A liberal arts education includes a look at the western political tradition with all its drama, intrigue and fascinating anecdotes. Those pursuing their liberal arts bachelor degree at liberal arts colleges in Chicago, however, have the added advantage of enjoying a local political history rich with the kind of dramatic tension and intrigue better-suited for a basic cable drama.
The story of the mayors of Chicago is one of dynasty, corruption - and even murder. This is a look at just a few of the interesting figures to hold office over the years and how they’ve shaped the unique character of the windy city:
Carter Harrison, Sr.
Infamous American assassinations have both shaped and darkened the fabric of the country’s history. Long have we been fascinated with how easily powerful leaders can be struck down. Chicago has its own tawdry relationship with this macabre fixation.
Carter Harrison, Sr. was the first person elected Mayor of Chicago for five terms, giving him a chance to oversee the World's Columbian Exposition (known more commonly as the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893.
Unfortunately, he was assassinated in his home two days before the fair ended by Patrick Eugene Prendergast. The killer was disgruntled after not receiving a political appointment he felt the mayor owed him. A huge memorial to Harrison replaced what would have been the closing of the fair.
Anton Joseph Cermak was only Mayor of Chicago from 1931 until 1933. Born in Austria-Hungary, he was the mayor who broke Irish domination of Chicago politics - a reminder that we are continuously striving toward ethnic equality in our political representation.
He was also assassinated while shaking hands with President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami. While most initially thought it was a failed assassination attempt on FDR. Some have since speculated that Cermak was the intended target after all and the hit was ordered by legendary mob enforcer Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s right-hand man, as retribution for cracking down on organized crime.
Despite a brief mayoral reign, Cermak did make a splash in popular culture. There are references to him and his assassination in The Untouchables (TV series), Babylon 5, the works of Phillip K. Dick (a fellow Chicagoan) and The Newsroom to name a few. Again, we draw on the bleak fascination with political assassination to help form our cultural references.
Richard J. and Richard M. Daley
When you mention Chicago political dynasties, one name springs to mind: Daley. That’s largely due to the fact that there was a mayor of Chicago with that surname for almost a half century (nonconsecutively).
Father Richard J. Daley’s tenure (1955-1976) saw the construction of O’Hare International Airport and the Sears Tower. It was also laced with controversy - with an alleged call for strong arm police tactics to quell race riots and protests outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Then there’s his close ties to the Kennedy family. According to a PBS documentary, Daley helped stuff ballot boxes for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential Election.
Though his father’s legacy was shrouded in corruption, his son’s tenure saw the creation of Millennium Park, which turned an abandoned train yard into a tourist attraction, increased gun control and benefits extended to the same-sex partners of city workers.
Despite progressive movements, Chicago’s legacy underscores the realities of the American political scene - always moving forward, but nevertheless forced to contend with the personal ethical failures of great leaders.
What does our fascination with the Mayors of Chicago say about us?