A solid liberal arts education includes a in-depth understanding of both the western political tradition as well as politics in a modern, international context. An advantage of studying at one of the top liberal arts colleges in Chicago is immersion in what has to be one of the most interesting and controversial political scenes around.
From Anton Cermak to the Dalys, the mayors of Chicago are certainly an interesting cast of characters. They’re also a reflection of the broader American political landscape over the past couple of centuries. Or, could it be that the national political scene is just a reflection of Chicago? Food for thought - and precisely the kind of question students debate at a liberal arts college in Chicago.
Here are some of the mayors who helped make Chicago what it is today:
Edward Joseph Kelly
The Cook County Democratic Party chairman Patrick Nash convinced the Chicago City Council to elect his friend Edward Joseph Kelly mayor to replace the assassinated Anton Cermak. Kelly became Mayor of Chicago in 1933 and held onto power for 14 years.
Kelly presided over the Century of Progress International Exposition and the second Chicago World’s Fair held in 1933, but is probably better known culturally for banning the book Never Come Morning by Nelson Algren from the Chicago Public Library. The large Polish-American community in Chicago was incensed by the book, which depicted the life of a Polish-American criminal. Some even accused Algren of being pro-Nazi, unaware that he was himself Jewish. Kelly’s ban lasted for decades.
During Kelly’s tenure, the infamous Kelly-Nash Machine, a very powerful and allegedly equally corrupt force controlled Chicago political life. It is that corruption, coupled with Kelly’s integrationist policies, such as permitting African Americans to live anywhere in the city, which lead to his downfall. In 1947, the Democratic Party convinced him to step aside and allow them to slate a more appealing “reformist” candidate for election.
Jane Byrne is notable for a number of reasons. She was the first female Mayor of Chicago (and the only as of 2015). She is also the first mayor to recognize the gay community or appoint an African American, Ruth B. Love, as school superintendent.
Her time in office (1979-1983) was marred by strikes and a high crime rate. Her attempt to address the issue by temporarily moving into the Cabrini–Green Homes housing project, which had a huge crime problem, backfired. In 1981, protesters calling her Easter Weekend in the projects nothing more than a publicity stunt were met with strong-armed police tactics. Here is a video of that ordeal:
She rose to power by challenging a sitting mayor in the Democratic Primary. Harold Washington defeated her in the following primary.
Harold Washington was the first African-American Mayor of Chicago and creator of the city’s Environmental Affairs Department. The early part of his tenure was known for bitter fights on the city council dubbed the Council Wars. A group of 29 aldermen lead by Edward Vrdolyak had the majority and refused to go along with what Washington wanted, forcing the mayor to govern by veto.
Eventually Washington got his majority. Despite all the adversity, he was well liked at the time he was mayor and is still fondly remembered even today. Following his death of a heart attack while in office in 1987, several buildings in Chicago, including a library, a cultural centre and a park, were renamed to honour the late mayor.
What do you think the political careers of these three Chicago mayors reveal about the evolution of American politics?