September 12, 2018



There are various exit strategies for a Chicago mayor, both voluntary and involuntary. The most painless is to get out before getting beat and not run for re-election. The most painful and humiliating is to run and get defeated. A Chicago mayor has to be egregiously inept to lose. And then there is the great beyond, meaning dying in office, which three mayors have done in the last century.

Smart mayors get out before they're voted out and Rahm Emanuel is a smart mayor. Make no mistake about this: With close to $9 million on-hand, Emanuel would have run in 2019 if he thought he would have won. He and his advisors concluded that he would not win, so he bailed, spewing forth the usual drivel about spending more time with his family.

Pre-withdrawal polls indicated that Emanuel's "approval" rating was barely over 30 percent, and the Jason Van Dyke trail in the shooting of Laquan McDonald was just starting. A poll from the Gary McCarthy campaign had the mayor up 25 to 22 percent over the former police superintendent in the Feb. 26 primary, with the other 11 candidates in single digits, and McCarthy winning the runoff 55-45.

Convicted criminals may be rehabilitated, but an incumbent with Emanuel's numbers is beyond resuscitation. He is DOA. And for a guy with a colossal ego like Emanuel, that is utterly unacceptable.

Chicago has had 11 elected or appointed mayors during the past century, dating back to 1915. Three died in office; six got defeated for re-election, or, if appointed, for election; and just two were re-elected until such time as they determined that they could not get re-elected, and bailed.

WILLIAM HALE THOMPSON (1915-23 and 1927-31): "Big Bill," the city's last Republican mayor, was perceived as a buffoon, once famously proclaiming that he would punch the King of England "in the snout" if he came to Chicago, endearing him to normally Democratic Irish and German voters. But Thompson was in bed with Al Capone and the Chicago Mob, and vice and liquor - despite Prohibition - was everywhere plentiful, as were scandals, like egregious cost over-runs on projects like building City Hall. By 1923, amidst a clamor for "reform," Thompson wisely decided to step aside, and Democrat WILLIAM DEVER (1923-27), was elected 390,413-285,094 over a different Republican on a promise to "crack down" on vice and corruption. Back then, Democrats were the "reformers," which means the outsiders. Four years later, in 1927, Chicagoans decided that they wanted a return to the good old days, and Thompson came back to trounce Dever 515,716-432,678.

ANTON CERMAK (1931-33): Born in 1873 in what was then Bohemia, the Slavic Cermak was constantly derided as the "Bohunk" by his non-ethnic detractors, but he worked up the ranks of Democratic politics, eventually becoming Cook County Board President. Chicago by 1931 was deep in the throes of the Great Depression, with massive unemployment among the working class. Blame was squarely attached to the Republican president, Herbert Hoover, and Thompson was doomed. Cermak beat him 671,189-476,922. Thompson's showing was noteworthy, as he got solid black support, and only 35,000 fewer votes than in 1927, but Cermak got 240,000 more votes than Dever. The city had flipped: A Democrat would win the next 22 mayoral elections.

While accompanying president-elect Franklin Roosevelt (D) to a 1933 event in Chicago, Cermak took a bullet meant by an assassin for Roosevelt. Cermak, had he lived, would certainly have been mayor through the 1950s, and his ethnic coalition of Eastern Europeans, Italians and Jewish, and not the Irish, would have dominated the party.

ED KELLY (1933-47): Bring on and bring in the Irish. Kelly was not an elected officeholder, but was instead the president of the chief engineer of the Chicago Sanitary District. He was chosen by the City Council, and won the 1935, 1939 and 1943 elections by 60-40 margins over a Republican, and never had primary opposition. The federal spigot under FDR poured money into Chicago for public works projects, the city workforce ballooned, and the "Kelly Machine" of patronage precinct workers was created.

By 1947, after 14 years, voters were weary of the constant parade of scandals and mismanagement, and Kelly was deemed unelectable. He was dumped by Democratic slatemakers, who chose instead MARTIN KENNELLY (1947-53), a wealthy warehousing magnate who had two key attributes: He was Irish, and he had no political background. During his 8-year tenure the council's "grey wolves," most of them Irish alderman, ran the city, and Kennelly was the titular mayor.

RICHARD J. DALEY (1955-76): Voters and party leaders by 1955 were fatigued with the dithering Kennelly. Also by 1955, Daley was the county clerk, 11th Ward Democratic committeeman, and county party chairman. Democrats were fearful that Republican Alderman Robert Merriam could beat Kennelly, so Daley got his fellow slatemakers to dump Kennelly and slate him. He won the three-way primary against Kennelly and Ben Adamowski with 40 percent, and then beat Merriam 708,660-581,461.

The "Daley Machine" was born, with every "sponsored" city or county jobholder working a precinct and delivering for every Democrat if they wanted to keep their job or get promoted. Daley then embraced the slogan that "good government is good politics," embarked on a building spree (including federally-funded expressways, O'Hare Airport, and downtown renovation) that made both business and labor ecstatic, insisted on superlative city services, and won easy re-elections in 1959, 1963 (beating Ben Adamowski, by then a Republican, 679,497-540,705 in a close race with racial overtones), 1967, 1971 and 1975. The key 1975 race was the Democratic primary in which "reform" Alderman Bill Singer challenged the mayor, the mayor's first-ever primary, and a harbinger of the decline of patronage politics. Daley won 432,321-217,754.

Daley died in late 1976. Whether he could have won in 1979, at age 77 in a changing political environment, is forever debatable.

MICHAEL BILANDIC (1977-79): Bridgeport rules. Both Kennelly and Daley were from the near Southwest Side 11th Ward, and there was no doubt that Daley wanted to pass along his job to another Bridgeporter - his namesake son, who he made a state senator in 1972. Such was the clout of the 11th Ward that the council chose Bilandic, the 11th Ward's alderman, to be acting mayor. It was thereafter business as usual. In the 1977 special election Bilandic beat Roman Pucinski in the primary and a Republican alderman in the election. It was presumed that Bilandic would serve as a caretaker until such time, probably 1983, as he could pass along the job to RICHARD M. DALEY.

So secure was Bilandic perceived that his only opposition in the 1979 primary was a gadfly named JANE BYRNE, who once worked for Daley. But then Mother Nature intervened, the snow piled up, the city responded poorly, and voters took out their anger on Bilandic. Byrne beat him 397,729-382,544.

JANE BYRNE (1979-83): Right time, right place. But Byrne, instead of being the anti-boss, decided she wanted to be the boss, and made deals with the Machine politicians. Over her term she antagonized certain demographic groups with her policies and appointments, especially blacks, which spurred the 1983 candidacy of Harold Washington, then an obscure black South Side congressman. She also tried to purge the party of Daleyism, but could not prevent Richie Daley from being elected state's attorney in 1980. The vote in the 1983 primary was 415,056-382,798-340,702 for Washington-Byrne-Daley, with Washington winning with 36.3 percent. Had not Daley run, Byrne would have won. But Daley accomplished his objective, which was to get Byrne out.

HAROLD WASHINGTON (1983-87): The new mayor's coalition included African Americans, Hispanics and white liberals. He beat Bernie Epton (R) 656,727-617,159 in the 1983 election, and beat Byrne 547,945-489,238 in the 1987 primary. He looked likely to be mayor for a long time, but died in November of 1987, throwing the choice of a successor into a council dominated by the "Vrdolyak 29." Alderman Gene Sawyer was picked, but he was no Washington, and lost the 1989 special election primary to Daley, who then beat Tim Evans in the election.

RICHARD M. DALEY (1989-2011): The dynastic legacy was never deemed the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he managed to muddle through 22 years, balancing budgets and ignoring pensions, with stunts such as selling the Chicago Skyway and leasing the city's parking meters, all to get a one-time cash flow to balance the budget and not raise taxes. Those tactics sufficed to enable Daley to win in 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. And those politically advantageous stopgaps kicked the proverbial can down the road - and into the Emanuel Administration.

RAHM EMANUEL (2011-2019): Welcome to reality. All the problems that Daley avoided, particularly the under funding of city pensions, came home to roost after Emanuel took office. Emanuel won by a desultory 332,171-258,562 or 56.2 percent, in the 2015 runoff, and he approached 2019 with plenty of money but no fervent base. He was disliked by many, and despised by many more. Against a field of mediocre opponents, Emanuel's campaign theme would have been: They're worse them me. And with $1 billion in additional pension payments due annually during the 2019-23 term, Emanuel's plight would just keep getting more onerous. So he bailed. Smart move.

Next week: Handicapping the mayoral field.

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