Richard J. Daley: A Separate World

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(Page 8: Irish Politics)

An excerpt from "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation" by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor

Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

After graduating from De La Salle in 1919, Daley took a job with Dolan, Ludeman, and Company, a stockyards commission house. Daley once said that as children he and his friends were always drawn to the slaughterhouses, "being city kids fascinated with farm animals." Daley woke at 4:00 a.m. each day to walk from his parents' house to the yards. In the mornings, he moved cattle off trucks and weighed them. In the afternoons, he put his De La Salle skills to work in the firm's offices, writing letters, taking dictation, and handling the books. Later in his career, Daley would regale political with tales of his days as a stockyards "cowboy." He presented himself as something of a South Side John Wayne, probably overstating the amount of derring-do his job required, and certainly omitting the grim brutality of the work.

Bridgeport's traditional employment trinity consisted of the stockyards, government work, and politics — with a select few going off to the priesthood. Daley once said that his ambition early in life had been to become "another P. D. Armour," but it must soon have become clear to him that a career in the stockyards would likely have been low-paying and unsatisfying. Daley could have joined the many Bridgeporters who took patronage jobs with government bodies like the Park District or signed on as police officers. But that route also held little promise and fell far short of the accomplishments his mother had been grooming him for. Politics was another matter entirely.

A young man with political ambitions could hardly have started out better than being born in Bridgeport. Bridgeport lay in the heart of the Irish South Side, in the powerful 11th Ward. The 11th was one of Chicago's famous "river wards," the bloc of working-class and slum wards along the Chicago River that were the mainstay of Chicago's Democratic machine. These wards — which were at odds with Chicago's Protestant Republican establishment — regularly produced the machine's margins of victory, and their leaders controlled the Cook County Democratic Organization's Central Committee. Of all the river ward neighborhoods, Bridgeport was in a class of its own: it would soon come to be known as the "mother of mayors."

Starting in 1933, this small South Side neighborhood would send three successive residents to City Hall — Edward Kelly, Martin Kennelly, and Daley — who would rule the city for forty-three years. Daley was coming of age just as Bridgeport's machine politicians were rising to new heights of power.

In addition to being lucky in his place of birth, Daley had the right ethnic background for a career in Chicago politics. An old Chicago adage holds that "the Jews own it, the Irish run it, and the blacks live in it." It was an exaggeration on all three counts. But if the Irish did not run Chicago — most of the businesses, banks, and newspapers were in Protestant hands — they did dominate the Democratic machine out of all proportion to their numbers. Chicago was far from the only city to fall under the sway of Irish politicians. As early as 1894, Yankees were decrying the "Irish conquest of our cities," and listing the Irish Democratic party bosses who had seized the reins of municipal power from Boston to San Francisco.

It is one of the great puzzles of American political life that almost all of the great political bosses — including New York's William "Boss" Tweed, Kansas City's Tom Pendergast, Boston's James Michael Curley, and, of course, Daley — have been Irish. The Irish had an advantage of timing: they arrived in the United States in one of the earliest migrations, making them one of the most established ethnic groups. They also spoke English and were familiar with America's British-style political system.

And unlike Central European and Eastern European immigrants who often carried ethnic rivalries with them from the old country, the Irish had no enemies among their fellow immigrants. "A Lithuanian won't vote for a Pole, and a Pole won't vote for a Lithuanian," said one old-time Chicago politician. "A German won't vote for either of them — but all three will vote for [an Irishman]."

It has also been suggested that the Irish have a particular aptitude for machine politics. Edward Levine, in his classic study The Irish and Irish Politicians, argued that the Irish were naturally "given to politics."

Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out in Beyond the Melting Pot that the structure of the political machine, with its rigid hierarchies and respect for seniority, in many ways paralleled "[t]he Irish village ... a place of stable, predictable social relations in which almost everyone had a role to play, under the surveillance of a stern oligarchy of elders, and in which, on the whole, a person's position was likely to improve with time. Transferred to Manhattan, these were the essentials of Tammany Hall." The Irish disposition toward political machines may also derive from a traditional need for unofficial forms of government. In eighteenth-century Ireland, the penal laws made Catholicism illegal. In response, the Irish created their own informal mechanisms for taking care of their own. It was an outlook that translated easily to America's Protestant-dominated cities. This new land might be filled with employers whose hiring policies bore the hated words "No Irish Need Apply," charity workers who looked down their noses at the Irish poor, and judges who regarded the Irish as an incorrigible race. But the political machine would provide. Moynihan has also argued that disreputable machine practices like vote theft, patronage hiring, and kickbacks — he lumps them together under the rubric of "indifference to Yankee proprieties" — were commonplace in eighteenth-century Ireland. Irish landed aristocrats sold the votes of their tenants and bought seats in Parliament long before the Tweeds and Daleys of the New World.

"The great and the wealthy ran Ireland politically like Tammany Hall in its worst days," noted one scholar. "Had they not sold their own country for money and titles in the Act of Union with England and, as one rogue said, thanked God they had a country to sell?"

By the time of Daley's birth, the Irish political ascendancy was already well under way. As early as the 1830s, complaints were being heard that the city's Irish population wielded too much political power. Irish influence grew over the next few decades, as immigration from Ireland surged. The Irish suffered a setback in the municipal elections of 1855, when Know-Nothing Party candidate Levi D. Boone, grandson of frontiersman Daniel Boone, was elected mayor and his fellow Nativists took control of the City Council. During its brief reign, Boone's regime passed a law barring immigrants from city jobs. But Irish political influence soon resumed its steady rise.

After the City Council elections of 1869, the Irish held 15 of the 40 seats. And Irish politicians had an influence beyond their numbers. In the 1890s, by one estimate, 24 of the 28 most influential aldermen of the decade were Irish. In 1905, when Daley was three, Chicago elected Edward Dunne, its first Irish-Catholic mayor. The first mayoral candidate to break through the WASP stranglehold on city government, Dunne was a populist hero in neighborhoods like Daley's.

"It was taking your life in your hands to campaign against Dunne in Bridgeport or Back of the Yards," a turn-of-the-century mayor once said.

Daley's route into the Democratic machine was through a Hamburg Athletic Club connection: the club's sponsor, Bridgeport alderman Joseph ("Big Joe") McDonough. McDonough was elected alderman in 1917 at the age of twenty-eight, and ward committeeman the following year. With the two most important ward positions his, McDonough was indisputably the most powerful Democrat in the 11th Ward. McDonough, a three-hundred-pound former Villanova University football hero, was a colorful neighborhood institution, known for eating an entire chicken for lunch.

McDonough ran a saloon, owned a real estate firm, and served as vice president of an automobile sales company. The clout he held as a result of his political offices contributed to the bottom lines of each business. But he was beloved in the 11th Ward for taking care of his people: one depression-era Christmas, McDonough single-handedly passed out 5,600 baskets of food for the needy. Bridgeport was filled with young men who would have jumped at the chance to apprentice themselves to the powerful McDonough. No doubt some of these men were more intelligent, better educated, and more charismatic than Daley.

But these were not the important qualities for a budding machine politician. Daley was a plain-speaking, Irish-Catholic son of Bridgeport, who had proven through his presidency of the Hamburg Athletic Club that he could earn the respect of his peers. He also benefited from the premium the machine placed on the traditional virtues: discretion, sobriety, plodding hard work, fitting in, and a willingness to follow orders. McDonough selected Daley to be his personal assistant, appointed him to serve as a precinct captain, and invited him to work in the 11th Ward Organization. Daley worked as a precinct captain in the mayoral election of 1919 and the presidential election of 1920.

The Chicago machine that Daley signed on with was a remarkable political organization. It was formally the Cook County Democratic Organization, reflecting its true sphere of influence — beyond the Chicago city limits and into the surrounding suburban ring, which made up the rest of Cook County. At the top of the machine was the county chairman, or party boss, who was elected by ward committeemen from the city's fifty wards, along with a smaller number of committeemen from the suburban townships. The machine was as rigidly hierarchical as the Catholic Church that most of its members belonged to. The county chairman presided like a secular cardinal, and beneath him were ward committeemen — the political equivalent of parish priests — who controlled their own geographical realms. Each of the fifty wards had its own Democratic ward organization, with its own headquarters, budget, slate of candidates, and army of workers. Daley was one of more than three thousand precinct captains, spread out across the fifty city wards, who were responsible for the machine's performance at the block level.

Like the Catholic Church, the machine offered its members not just a structure, but a worldview and a moral code. One academic who studied the Chicago machine concluded that it was guided by what he called the "regular ethic." Among the tenets of the regular Democrat's creed: (1) Be faithful to those above you in the hierarchy, and repay those who are faithful to you; (2) Back the whole machine slate, not individual candidates or programs; (3) Be respectful of elected officials and party leaders; (4) Never be ashamed of the party, and defend it proudly; (5) Don't ask questions; (6) Stay on your own turf, and keep out of conflicts that don't concern you; (7) Never be first, since innovation brings with it risk; and (8) Don't get caught. Another scholar of Chicago politics summed up the machine ethic more concisely in a book title: Don't Make No Waves, Don't Back No Losers.

The chairman of the Cook County Central Committee held the ultimate power, but it was ward committeemen like McDonough who did most of the machine's day-to-day work. Ward committeemen slated, or picked, candidates for ward offices from alderman down — and like McDonough, they not infrequently ended up as both ward committeeman and alderman. They were also in charge of distributing patronage to precinct captains and other ward workers, a difficult, sensitive, and time-consuming task. "A committeeman gets a phone call and is told, 'I've got three crossing guards, one sanitation worker,' " said a committeeman with the Cook County Democratic Organization. "'Do you want them?' 'How soon do you have to know?' he asks. 'I'll call you tomorrow.' You call back and say, 'I want two crossing guards. I can't use three. The sanitation worker — yes, I want that. Here are the names.' The girl says, 'Send them in to get their yellow slips,' and they go in to get their yellow slips."

Being ward committeeman could be lucrative work, particularly for those who had law firms or insurance agencies on the side. Benjamin Lewis, a 24th Ward committeeman who was shot to death in the early 1960s under mysterious circumstances, once boasted that the post was worth $50,000 a year in insurance work alone. In exchange for his power and opportunity for enrichment, a committeeman was responsible for ensuring that his ward met the vote totals that the machine boss expected. Ward committeemen who failed to deliver on election day risked being "vised," as the machine lingo put it, or fired, and replaced by someone who would do better.

Daley's new position of precinct captain made him a soldier in McDonough's 11th Ward army, and put him in charge of a unit of about four hundred to five hundred voters. Precinct captains were the prime practitioners of the retail politics that was the stock in trade of the old urban machines. A precinct captain was expected to form a close personal relationship with every voter in his territory; the machine relied on these personal contacts — rather than the strength of its candidates in a given year — to win. "I never take leaflets or mention issues or conduct rallies in my precinct," a Chicago precinct captain once explained. "After all, this is a question of personal friendship between me and my neighbors." To forge these connections, precinct captains were expected to be out in their neighborhoods virtually every night, attending community meetings, putting in hours in the ward office, or visiting voters in their homes.

"I found that those who related to people and were sincere in trying to help their neighbors in the community turned out to be the best captains," one ward committeeman once said. Jake Arvey, committeeman from the heavily Jewish 24th Ward, required his precinct captains to belong to a synagogue or church, and to fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus or B'Nai Brith. "Sure, I was looking for votes," Arvey says. "But, in the process, I made them charity-minded, civic-minded, culture-minded, and sensitive to the needs of other people." In his last mayoral campaign in 1975, Daley delivered a tribute to the underappreciated precinct captain. He "is as honest as the rest of us and he's a better neighbor than most of us, for partisan reasons," Daley said. "He has solicitude for the welfare of the family on his block, especially if they are a large family with dependable political loyalties. He gets your broken-down uncle into the county hospital. . . . He's always available when you're in trouble."

As a young precinct captain, Daley spent countless hours each week in one of Bridgeport's great institutions: the 11th Ward headquarters. Daley's new world had the feel of a Hibernian social club. One non-Irish Bridgeport native recalled how he felt when he stopped by for a political event. "In a short time the office was packed with precinct captains and workers — all Irish," he says. "Outside of one Italian and myself, I saw nothing but red hair, freckles, and green eyes. I met an old high school chum who is now a helper in a precinct and who works at City Hall. I asked him how one can get into the organization. He smiled and said, 'The first thing you have to do is be Irish!'"

During election season, the 11th Ward was a campaign war room, where strategy was mapped out, precinct canvasses were analyzed, and campaign literature was handed out for distribution throughout the ward. The rest of the year, it functioned as a combination of constituent-service office and community center.

In the 11th Ward offices, and every other ward office across the city, the machine dispensed favors systematically in exchange for political support. Priority treatment went to political and financial backers of the machine, and to those who came with a referral from their precinct captain — the kind of solid citizen that ward workers referred to as "one of our people." But since the granting of favors was a form of outreach to the community, any ward resident not known to be actively hostile to the machine was eligible for help. Complaints about city services, like missing stop signs or irregular garbage pickups, were easily handled. If a constituent had his water cut off, a single phone call from the ward office to the water department could get it restored. The ward organization had volunteer lawyers available in the evenings to provide free legal advice on everything from immigration paperwork to criminal law problems. Precinct captains like Daley could find summer jobs for neighborhood youth, arrange scholarships to the University of Illinois, and even get constituents hospital care or glass eyes. "Everybody needs a favor sometimes, but some people are too dumb to ask for it," a saloonkeeper-alderman from the 43rd Ward once reflected. "So I say to my captains, 'If you notice a hole on the sidewalk in front of a fellow's house, call him a week before election and ask him if he would like it fixed. It could never do any harm to find out.'"

Machine politicians were adept at taking credit for every favor they dispensed — so voters would remember on election day. When machine aldermen contacted city agencies for their constituents, they requested written responses. Letters agreeing to take the requested action were sent to the alderman, so he could in turn pass the good news on to the voter. Letters of refusal went directly from the agency to the constituent. Machine officials often took more than their share of credit. When one alderman got a stop sign installed at a dangerous intersection, he sent a letter to every registered voter in his ward claiming that it was the machine's doing — even though it began with local block associations, who had conducted a petition drive for the sign. Sometimes the machine took credit less formally. If the organization succeeded in intervening with the water department and getting a voter's water restored, one machine operative says, "on election day the precinct captain would ask you about your water."

Working as a precinct captain in the 11th Ward organization, Daley got an ideal introduction to the craft of machine politics. In the weeks before an election, the precinct captains were expected to canvass each home in their precinct at least twice to find out which way every voter was leaning — an early forerunner of the opinion poll. A captain was expected to be able to predict his vote almost exactly; missing by more than ten or so votes could result in a reprimand.

A few days before the election, the precinct captain reported the results of the canvass to his ward committeeman. The committeeman, in turn, delivered the aggregated numbers for his ward to the machine boss. In addition to giving the machine a preview of how things looked for the election, the precinct-by-precinct canvass allowed captains to familiarize themselves with the individual circumstances of every voter. A captain could find out which of his voters were wavering and needed further persuasion, which needed transportation to the polls, and which would need to be reminded to vote. He could also learn which voters were determined to vote Republican, and therefore should not be encouraged to vote.

A captain's machinations to maximize the Democratic vote in his precinct could be quite elaborate. Just before the 1939 mayoral election, an Italian family with six voting-age members moved into Arvey's 24th Ward.

The precinct captain paid them regular visits, discussing over red wine how they planned to vote. "Six votes is an awful lot," noted Arvey. But the captain soon realized that the head of the household was related to a leading Chicago Republican. When the captain asked him to vote in the Democratic primary, he refused. "I can't do that!" he said. "My cousin is a Republican committeeman. How would it be if I voted in the Democratic primary?" After the captain pursued the family for a month, a compromise was arrived at. The man and his wife, who shared a last name with the cousin, could vote Republican. The man's two daughters and sons-in-law, who had different names, would vote the straight Democratic ticket.

On election day, precinct workers often turned to more blatant forms of persuasion. Precinct captains handed out turkeys, nylons, and cash in exchange for votes. A captain from the poor West Side 27th Ward was once convicted of buying votes for one dollar a head.

In the South Side 4th Ward, a newspaper reporter observing the voting caught a precinct worker handing out bags of groceries. "We gotta get these voters out any way we can," the worker explained. On skid row, precinct captains often lured winos with free liquor. The fact that bars were legally closed on election day worked in the machine's favor: many alcoholics considered the few minutes it took to vote a small price to pay to make the shakes go away. Clory Bryant, who ran for alderman in the early 1960s against the machine's candidate, saw the effect of the machine's generosity toward voters first-hand.

"I had asked a neighbor of mine was she going to vote for me," Bryant says. "As a matter of fact, I says, 'I know you'll vote for me.' And she said, 'No, I'm afraid I can't, because my alderman always gives me a Christmas tree for my vote. And I know you can't afford to go around buying these many trees.'" Bryant did not get her neighbor's vote. The machine also did favors for neighborhood organizations that could help it win votes. The West Side 25th Ward Organization used to give regular donations to the thirty-five churches in the ward. One election day, the ward boss arrived at a polling place located in the basement of St. Roman's Church. The priest was handing out coffee and doughnuts. Asked what he was doing, the priest responded, "What the hell do you think I'm doing? I'm trying to get some Democratic votes."

Ward organizations also wielded the stick in order to round up votes. Captains in black precincts frequently told voters they would lose their government benefits if they failed to vote a straight Democratic ticket. "Every welfare recipient is afraid to oppose the wishes of the precinct captain," the pastor of a Mennonite church once complained. "Everyone living in public housing is afraid. They have been told that the machine alderman is the one who ensures them living quarters." It was not an idle threat.

Welfare programs were so rule-bound at the time, and enforcement was so arbitrary, that a determined precinct captain often could get a voter's benefits cut off if he really wanted to. Saying hello to the precinct captain at the polls every year also came in handy when a public-housing recipient's refrigerator or stove broke down.


Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of Click here for ordering information for "American Pharaoh" at