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On top of Chicago: Richard J. overlooking his city
The Machine Gets Retooled
Early in February, on primary day, I ventured to Bridgeport, the birthplace of mayors. Five of Chicago’s 45 mayors, including the Daleys, hail from this roughneck, Irish Catholic-dominated neighborhood at the edge of the old slaughterhouse district. Freezing rain fell as I parked my car at a broken meter (so much for the “City That Works") near the intersection of 35th and Halsted, the heart of the neighborhood’s business district. In spite of the bad weather, I half expected the streets to be overflowing with people, as if it were the St. Patrick’s Day parade. After all, aren’t elections in Bridgeport tantamount to city holidays? But the sidewalks were practically deserted. Ditto for the 11th Ward Democratic headquarters and Schaller’s Pump, the old neighborhood tavern that people in the old days used to joke was the “real” City Hall. On election day at the Nativity of Our Lord, the Daley family’s former parish, the gymnasium of the church’s adjoining school becomes a polling place. A few precinct captains stood outside, and voters trickled in, but not many.
Several poll workers I talked with said they were surprised by the poor turnout. “In the old, old days, everybody would come out and vote—bad weather, good weather, it didn’t matter,” said one poll watcher at Engine Company 29, where Daley I voted his whole lifetime. The difference owes partly to a change in the neighborhood’s ethnic identity. By the time of the 2000 census, Hispanics and Asians outnumbered whites in Bridgeport, and statistically speaking, these ethnic groups have much lower voter turnouts. (Daley II himself moved from Bridgeport to the Central Station development in the South Loop in 1993.) But what about all of the die-hard precinct workers—where were they? “They don’t do that as much anymore,” said the poll watcher.
Like Bridgeport, Chicago as a whole has changed dramatically in the nearly 32 years since Daley I’s death. The stockyards are long gone. The steel mills have vanished. Chicago is no longer even the “Second City”; it dropped to third behind Los Angeles in the 1980s. Huge changes have come to the city’s politics, too, simply because of the gradual decline of the Democratic Machine. Sure, Chicago is still dominated by one party—just as most other big cities are today—but not the way it was in the years under Daley I.
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“Organization, not Machine,” Daley I would sternly correct people who criticized his vast political operation. “Get that. Organization, not Machine.” Whatever you call it, Daley I and his political army counted as many as 35,000 to 40,000 patronage workers who could be relied on to deliver a 400,000-vote margin in each election.
Daley I, of course, did not create Chicago’s political machine; Mayor Anton Cermak did it a quarter century before Daley—forging a loose coalition of ethnic duchies ruled by politicians and hoodlums who divided up the spoils with little thought for the public interest. But it was Daley I who turned Cermak’s Model T organization into a political muscle car. He changed the existing feudal system, allotting authority to the ward bosses but holding them responsible for taking care of city services and turning out the vote. In return, the ward chieftains surrendered control of the city government to him. Daley I also modernized the machine by cozying up to big business. “He’s often thought of as the last of the old-time bosses,” says the veteran political consultant Don Rose. “But he was the first of the new-time bosses by bringing LaSalle Street into the Machine.”
A consummate politician, Daley I had a Vince Lombardi approach to politics—winning wasn’t everything; it was the only thing. It’s hard to overestimate how rough-and-tumble the old Machine played. The former 43rd Ward alderman William Singer, one of a handful of independent aldermen who dared to defy Daley I, remembers what happened soon after he was elected to the council in 1969: The ward’s Democratic committeeman, Edward Barrett, who was also city clerk, fired a slew of precinct captains from their posts in his clerk’s office. “That’s how it worked,” says Singer.
The slightest dissent was met with swift retaliation. The Reverend Jesse Jackson recalls that if church pastors didn’t go along with the pro-Daley ticket or spoke out against the mayor in their Sunday sermons, they could count on building inspectors showing up at their churches on Monday to issue notices of code violations. “Daley’s authority was absolute, and people bowed to absolute authority,” says Jackson.
To Daley I, however, the Machine was a necessary appendage to municipal governing. “Good politics is good government,” he used to say. In addition to delivering votes, ward bosses were also expected to deliver city services 365 days a year. By the end of Daley I’s first term, there were 475 new garbage trucks, 174 miles of new sewers, 69,600 new street and alley lights, 72 downtown parking facilities, 2,000 more police officers, and 400 additional firefighters.
As chairman of the Democratic Party of Cook County and the head of the patronage system, he larded city departments with political workers. “No job was too small to get their attention,” says the former Illinois governor Dan Walker, who often clashed with Daley I. “They would fight over a janitor job as strongly as they would fight over a cabinet job.” A Chicago Tribune investigation in 1974 found that the city had squandered $91 million in its annual budget because of padded payrolls. In Daley I’s administration, changing a light bulb was no joke; it required five city workers, according to the paper.
At the same time, Daley I employed some of the city’s best and brightest policymakers and technocrats, and if a politically connected city commissioner was a loafer or a drunk, Daley I would make sure he had a competent deputy to run the department. “One of the myths about Richard J. Daley is that he was just a politician,” says Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University. “He loved to govern. He loved to run things.”
Bill Daley says his father doled out patronage jobs, not just as rewards for his political supporters, but also to lend a hand to the needy: “My dad would go to wakes, and the widow would be there with a couple of kids, and she’d say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, Mr. Mayor.’ He’d say, ‘Call my office tomorrow—we’ll see what we can do.’” Today, adds Bill Daley, “you can’t do that. You’d go to jail.”
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune archive photo