Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman's Memoir

Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman's Memoir

by Leon M. Despres

Winner, 2006 Illinois State Historical Society Book Award
Recipient, 2007 The Hyde Park Historical Society Paul Cornell Award

Political war stories from a thorn in the side of Chicago's famous Boss

In 1955, south-sider Leon Despres was elected to the Chicago City Council-the same year that Paddy Bauler famously uttered that "Chicago ain't ready for reform."


Winner, 2006 Illinois State Historical Society Book Award
Recipient, 2007 The Hyde Park Historical Society Paul Cornell Award

Political war stories from a thorn in the side of Chicago's famous Boss

In 1955, south-sider Leon Despres was elected to the Chicago City Council-the same year that Paddy Bauler famously uttered that "Chicago ain't ready for reform." Ready or not, Chicago got twenty years of reform efforts from Despres, one of the few independents in the council and the most liberal alderman in the city. His demand to cut out the corrupt sale of city driveway permits made him enemies from the very beginning. Over the years his crusades to ban discrimination, preserve Chicago landmark buildings, and gain equality for African-Americans-when Daley-beholden African-American council members refused to help-threw wrench after wrench into the Machine. And, not incidentally, changed the city.

But Challenging the Daley Machine is more than a memoir. It's a historical portrait of the way things were done under the Boss, when changing times and a changing city forced the Machine to confront the problems Despres championed. His battles against the seemingly monolithic Machine are also an inspiration to anyone who is facing long odds, but is convinced he/she is on the side of right.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Throughout his career [Leon M. Despres] has been in the forefront of just about every decent, worthwhile effort made to improve life in this city." —Mike Royko, from the foreword

"Chicago's greatest alderman and one of Chicago's best journalists have produced a fabulous political autobiography. In one exciting book is the story of Leon Despres, the Chicago machine, civil rights and feminist revolutions, and indepedent reform efforts in Chicago for the last fifty years. It is a must-read for all who care about Chicago and America. Alderman Despres provides the judgment, inspiration, wisdom, and vision from which to fashion a better future. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and Leon Despres had a vision and plan for Chicago that is still unfulfilled. It is a tale of courage, fortitude, and brillance that inspires us to pick up the torch that Despres has carried so long and so well."  

—Dick Simpson, professor of political science, University of Illinois at Chicago, former Chicago alderman , and author of Rogues, Rebels, and Rubber Stamps: The Politics of the Chicago City Cuoncil from 1863 to Present

"If he did nothing else in his public career, Leon Despres would be justly memorialized for his city council fights against racial discrimination. As incredible as it may seem today . . . Leon Despres was the sole voice on the city council to take up this fight. . . . Despres was indeed a champion for civil rights, for ending political corruption, for opportunities for women, and other causes, and his fight should be remembered."

—R. Craig Sautter, coauthor with Curt Johnson of The Wicked City: Chicago from Kenna to Capone

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Chicago Lives Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Challenging the DALEY MACHINE
A Chicago Alderman's Memoir

By Leon M. Despres Kenan Heise
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2005

Leon M. Despres
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2223-9

Chapter One The Precinct Captains Celebrate Richard J. Daley's Election

Chicago ain't ready for a reform mayor. Alderman Mathias "Paddy" Bauler, April 5, 1955

It was election day, April 5, 1955.

In a former tavern turned Forty-third Ward headquarters at 409 West North Avenue, just west of Sedgwick Street, Democratic precinct captains were celebrating. They were gloating over the defeat of Robert E. Merriam, the Republican and reform candidate for mayor.

The ward's Democratic committeeman, Alderman Mathias "Paddy" Bauler, the boss of the precinct captains gathered in the room, made his famous pronouncement to Chicago Tribune city hall reporter Edward Schreiber.

"Chicago ain't ready for a reform mayor," he said.

Schreiber later personally acknowledged to me that he had changed the quotation to "Chicago ain't ready for reform."

Although it had been a tough campaign, almost from the beginning there was little doubt about the outcome. The regular organization, the Cook County Democratic Party, had so many precinct workers-public employees whose job was to bring in the votes for the dominant party-that they swamped the opposition. The citywide margin of victory for Daley was 126,967 votes out of 1.3 million cast.

The Democratic Machine that ran Chicago and local government comprised eighty committeemen, one representing each of the fifty city wards and thirty townships outside the city. Each of them dispensed city jobs and headed a local patronage army whose purpose was to win elections. On this day, they had succeeded in putting in office one of their own.

Mayor Martin J. Kennelly, although a Democrat like them, had been systemically reducing the number of "temps," that is, city employees not covered by civil service. The new committeeman-mayor had pledged to increase that number and to appoint a lot of non-civil service employees. He had made alliances with other committeemen, especially William Dawson, who served as leader of the black committeemen. They and Daley had an understanding that Daley would not interfere with patronage appointments, illegal South Side "policy" (or number racket) lottery games, unlicensed South Side jitney cabs, and other similar sources of their under-the-table revenue.

One significant holdout from the Daley alliance had been Frank Keenan, the Forty-eighth Ward committeeman. He had voted against giving Eleventh Democratic Ward committeeman Daley the party endorsement and then had served in the Democratic primary as campaign chairman for Kennelly.

And on that day, April 5, 1955, I was voted into my first term in the city council as an independent, the representative for the people of the Fifth Ward. The Fifth Ward then was the area abutting Lake Michigan for two miles from 5100 to 6700 south. It included all of the Hyde Park community (5100 to 5900 south as far west as Cottage Grove Avenue) and half of the Woodlawn community as far south as Sixty-fifth Street. Of about sixty thousand constituents, 60 percent were white and 40 percent African American.

Chicago did not present a pretty picture to a new alderman, but it did offer an opportunity for challenge. The city for which I now shared political responsibility cried out for equal opportunity, especially for blacks and women.

Chicago had become a place where clout and bribes (sometimes called campaign contributions) were the lubricant for city services and political favors.

The federal government, for its part, later indicted, convicted, and imprisoned more than twenty Chicago aldermen.

There was no overall city plan.

Housing segregation was unconstrained.

The criminal Mafia was in tight control of at least two inner-city wards.

There was so much to be done on April 5, 1955.

Chapter Two An Accidental Alderman Is Elected

... a stunning 3,7000 vote victory. Hyde Park Herald, April 6, 1955

My political career was thrust upon me. I am thankful it was.

It began one Saturday morning in early November 1954, in the Hyde Park office of Chicago's Fifth Ward alderman, Robert Merriam. On the previous Tuesday, a general election had just resulted in major Democratic victories. Merriam himself was preparing to become the Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago in the April 1955 election. On that 1954 Saturday, he had invited Louis Silverman, a public relations professional; Robert Picken, a candy manufacturer; Richard Meyer, a clothing retailer; and me, a lawyer, to find a strong candidate for alderman to succeed and support him.

Merriam, until then an independent Democrat, had obtained Republican Party support for mayor. To win the election, he was confronted with the might of the thousands of precinct workers in the Democratic Party Machine. In a Democratic city, he would need to gather all the liberal, independent, and Democratic votes possible. County Clerk Richard J. Daley, who in 1953 had become chairman of the Democratic Party of Cook County, was his party's candidate for mayor. By law, Illinois required aldermanic candidates to run without party labels. As we talked on that November Saturday, I had no reason to think I might be the candidate, much less become the elected alderman. Why did Merriam turn to us? We were officers of the Independent Voters of Illinois, which had a ten-year record of public support for liberal and honorable candidates. Moreover, we had started doing something new. Instead of limiting our electoral work to endorsing candidates, printing sample ballots, and relying on public appeals, IVI had begun to canvass for candidates whom we ourselves had chosen. The difference between IVI's precinct canvassing and the Machine's was that the Machine could field an army of patronage employees, while IVI had to recruit energetic volunteers.

Our first new-style campaign had been run in 1953, when we jumped into a special aldermanic election in the Twenty-fifth Ward on the Near West Side. We had chosen Fred Hilbruner to run against a dictatorial committeeman, Vito Marzullo. Marzullo induced a pliant Election Commission to throw our candidate off the ballot for having "defective signatures" on the nominating petitions. Still, we got two thousand write-in votes (twelve hundred of which were counted.) We carried one precinct.

To Marzullo, a loss of even that one precinct had been a blow. For years afterward, when he and I conversed in the city council, he would often refer to it bitterly.

"Somebody lied to me," he would say.

He felt that his iron grip on the Twenty-fifth Ward had been affected and that, through malice or incompetence, his captain had failed to give him accurate advance information. As a capable Machine committeeman, he knew that before the election he was expected to give an accurate assessment of voter strength to the party chairman. Only then could the party know how to deploy troops.

When Daley was party chairman, he called in the ward committeemen before each election to give him their figures. He demanded accuracy. He was angry if a committeeman overstated the vote and just as upset if the committeeman understated it. Probably Marzullo was embarrassed because he had told Daley he would carry every precinct but did not do so.

Invigorated by our Twenty-fifth Ward campaign, we launched one for state representative in the Hyde Park-Woodlawn district for the April 1954 primary. Louis Silverman prevailed on Marmaduke Carter, a public school teacher, to run. The incumbent state representative was Louis Berman. Our slogan was "Get the hacks off our backs." When we announced the campaign, I received a startling telephone call from Jacob Arvey, the remarkably successful Twenty-fourth Ward West Side committeeman. He pleaded, "Why don't you let Berman have it?" It was our first intimation that we might someday succeed. We lost to Berman, but we got fifty-four hundred votes.

The IVI had supported Merriam enthusiastically in his aldermanic election campaigns in 1947 and 1951 as well as on reform issues he fought for in the city council. In 1954, of all the Fifth Ward support groups Merriam might have turned to for help, the IVI had the strongest philosophical affinity and, with our new electoral abilities, the greatest support that counted- precinct work.

Merriam had set a high standard on all aldermanic issues: governmental efficiency, housing, planning, crime, integration, honesty in campaign funds, attention to constituents, and effectiveness in communication. In 1947, the Fifth Ward Democratic committeeman, Barnet Hodes, had quarreled with the incumbent alderman, Bertram Moss, and had selected Merriam as a candidate who could add independent support. Merriam's father, Charles Merriam, had headed the University of Chicago's political science department and had been one of Chicago's greatest aldermen. In 1947 and 1951, "Merriam for alderman" resounded like the tones of the University of Chicago carillon.

In 1954, Alderman Merriam could have been reelected overwhelmingly; instead he decided to run for mayor, as his late father had done twice. Robert Merriam would have been a splendid mayor, and for just that reason, the Machine did not want him. There was no chance of his winning the Democratic primary. Consequently, he decided he would have to run as a Republican candidate against a handpicked Democratic candidate.

At our November 1954 meeting in Merriam's office, we agreed to perform what he asked-find a strong aldermanic candidate. In doing so we were thrilled to be creating an important election campaign and not just reacting to candidates sponsored by others. Politically, we felt we were coming of age. Realizing that the aldermanic fight would be a hard one, we determined to find a candidate who might win.

We went to work. The ward had eighty precincts. Each of them had an experienced Machine precinct captain and at least one assistant. The Democratic Party's ward headquarters had a full-time support staff. We, on the other hand, had no regular captain in any precinct. We had not one patronage worker. What we did have was enthusiasm and a Fifth Ward record of independent political support.

Earlier there had been brave Fifth Ward independent aldermanic campaigns against the Machine; brave but without victories. In 1935, the future alderman and U.S. senator Paul H. Douglas-then a University of Chicago professor of economics-had managed a gallant campaign (with local Republican support) for divinity professor Joseph Artman. I had managed an even more modest campaign for economics professor Maynard Krueger, a Socialist. In 1939, Paul Douglas himself ran and won with Machine support. He resigned in 1942 to join the Marines. In 1943, independent political science professor Walter Johnson ran and lost. In 1947, Robert Merriam won with Machine support; but, once in office, he flowered into independence.

At a 1954 Fifth Ward Democratic Party meeting, Committeeman Hodes announced that the Fifth Ward Democratic Organization had won every aldermanic election and predicted it always would. Neither his faithful audience nor almost anyone else in the ward had reason to doubt him.

In the quest for a strong candidate, IVI's Louis Silverman operated with political alchemy as he took executive charge. He had managed the IVI campaigns for Fred Hilbruner for Twenty-fifth Ward alderman in 1953 and for Marmaduke Carter for state representative in the 1954 primary.

Drawing up a list of "invincible" potential winners, we plunged into a search for a candidate. Silverman organized a community candidate search committee. One after another, however, our sure-thing candidates declined. Each one knew there would be a bruising political fight and believed it would be in vain.

We grew desperate. This might be our greatest chance to elect our own candidate, and yet we could not persuade any winning candidate to run. Then without my knowledge, Louis Silverman, Robert Picken, and Richard Meyer held a meeting of key IVI insiders.

"We're in a fix," I imagine they said. "We have the best opportunity ever for a great campaign and we can't get a decent candidate to run. We are really scraping the bottom of the barrel. The nominating petitions have to be circulated and filed in three weeks and time is running out. We need to start a petition drive right away. What about Despres? He's definitely not an establishment person, but maybe he has enough going for him. He's a Hyde Park homeowner, a family man, an IVI chairman, a University of Chicago graduate, a member of Reform Jewish Congregation KAM, has no scandals, has had lots of legal cases on civil liberties, discrimination, and labor, and he can talk all right. He's not what we've been looking for, but under the circumstances we could go with him. We haven't anyone else." Whatever their doubts, desperation won out.

In all my political activity, I had never considered myself a candidate. I believed my record was too radical. After asking the selection committee for Thanksgiving weekend to think it over, I talked to my wife, Marian, as well as a few friends and finally decided to do it. The campaign, I reasoned, would have three support bases-our own organization, the small Fifth Ward Republican organization committed to Merriam for mayor, and the enthusiastic independent support for Merriam. This was more than the IVI had ever put together in any campaign.

We believed we had a chance to win or, if not, at least to make a respectable showing and not just the six hundred votes Maynard Krueger had received in 1935. I had to switch gears. I had been a noncandidate; then I was a reluctant candidate; and very soon, I would become an energetic candidate.

The campaign quickly erupted. It created much more excitement than we had anticipated. Louis Silverman built a brilliant volunteer political organization. Richard Meyer and Robert Picken provided stability. Victor DeGrazia, Barbara O'Connor, and Abner Mikva brought invaluable insights. Political science professor Jerome Kerwin chaired the campaign. More and more people began to volunteer to work as precinct canvassers, office workers, fund-raisers, writers, drivers, publicists, and even sandwich makers. Although we had only one paid campaign organizer and never enough money, we outweighed our opposition in talent ten to one. The Machine ran George Uretz, a capable lawyer but an out-and-out Machine image, longtime precinct captain, and patronage appointee.

For the campaign, my life was probed in all its details. I had to appear before committees and compete with other candidates for support-the Citizens Search Committee, the Republican Party organization, Hyde Park groups, Woodlawn groups, and even, pro forma, the hostile Democratic Party organization, which had invited all candidates to submit their qualifications.

I spoke to every organization that was willing to listen to me. Workers put on coffee meetings, often three or four a day. I joined precinct workers in canvassing precincts. I presented myself to every pastor in the ward.

Bob Merriam advised: "See Larry Kimpton, the president of the University of Chicago, and see the president of the Hyde Park Bank." I did. These two men headed two groups-the university administration and the business community-which needed to be won over. Neither one made a commitment. Every Sunday morning, a growing campaign committee met at my home for coffee, rolls, support, and strategy. An inner group met informally and daily.

Political campaigning in Chicago was quite different then. Everything depended almost entirely on persistent precinct work. That is why the mercenary patronage armies were usually decisive, with the regular Democrats having many times more workers than their opponents. People responded freely then to the doorbell ringing of canvassers. There was not yet the pervasive fear of crime that kept doors closed. Our greatest precinct problem was in the high-rises and the apartment hotels, which often denied access to outside precinct workers. In them we would try to recruit a resident to act as canvasser.


Excerpted from Challenging the DALEY MACHINE by Leon M. Despres Kenan Heise
Copyright © 2005 by Leon M. Despres . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Leon M. Despres was born in 1908 in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1929. Since leaving the Chicago City Council in 1975 he has served as a parliamentarian for the Jane Byrne and Harold Washington administrations and worked as an attorney, teacher, and lecturer. Despres lives in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.

Kenan Heise spent seven years as a Franciscan monk before starting a thirty-year career at the Chicago Tribune. His many books include Chicago the Beautiful (Bonus, 2001) and Resurrection Mary: A Ghost Story (Chicago Historical Bookworks, 1990).

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