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Inside the Chicago Democrat Machine: How Precinct Captains Kept It Alive So Long

AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar

American politics has not always been like today’s stale, zero-sum game of marathon maneuvers for advantage that leave forgotten voters out in the cold as hapless spectators. A game where photo-ops that seek media attention are considered tactical successes, over ensuring that specific services get delivered to citizens.

For all its chronic corruption, patronage, and nepotism, the Chicago Democratic political machine has always interested me as an example of legendary political success. By 2030, its now-frayed and fractious dominance of the country’s second, now third-largest city will be a century-old.

Like everywhere Chicago’s politics are changing now, of course, riven by the same drugs, crime, incoherent violence, relentless poverty, and myriad competing interests that have fractured virtually all of the country’s largest cities, most of them governed forever by Democrats.

Barack Obama grafted his political fortune on to the Chicago machine and rose to the White House. But today I have a favorite Chicago political story from an earlier time, a time when politicians gained success measured in service to and reelections by the people they served,

It was the 1970s when Mayor Richard J. Daley, the portly Chicago native whose 74-year-old heart was weakening, unbeknownst to him. For 21 long years, he would rule the Democrat machine of The City That Worked by being publicly jolly but internally iron-fisted.

As with most dictators, Daley permitted no potential rivals to flourish. Which resulted in considerable chaos when he suddenly died in 1976. Eventually, his son Richard M., took over, to be followed by Rahm Emanuel and currently Lori Lightfoot, an incompetent progressive straight out of “Beetlejuice.”

Today, after a series of shifty, unqualified mayors, Chicago has fallen on hard, violent times with demoralized police and a progressive mayor on her side, not theirs or law-abiding taxpayers.

I was a newspaper correspondent in Chicago in the 70s and 80s. I had an office assistant I’ll call Evie. One autumn evening she was walking home on the North Side, grocery bags in both hands, when a mugger with a long knife leapt from the bushes.

Terrified, she relinquished her purse. The assailant ran off.

After a night of slight sleep, Evie returned to the scene, hoping to find at least her favorite purse left behind. She found nothing. But walking past one of the backyard alleys that honeycomb that city, she spotted a city garbage truck noisily dumping can after can of refuse in the back.

She ran after the crew, explained she’d been mugged the previous night, and asked if by any chance they had seen a red-suede purse lying around. Yes, in fact, they had: in a garbage can they’d dumped in their truck.

 

 

They had wondered why anyone would discard such a nice thing.

The crew helped Evie up into the cab and immediately broke off their route. They radioed the precinct captain, who had obtained the job for each one of them. He sent them to a nearby city yard, where he ordered the truck to slowly dump out its rotting contents until the purse emerged.

“There it is!” Evie said. The precinct captain waded into the refuse to retrieve it. He then took Evie and her purse to a dry cleaner’s near her apartment. He paid in advance to clean the purse, gave Evie the receipt, then drove her downtown to work. He wanted to explain to me why Evie was late for work and hoped I’d understand. I did.

A week later Evie got her purse back in like-new condition. From that day onward, anyone in that city who commented — and even many who didn’t — got a detailed narrative from Evie of that scary encounter with a mugger and the nice city workers and precinct captain who took care of her and got one of her prized possessions restored. Everyone was impressed.

Months passed. Then, one wintry Saturday morning at a reasonable hour, Evie had an unexpected visitor at her apartment It was the precinct captain.

He just wanted to check that the purse-cleaning had come out satisfactorily and that she was safe and healthy. Evie was most appreciative and showed him the purse. He was pleased but had no time for coffee. As Democrat captain of an entire precinct, he had many other stops to make that weekend.

Which reminded him to remind her that the election for mayor was on that coming Tuesday. She probably knew that Mayor Daley was seeking his sixth term and the precinct captain hoped she’d support the man who employed the men who had taken such good care of her.

The result, which helps explain nearly a century of one party’s political dominance there, was that on Tuesday Evie cast her ballot to reelect the same man who presided over Chicago that scary night when she got mugged on a dark stretch of city sidewalk.