based on need. These separate budget rules continue to this day as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is in charge of the county’s nearly $3 billion budget, which encompasses entire hospital systems including UChicago’s own UCMC.
Daley also ran the city by exploiting racial politics. By allowing de facto segregation of African American and Latino populations to occur through discriminatory city housing policies, Daley was able retain support among working-class whites while giving limited resources to low-income minority populations. The segregation of the city would lead Martin Luther King Jr. to visit Chicago in 1966 and claim that he had never seen any other place “so hostile and so hateful” as Chicago. During his time in Chicago, King also spoke at Mandel Hall about “economic reforms aimed at combatting the spread of urban slums.”
The racial and ethnic divides throughout the city became increasingly volatile in the 1970s and ’80s as different party factions attempted to disrupt the Daley status quo. Two candidates who succeeded in challenging the Daley machine were Jane Byrne and Harold Washington.
Mayor Jane Byrne, at first a loyal member of the Democratic machine, worked to unseat Mayor Daley’s successor, Michael Bilandic, in 1979. Positioned as a political reformer, Byrne hired Ruth B. Love, Chicago’s first black school superintendent, and also became the first Chicago mayor to recognize the city’s gay community. Byrne is the only woman ever to serve as mayor.
Mayor Harold Washington ran to unseat Byrne in the 1983 mayoral election. By creating a coalition of first-time minority voters from throughout the South and West Sides, Washington became the first black mayor in Chicago’s history. Washington’s candidacy also saw the rise of another Chicago political institution—Institute of Politics Director David Axelrod. Axelrod worked for Washington’s reelection campaign in 1987 after more than a decade in journalism. Axelrod would go on to work for more than 150 local, state, and national campaigns—including the senatorial and presidential campaigns of Barack Obama.
Our two most recent mayors, Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, have worked to prepare Chicago for the challenges of the 21st century. In Richard M. Daley, Chicago elected the son of the longest-serving mayor in Chicago’s history, who then outdid his father by working in City Hall for 22 years. During Daley’s tenure, he worked to promote business, infrastructure, and tourism. With Emanuel, Chicago elected the first Jewish mayor in the city’s history.
Today, Chicago is facing many serious challenges. CNN’s *Chicagoland* documentary series this past year underscored its many challenges, from crime to youth unemployment and the many budgetary travails of its government entities. The size of Chicago's unfunded pension liability, the difference between its estimated obligations and assets, is the largest among U.S. cities and on top of that it has a current municipal deficit of $339 million. Chicago Public Schools faces major budget challenges too, as Emanuel continues to fight with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who herself is considering a run against Emanuel in the upcoming mayoral election over the record number of school closings during Emanuel’s tenure and the increased number of charter schools throughout the city.
With all of these problems it is easy to fall in line and claim the city’s political system is fundamentally broken. The best way to change that reality is to stand up and get involved. Why not join in the scrum and make a little political disruption?
Will Fernandez is a fourth-year in the College and is the senior chair of the Institute of Politics Student Executive Board