HAROLD WASHINGTON,
Late Mayor of the City of Chicago

The Chicago Democratic Political Machine (Part 1)
Watch the Video
Back to the List

The machine as such, and its nothing but the Democratic Party, the legal Democratic Party, not in Chicago, but in Cook County is first of all, vested with certain legislative statutory power. In other words, it just doesn't exist in a vacuum, in a void; it didn't co-opt anything, it was put in place by the state legislature. Like many municipal corporations it has basic power which it derives from the state. In the Cook County we have thirty townships and fifty wards within the city. The townships surrounding more or less, in a horseshoe shape or a crescent shape, around the city, which as you know lies on Lake Michigan.

The state legislature has recognized both parties and has provided that in each of those wards and townships there should be ward committeemen and they have given to that machine the power to endorse and support candidates, which run from an office. In short, the Cook County Central Committee, which is a result of those fifty wards and thirty townships, has the right to nominate candidates for county offices such as the state's attorney, county clerk, county assessor, county treasurer, county board members within the city itself to nominate individuals for the office of Congress, for the office of state senator and state representative, etc, etc. That is the total and complete vested power it has. In other words it is the keeper of the seal within a given ward or township. If you look at that, that's innocuous enough, and certainly not harmful, but when you look upon the genius or ingenuity of man, and then when you look upon what has been wrought by virtue that very simple vestment of authority, it becomes somewhat frightening.

Many people give Richard J. Daley, our recent departed mayor, credit for having put the machine together; that's not true. It was conceived by Anton Cermak who was cut down before his time back in 1933 or '34, I think, when they were shooting at President Roosevelt, and mistakenly, or not mistakenly, hit Mr. Cermak. But he put the machine together, and it was a very simple thing. Based on the authority that he had from the state legislature, what he did was to grab control of the Democratic Central Committee by bringing the eighty township and committee members together, and having them vote him into office as the president of the Cook County Democratic Committee. Then by virtue of the fact that he was the mayor of the city of Chicago, he had in one fell swoop vested himself with all of the patronage and power of the city of Chicago, and superimposed on that the patronage and power, in a sense, of the county. Because in order to run for office under the Democratic banner, prospective candidates had to come and appeal to the party to run, for example, for county treasurer, county clerk, state's attorney, etc., etc., etc. The party would screen and sift them based upon one standard, which is allegiance. In other words, "Will you do as you're told, sir?" and the answer is "Yes," "Therefore, we'll endorse you, and in return, what you will do for us is to give us the power to wield your patronage."

Patronage in a very broad sense, not in a narrow sense of jobs running elevators or prosecutors, or even judgeships. Patronage in a broader sense of discretionary power from the executive, being the right to deal with contracts, the right to negotiate contracts, the right to determine who's going to be prosecuted, the right to determine who's not going to go to jail, the right to determine who will select, in the first instance, the judges. The right to deal with the other major institutions in our county and city such as labor organizations, particularly craft unions. The right to deal with the massive utilities in our city, which set the rates, and now we're talking about multi-millions of dollars, no matter who pays for them. The right to deal with the State Street merchants. In other words, patronage, being basically and fundamentally defined as discretion on the part of the chief executive to do or not do favors, was vested in that President of the Cook County Democratic Committee. An awesome patronage, I have not taken the time to translate it into dollars, but I'm certain it would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of control and power per year.

So, when people wonder why that machine cannot be dismantled and why it is so awesome and ruthless in its manifestations, it is that simply because the almighty dollar has brought it together, and has kept it together. That's bad enough. But when you then begin to superimpose, or rather, look at the results of what that machine has wrought, what you're talking about is a machine which controls communities, which controls institutions, forces various institutions to come to them for the things that they should get by virtue of just being citizens. For example, many of the churches in the black community pay homage to the machine because they're worried about their inability to get, for example, a loan from a mortgage bank, but they can go to their ward committeeman or go downtown and speak indirectly to the mayor and get that patronage, or rather, that mortgage grease moving, that seed money moving. People run into all sorts of problems. They don't want to go to jail, they deal with the machine, and the machine, by virtue of the fact that it controls to great extent, the whole judiciary structure (all 260 some odd judges, almost, in Cook County) is able to assist them.

The machine, for example, determines, to a great extent, the dollar flow into a given community. It controls the human service organization, it controls the UDAG fund, it controls the capitol development funds, the neighborhood capitol development funds that comes into the city. It has grafted onto itself control of all the federal largess and all the federal programs that comes into the city. Not only the dollars of the programs, but the attendant people who are hired to carry out those programs. In short, from that very simple grant of power, from the Illinois General Assembly, the machine has been able to put all this together. Cermak was the father of it; Daley came along and refined it to the level of an art. And believe me, it is artistic in its configuration, although it may be extremely brutal and crass in its manifestations and in its treatment of people.