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Where Have All the Polish Pols Gone?

They were once a vital cog in the Chicago Machine. Now, the last of them is being run out of the Democratic Party.

Dan Lipinski tosses candy to the crowd at the Tinley Park Irish Parade in 2018.   Photo: Gary Middendorf/Daily Southtown

Congressman Dan Lipinski is the last of a dying breed in Illinois.

At one time, politicians with names ending in -ski dominated the state congressional delegation. In the 1960s, the Chicago area was represented by Roman Pucinski, Edward Derwinski, John Kluczynski, and Dan Rostenkowski, a musical polonaise of names asserting Poles as the second most vital cog in the Chicago Machine, after the Irish.

Now Lipinski, who inherited his name and his congressional seat from his father, Bill, is on the verge of being run out of the Democratic Party, which considers his conservative views on abortion and gay rights anachronistic. This fall, he’ll face a rematch with Marie Newman, the socially liberal challenger he barely beat in 2018. This time, Newman has more support among Lipinski’s colleagues.

Lipinski’s unwillingness to conform to the 21st Century party line is an example of why Polish pols — and white ethnic politicians in general — are disappearing from Chicago. The defeat of the last Polish-American congressman would be a big comedown for a group that helped found the Chicago Machine, way back when Anton Cermak was running for mayor in 1931.

“When Cermak put together the Machine, the Poles played a very important part,” says Dominic Pacyga, a retired Columbia College professor and author of the new book America Warsaw: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Polish Chicago. “They were allies of the Czechs. The Germans had moved out, assimilated. The Poles and the Irish were still around. They kind of reconnected with their ethnicity.”

Poles were so important to the white ethnic coalition that when Richard J. Daley ran for mayor in 1955, he put a Pole on the ballot as city clerk. John Marcin held the office until 1979. He was succeeded by Walter Kozubowski and James Laski, who both went to prison for corruption. That was the end of Polish city clerks.

Since then, that position has gone to a Latino politician. Both politically and residentially, Poles have given way to Latinos on the Northwest and Southwest sides, where the tag ”Zimne Piwo” beneath Old Style signs increasingly reads ”Cerveza Fria.” When 23rd Ward Ald. Michael Zalewski resigned last year, he was replaced on the City Council by Silvana Tabares. On the Northwest Side, the last Polish alderman was Michael Wojcik, who took a job at the CTA after stepping aside to allow Ariel Reboyras to run for his seat. The only remaining alderman of Polish descent is Susan Sadlowski-Garza, who, reflecting the makeup of her Southeast Side ward, sits on the Latino caucus.

In 2011, a delegation of Northwest Side Poles showed up at a community meeting chaired by then-Ald. Dick Mell, who was in charge of that year’s City Council remap. At the time, Chicago’s Polish community was clustered around Belmont Avenue between Milwaukee and Pulaski, an area represented by three different wards (31, 35, and 30). The Poles wanted a ward of their own, so they could “go to one aldermanic office to take care of the needs of [their] community.”

They didn’t get one, and they won’t get a ward in the next remap, either. The reason, says Pacyga, is that “90 percent of Poles live in the suburbs.” As he writes in American Warsaw:

Polish Chicago had long been a player in Chicago politics, exhibiting considerable influence on both the Democratic and Republican Parties. As the twentieth century counted down, Polonia’s political power had declined: it had, in short, lost its clout. Nowhere can this be seen more startlingly than on the city’s Northwest Side. Once the home of powerful Polish politicians such as Dan Rostenkowski, that clout quickly faded as demographic shifts brought a very different Chicago into being…The old urban ethnic neighborhoods broke up, and like other white ethnics, Polish Americans moved to the suburbs, diluting their once powerful political base. Many Polish Americans intermarried and no longer identified primarily with their ethnic group. Others had become Reagan Democrats.

Poles were particularly attracted to Reagan’s anti-communism, but as Roman Catholics, they also shared his social conservatism.

“Generally speaking,” says Pacyga, “the urge is to vote Democratic locally and GOP nationally.”

Which brings us back to Lipinksi, who also inherited his brand of politics from his father. As a congressman, the senior Lipinski belonged to a group of moderates called the Blue Dog Democrats. His politics were hawkish and anti-abortion. Those views were fairly common among Dems during the days of John F. Kennedy, the most successful white ethnic politician in American history. Today, those views are mostly held by Republicans, which is where many white ethnic voters have migrated.

The Poles were the first major white ethnic group to lose their power in Chicago, but it’s happening to the Irish, too. In last year’s mayoral election, the Irish in Beverly backed Jerry Joyce, while the Irish in Bridgeport supported Bill Daley. Neither faction had the numbers to put its candidate into the runoff.

On the council, North Side Ald. Patrick O’Connor was defeated by Andre Vasquez. Ald. Ed Burke held on to his seat, but is being challenged for committeeman by state Rep. Aaron Ortiz, who defeated Burke’s brother, Dan, in last year’s Democratic primary. House Speaker Michael Madigan’s district is 70 percent Latino. When Madigan retires, he will be succeeded by a Latino politician.

Unlike the Poles, “Latinos are still a big immigrant group,” says Pacyga, and “will play a larger and larger role” in Chicago politics. “As far as ethnicity goes, the Latino ethnicity is going to be very important.” As important, if not more, than the Polish ethnicity once was.

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