January 13, 2021


It is often said that youth is wasted on the young. So, too, is history. Most youngsters do not care about what happened a generation ago let alone what happened last night unless you factor in "Cancel Culture."

So nostalgia remains the exclusive province and comfort zone of the old and the aging, who either do not remember what they did last night, or they did nothing remotely worth remembering.

The Dec. 31 passing of longtime Chicago Northwest Side political fixture Ralph Capparelli (D) at age 96 evokes a whole lot of nostalgia. Capparelli's political career spanned almost 60 years, from the late 1940's when he was a gym teacher and wrestling coach at Taft High School to the 2000s, when he was unseated at age 80 as state representative (2004) after 34 years and as 41st Ward Democratic committeeman (2008) after 16 years.

Outwardly affable and self-effacing, Capparelli was also shrewd and calculating, always looking out for "Number One." When he died he had three pensions: Chicago Public School, county and state. Most of the time he was in Springfield, from 1970 to 2004, he had a second job (a practice called "double-dipping") with the Board of Tax Appeals (now Board of Review). He was a pal of Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens, his "go-to" guy in Springfield. He was an assistant House majority leader for two decades, enabling him to amass about $100,000-a year in donations from lobbyists and labor unions. In 2002 he had close to $600,000 cash-on-hand. After he lost he used an insider state law (as did many others) which allowed legislators elected prior to 1998 to legally take as taxable income from their existing campaign account balance whatever they had in 1998. Sort of like a 401(k). That was about $300,000 for Capparelli.

Capparelli was a throwback - a fiscal and social (pro-life) conservative, but always pro-union, who for 40 years was a Democratic "machine" loyalist, and a precinct worker who knew that patience pays off (or at least it used to). His contemporaries were titans like Mike Madigan, Roman Pucinski, Tim Sheehan, Roger McAuliffe, Henry Hyde and semi-titans like Harry Semrow, Stanley Kusper, Tom Lyons, Roman Kosinski, and he out-lived all but Madigan, with whom he entered the Illinois House in 1970 (along with the 39th Ward's William Laurino). Capparelli was age 46 when elected, and Madigan was 28. And that's how the speakership became permanently unavailable until recently.

Capparelli was a charter (1990) member of the Rosemont Health Club, a massive and classy entity created by Stephens on Higgins Avenue. Capparelli was there every morning (except on Sunday) when not in Springfield. I was often his guest, and I joined in 2002. In politics there are no FRIENDS, just acquaintances and associates. But Capparelli was a semi-friend. I spent numerous mornings after working-out drinking coffee with Capparelli in the premier club locker room, and he would regale me with nostalgia about Northwest Side politics past. Always fascinating stuff. He knew all the players. Capparelli, born April 12, 1924, in the Nagle-Higgins area, was a U.S. Navy veteran, served in the South Pacific during World War II, and received a commendation in the Battle of Tinion. His initial mentor was Sheehan, a Republican congressman (1950-58) and 41st Ward Republican committeeman. Sheehan told Capparelli that he should become a Democrat, as he would never advance as a Republican being an Italian-American Catholic in an area with a mostly Irish- and German-American Republican electorate. Republican legislators back then were Walter Hoffelder, Helmut Stolle and Oscar Hansen, and later Hyde. He aligned with the Democrats in the 1950s. He was active in Semrow's 1954 challenge against Sheehan, which he lost.

But he proudly told me that he never voted for a Democrat for president in his life, meaning he supported Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Bush and, yes, Trump. On the Northwest Side, that was not an apostasy.

HISTORY: Chicago's "Northwest Side," back in the late 1800s, was farmland and prairie. It was then and is now known as Jefferson Township, a taxing district created by the assessor that stretched north from North Avenue and west from Cicero to the city borders. The advent of railroads and the expansion of traction (bus) service made the area a suburban redoubt, accessible to the Loop. The recovery after the recession of 1893-94 prompted a housing boom, with thousands of brick bungalows built in the south end and wood-frame homes in the north. The 1896-1929 boom ended with the stock market collapse in 1929, and continued through 1946. The post-war demand for housing filled in the area, with thousands of cookie-cutter brick and ranch homes built, especially in Niles, Harwood Heights and Norridge, as well as undeveloped parts of the 41st Ward north of Devon, north of Touhy, and in Oriole Park. Capparelli's family bought several lots on Oriole Avenue just north of Touhy in 1954, where he lived the rest of his life.

Jefferson Township was also the 11th congressional district, created in 1948. Its first congressman was Chester Chesny (D), elected in 1948. It also contained four city wards, with P.J. Cullerton's (D) 38th to the south, John Marcin's (D) heavily Polish 35th to the southeast, the 39th to the northeast and the 41st to the north. Sheehan, who owned a cola bottling company and later founded Peerless Bank, defeated Chesny in 1950, was re-elected in 1952, and had a tough race against Semrow in 1954.

Sheehan generated headlines by investigating and verifying the wartime killings of thousands of Polish military officers by the Russians at Katyn Forest (which, of course, the Stalinists denied). Aiding in the effort was a Chicago Sun-Times reporter named Pucinski, who gained considerable notoriety with his stories, especially in the Polish community. Remember: No good deed goes unpunished.

Pucinski lived in Marcin's ward, and his mother owned a Polish-language radio station. Ever the opportunist, Pucinski then ran against Sheehan in 1956, losing, but came back in the anti-Eisenhower year of 1958 to win. Pucinski also won the 1960 rematch.

CAPPARELLI VS. PUCINSKI: Meanwhile, due to population growth, a new Northwest Side ward was created, the 45th Ward, centered in Jefferson Park/Portage Park, effective in 1963. The old, abolished 45th Ward was in the Lincoln Square area. The 41st Ward was essentially cut in half - east, west. Construction magnate Bill Cowhey, whose connected company poured cement for numerous city projects, transitioned from 41st to 45th Ward Democratic committeeman, with the 41st going to Harry Bell (D), who beat Sheehan ally and local lawyer/ alderman Joe Immel (1947-59) in 1959.

But beware of pesky journalists. Ed Scholl (R), a local reporter, beat Bell in 1963 10,155-6,952. Congressman Pucinski quickly moved into the 41st Ward, and was anointed by Mayor Daley as committeeman in 1964.

1970: Capparelli buddy Semrow, a wealthy businessman, was appointed Chicago postmaster in 1961. In 1966 Semrow ran for county board president, losing to then-Sheriff Dick Ogilvie (R), but winning a board seat. In 1970 he won as a BTA commissioner. It was a long-awaited breakout year for Capparelli, who was part of the "All-American" Democratic slate: Egan, Kosinski and Capparelli. Ogilvie as governor had just imposed an income tax. Hyde won but Stolle lost,

1972 was a memorable year. Pucinski ran for U.S. Senator, losing by 1.1 million votes, but Scholl astutely ran for state senator, beating Lyons ally Egan (D). That opened the 41st Ward aldermanic seat. I remember what Pucinski told me at that time that "God never closes any door without opening a window." Pucinski easily won Scholl's seat in 1973 with 83 percent, stomping Emil Kolasa (for whom I was campaign manager. That was a big bump in my career road). But then I started writing for Nadig Newspapers - my "window."

1977: A whole bunch of people wanted to be Chicago mayor - Dan Rostenkowski, George Dunne and Pucinski among the most viable. Richard J. Daley died in late 1976, and the city council named Bridgeport alderman Mike Bilandic as acting mayor. Pucinski saw an opportunity (in which he could keep his aldermanic seat). He lost to Bilandic 340,363-216,058.

Thereafter Capparelli, Kusper and Semrow formed a short-lived rival 41st Ward organization. But Jane Byrne beat Bilandic in 1979, Pucinski became a Byrne loyalist, and then part of the "Vrdolyak 29" when Harold Washington won in 1983. Pucinski was re-elected in 1975, 1979, 1983 and 1987.

The 1980 Legislative Cutback Amendment abolished multi-member districts, so the old 16th District was cut in half. Capparelli had the north and Kosinski and McAuliffe the south. Capparelli's buddy McAuliffe beat Kosinski in 1982. In 1991 McAuliffe protŽgŽ Brian Doherty beat Pucinski, and Capparelli knocked-off Pucinski as committeeman in 1992. Then a non-aggression pact followed.

And there followed Madigan's 2001 remap, which put Mike McAuliffe (R), Capparelli and Bob Bugielski (D) in the same 20th District. Capparelli deferred to Bugielski (who lost to McAuliffe), and ran in an adjacent district. Again, no good deed goes unpunished. He then lost to McAuliffe in 2004 in his old district.

Capparelli always did it his way. Good for him. May he rest in peace.