Rostenkowski: The Pursuit of Power and the End of the Old Politicsby Richard E. Cohen
This scrupulous political biography of Dan Rostenkowski follows his rise to power from modest origins in the Democratic ward politics of Chicago's Polish northwest side, through his national legislative triumphs, and ultimately to his criminal conviction and imprisonment for abuses of House practice. But the story offers much more than Rostenkowski's personal
This scrupulous political biography of Dan Rostenkowski follows his rise to power from modest origins in the Democratic ward politics of Chicago's Polish northwest side, through his national legislative triumphs, and ultimately to his criminal conviction and imprisonment for abuses of House practice. But the story offers much more than Rostenkowski's personal tragedy: it's a tale of the transformation of American political life, and of the fall of old-fashioned congressional politics. An insider's story. Anybody wanting to understand Congress and its place in American politics should read it. Jim Wright. Masterful...not just a book on Rostenkowski; Cohen has spun the tale of the entire modern period of Congress. Larry Sabato
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THE BUNGALOW BELT
AND THE MACHINE
MOST OF THE WHITE MEN who dominated American politics until the 1970s came from neighborhoods whose features, such as ethnic composition or historical landmarks, meant something, both locally and to a national assembly. For young Dan Rostenkowski, a community of mostly first- and second-generation Polish immigrants shaped his background and values. He was proud of his heritage, which endured at the end of the twentieth century in the Polish-speaking shops and markets along Chicago's Milwaukee Avenue corridor. But he was even more loyal to his party and to the organization built by his father Joe and fellow Democrats of many nationalities. Eventually local tensions caused a momentous setback for his father. As his career began, though, Dan quickly reaped rewards from the family's decision to move beyond its ancestry and join the American melting pot.
Alderman Joe Rostenkowski, from whom Dan inherited politics as the family business, was a city alderman in Chicago and a Democratic ward boss. That clout proved vital in giving his son an advantage in climbing the political ladder. Like Dan in the early years of his own career, Joe tended to the minutiae of constituent needs and became a cog in the intricate network of service and favors at city hall during three decades as a local Democratic boss. "He is not aggressive, but has the wholesome respect of his colleagues in all council matters," the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in endorsing his reelection in 1947. Young Dan learned firsthand how one of the last great urbanmachines used trusty lieutenants in a tightly structured hierarchy to deliver patronage and entrench itself in power. For the remainder of his public life, he staunchly defended that system and lamented the loss of old-fashioned community values and organization.
The Rostenkowskis served a local community that was more deeply conscious of its immigrant ancestry and religion than its political affiliation or influence. The Poles were "one of the most culturally bonded, in-group peoples to be found anywhere," according to a study of Chicago's diverse ethnic groups. But their "greater sense of wholeness than most ethnic groups" came at the price of "diminished influence in the wider non-Polish community." Most of the first generations of Poles were poor, and their separate language made it difficult for them to blend into the larger urban population. Consequently, despite their status as the largest ethnic group in the Chicago polyglot, they failed to secure their share of power in the city at large.
Polonia, as the Polish-American community termed its new nation, was first settled in the 1850s. But it did not gain significant size until about 1890, when it counted 40,000 local residents among Chicago's 250,000 total population. These Poles grew to 250,000 by 1903 and to more than 400,000 by the end of the 1920s, when U.S. restrictions slowed the gushing immigration to a trickle. They came to America's heartland to escape German chancellor Otto von Bismarck's threats to exterminate the Poles in Prussia, hostile edicts from Russian tsars, and economic misery following the exploitation of their homeland by powerful rulers who hemmed them in from the west and the east. Just as they settled in other Northern cities on the Great Lakes, such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, Poles were drawn to Chicago by the promise of blue-collar jobs in the stockyards or in steel mills and other booming industries. As a transportation mecca, Chicago had an additional economic advantage in the late nineteenth century as the entry point to the expanding West.
But the change was jarring for Polish immigrants. Most of them had worked the soil as serfs in Poland and had little experience with politics or with property rights. According to a 1911 U.S. government study, 81.5 percent had been farmers or farm workers in Poland; in their new country, the majority were unskilled urban laborers. "The only way they could survive in this strange environment was by trying to recreate the Polish village, with its familiar customs and habits, on this side of the Atlantic," wrote Edward R. Kantowicz, a prolific chronicler of Chicago's Polish community.
For most Chicago Poles, the Roman Catholic church was the chief social forum in the New World. And most prominent in the early years was St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, which was Chicago's first Polish Catholic church and dates its active organization to 1866. By 1869 the St. Stanislaus Society included sixty members and began to charge dues averaging the then-princely sum of five to ten dollars a year. In the next two years it completed the construction of a modest building for its church and school at the corner of Noble and Bradley streets on the city's near northwest side. Noble Street, which later received a trolley track and became a busy thoroughfare, was already the "principal trading center of the Polish community of Chicago." The site selection, three blocks west of the Chicago River, proved fortuitous in 1871, when everything east and north of the river burned down in the Great Chicago Fire.
The church grew from four hundred families in 1874 to about forty thousand parishioners in 1900, the largest membership of any Catholic church in the United States. Its permanent home on Noble Street, completed in 1877, remains a magnificent Basilica-style edifice, with a seating capacity of fifteen hundred in its main sanctuary and twin steeples that rise two hundred feet. The $20,000 cost of the church and the adjacent three-story rectory was an enormous expense for the predominantly working-class parishioners. But Father Joseph Barzynski, who supervised this growth as leader of St. Stans from 1874 to 1899, felt that it was justified given the church's rapid growth.
On a typical Sunday in 1900 more than 20,000 persons attended Roman Catholic Mass by squeezing into either the main sanctuary or the smaller prayer hall in the basement. The services began at 5 a.m., and groups were quickly shuttled in and out so that everyone could participate. School enrollment at St. Stans was as high as 4,500 children at the start of the 1900s, when Joe Rostenkowski was a student. Because of difficulty in raising needed funds, church members delayed in acquiring several important items until they made useful contacts during the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The famous designer Tiffany created eight huge lamps that hang over the main sanctuary; the Johnson Organ Company constructed an organ with 49 pipes. Displaying the customary Polish frugality, the church members made their costly purchases on a cash basis.
Centered on the church, the Stanislowowo neighborhood grew rapidly in size but remained mostly low income. In the early 1900s "the Poles had the worst jobs in the city and got the worst pay," wrote Andrew Greeley, the Roman Catholic scholar and author. "These were the poorest of the poor; they had little else in life besides their religion. In the first two decades of this century, the population density of the ten square blocks around the old [St. Stans] church on Pulaski Park was three times higher than Tokyo's or Calcutta's. The air was foul, the plumbing inadequate or nonexistent, and even mild rain showers filled the basement apartments with raw sewage, frequently up to knee level." For many homes the toilets were outside, under the vaulted sidewalks. Coal was delivered into bins and stored alongside the street. Some residents kept goats in the backyard for milk. But they built grand edifices like St. Stans in the hope that "the steeples of those cathedrals would bring back the memories of those that dominated the towns from which the immigrants had come," Father Greeley wrote. "They strove to recreate the Polish community because there seemed to be no other way to preserve the faith."
In addition to Stanislowowo, by the start of the twentieth century Chicago had four other large Polish communities; eventually they supported more than three dozen Polish churches. The other communities were on the city's south side. Because of geographical barriers posed by the Chicago River and many railroad tracks, plus poor transportation within the city, St. Stans in its neighborhood northwest of downtown remained independent of the other churches. That generated ill will. "Poles in outlying areas sometimes felt that the leaders in Polish Downtown either ignored them or else put on airs in considering the Stanislowowo the intellectual and spiritual heart of Polonia's capital," Kantowicz notes. When he was a youth, Rostenkowski recalls, he and his pals might travel two miles to the city's commercial center to shop, but "no one had friends outside their community." The lack of cohesion among the Poles also helps to explain whydespite the fact that they long remained the largest ethnic group within Chicago's Roman Catholic diocese, with between one-third and one-half of the local church populationthey wielded less influence within the larger church than did the more savvy Irish or Italians, among others. That same pattern applied in the city's politics, then and throughout the twentieth century. "Behind the scenes, the Poles are united," said Father Joe Glab, the recent pastor of St. Stans. "But publicly they fight." A Polish newspaper cartoon of 1922 depicted a hod carrier labeled "Irishman" standing on a sleeping giant termed "300,000 Poles in Chicago," while boasting, "Be gorra, he's sleeping, and I'm de Boss."
Dan Rostenkowski's grandparents, all but one of whom were born in Poland, were well suited to serve as community leaders. Because they were among the few Poles financially equipped to move into the middle class when they arrived in Chicago, they quickly rose to a status akin to the gentry from the old country. Family records are incomplete on when they moved to Chicago. But one of Rostenkowski's frequent tales is that of his maternal grandmother, as a young child, watching the Great Fire of 1871 from an earlier steeple at the St. Stanislaus Church. Dan's mother, Priscilla Dombrowski, had three brothers; one of them, Edward, became superintendent of the Chicago State Hospital and was a prominent researcher of osteomyelitis, a bone disease. Three other siblings died during a diphtheria epidemic.
The most important early influence on young Dan was Peter Rostenkowski, his paternal grandfather, who was born in Poland in 1868 and settled as a child in Stevens Point, a timber center in central Wisconsin. His grandson believes that, when he moved to Chicago at about age eighteen, Peter helped to deliver the lumber needed to rebuild the city after the Great Fire. Peter soon entered the home-loan business, which would have marked him as a local power broker. Because most Poles lacked the assets in those days to obtain credit from downtown banks, the community established many of its own credit unions to finance the widespread desire for home ownership. Peter became influential in Polish fraternal organizations. From 1913 to 1918 he was national president of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America (PRCU), which remains headquartered in Chicago. "Because he was so considerate in giving loans to the people, he was a tremendous political broker in Chicago," said Ed Dykla, who became the PRCU president in 1986 and was a friend of Dan Rostenkowski when both were young men. During World War I the family patriarch also was a national chief of Americans organizing relief assistance for beleaguered Poland. "One of the most honored places in [the church's] annals justly belong to the late Peter Rostenkowski," says a 1942 St. Stans tribute. Peter married the former Katherine Giersh. Their only child, Joe, was born in Chicago on September 15, 1892; he married Priscilla Dombrowski on June 8, 1918.
Their large three-flat residence at 1372 Evergreen Street, at the corner of Noble Street, was only a few yards across the street from the church. At the start of the twentieth century, Peter Rostenkowski conducted his home-loan business on the ground floor of his residence, and Dan's grandmother Dombrowski ran a bakery shop in the same block. Although the Rostenkowskis were not especially active in St. Stanislaus religious activities, they had a lofty social standing among parish members. Their financial and political influence made their relationship with the church "like that of a personal chapel," says an associate of Dan's. Most of the family's major events, from baptisms to funerals, took place there.
If St. Stanislaus Kostka marked the place where the Poles became a cultural force, their political home was the Democratic party. As in most Northern cities, the Republicans' national dominance at the turn of the century gave immigrant groups little opportunity for advancement among the vested classes. So for Poles, like other nationalities, the Democrats became the focal point for all sorts of favor-seekers looking for jobs and other city services and contracts. In Chicago, home of the preeminent big-city machine, the party fashioned an elaborate hierarchy that paralleled and overlapped the governing structure of city hall. In many of the city's fifty wards throughout the twentieth century, the local alderman and the Democratic committeeman often were the same person; if they were not, the party boss might have been the more important source for someone who wanted results from local government. The Irish moved early into most positions of power. But, unlike the party's rule in some other large cities, such as Tammany Hall in New York, Chicago's Democrats in the early twentieth century did not enforce an ironclad internal discipline. Historians observe that "Chicago's Democracy was a loosely knit Balkan treaty organization of Irish fiefdoms, a patchwork quilt of uncoordinated parts fighting fratricidal inside wars for control and boodle."
In that party, Poles were loyalists from the start, long before the New Deal cemented the nation's majority coalition. Even in the late 1800s they viewed the Democrats as the home for average workers, and they were confident that Democrats would accommodate the religion and customs of new immigrants. In the seemingly mysterious operation of urban American politics, many Poles looked to the party for their personal needs. "The political boss seemed vaguely reminiscent of the feudal lord in the old country," Kantowicz wrote. "Like the lord, the boss was a man of importance who lived well and held the keys to government and business. The boss was someone you went to for a job or a favor. Like the best of the old lords, he frequently helped the people out in times of need, bringing a bucket of coal or a basket of food to a cold and starving immigrant family. But unlike the old lord, the American boss asked relatively little in return for his benevolence.... The boss asked only for a vote on election day, a small enough price for the immigrant to pay."
Why did the Poles fail to take more power? The standard answer is provincialism. "Polish politicians organized their bloc voting around in-group concerns, constantly tried to perfect the unity and solidarity of the bloc, and neglected the building of coalitions with other political blocs," Kantowicz wrote. "Polish leaders were misled by the fact of their large numbers into thinking that political power would fall to them like a ripe fruit if only they could perfect the solidarity of their group." The reluctance of many Poles to learn English was another factor that impeded their influence, Dan Rostenkowski says. That failure has been most apparent in the Poles' inability to elect one of their own as mayor of Chicago, despite their status as the city's largest ethnic group. Instead, in the byzantine politics, leaders of two much smaller eastern European nationalities moved to the top of the heap at city hall. Bohemian-born Anton Cermak, who was elected mayor in 1931, united the various Democratic segments into a relatively cohesive coalition. He quickly gained a national reputation and a fateful alliance with Franklin Roosevelt: on a visit to Florida in February 1933 with the President-elect, Cermak was murdered during an assassination attempt on FDR. Later, in 1976, after the death of Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic, a Croat, was named interim mayor by the Board of Aldermen and subsequently won election to the remaining two years of Daley's term. With those exceptions, the Irish held the mayor's office from the Democrats' 1931 takeover of city hall until the 1983 election of Harold Washington, an African American.
Still, some Poles attained prominence during the early twentieth century. Stanley Kunz, who served as alderman in the Stanislowowo district for nearly three decades starting in 1891, was the first political boss of Polonia, but he suffered an unsavory reputation. He "was a table-thumper, a yeller, a screamer, and a fighter, who always acted as if he owned the 16th Ward," according to Kantowicz. "The Chicago newspapers dubbed him `Stanley the Slugger' and the `terrible Pole.' ... [But] Most Polish-Americans did not read the American press and the Polish papers generally backed Kunz because he used his influence to gain jobs and favors for Poles." In 1920 Kunz became Chicago's first Polish-American to win election to Congress. (John Kleczka of Milwaukee, a Republican who was elected in 1918, was the first Polish-American to win a House seat; Democratic Rep. Gerald Kleczka of Milwaukee, a distant cousin, more than seventy years later became a spear-carrier on Dan Rostenkowski's Ways and Means Committee.) Kunz served for a dozen years with the exception of a few months in 1931 while the House settled the outcome of a contested election. But he left little mark in the Capitol. In a pattern that would later apply to most Poles from Chicago who were elected to Congress, he focused more on local matters, including precinct politics, than "in attending to dull routine in Washington."
Edmund Jarecki was another successful Pole in Chicago politics; he won election in 1922 as county judge, which gave him supervision of the city's election board. A maverick, Jarecki remained a good-government insurgent who battled the Democratic machine, prompting the party's slate-making committee to reject him in 1938. Although he won reelection anyway, Jarecki's independence "undermined Polonia's organized force for further success and recognition."
As for the Rostenkowskis, grandfather Peter was a prominent Democrat as early as 1912 when he was a delegate to that year's Democratic National Convention in Baltimore. He was chiefly responsible for securing a visit by Woodrow Wilson, the presidential nominee, to Stanislowowo soon after the convention, according to a St. Stans archive. As a young man, his son "Joe Rusty" was a natural choice to enter politics. In addition to taking over his father's home-loan and real-estate insurance business, Joe ran a thriving tavern in the front of the family home. The city prohibited taverns within five hundred feet of the church, but the influential operator somehow won a lucrative exception to that rule. Like many of his neighbors, Joe also produced "bathtub gin" in the basement of his home, at least in the years before Prohibition. That was another family tradition. When grandfather Peter hired salesmen to deliver liquor, "my father said that the horses knew the routes better than the drivers, who often were half-stiff," Dan recalls. Joe also gained a federal government job after World War I as a "rectifier," sampling the liquor.
After successfully challenging the Kunz organization for a state legislative seat in 1930, Joe Rostenkowski a year later became part of the Democrats' new city hall coalition when he was elected alderman from his near northwest ward. In a contest that a contemporary newspaper account described as one in which "personal acquaintances and friendships are said to outweigh politics" among the Polish voters, he defeated a Republican, George Rozczynialski, who had held the seat for two years.
During his two dozen years as an alderman, Joe Rostenkowski's prowess was based on personal relationships with is constituents plus his loyalty to the Democratic organization. "Anyone who needed help or generous gestures, Joe never refused them when it was needed," said Ed Dykla. "He was beloved by his people." Joe Rostenkowski fully subscribed to onetime House Speaker Tip O'Neill's adage that "All politics is local." According to a 1937 commemorative volume prepared by members of the Polish community, Joe was "responsible for many improvements in his ward, such as clean streets and alleys." He gained a wide following among local youth by converting vacant property into playgrounds for sports and by sponsoring local teams. Some of the teams played in Pulaski Park across Noble Street from the Rostenkowski home, where Joe sometimes would sit on the stoop and watch a game. "When I was a little kid [in the late 1940s and `50s] we grew up with the Rostenkowski name," said Terry Gabinski, who eventually won Joe's seats as both alderman and Democratic ward committeeman. "Joe's office sponsored basketball and baseball teams and local parks.... Rosty was a name we all knew as kids."
During the 1930s, when countless people were out of work and uncertain how they could keep their families and homes together, Rostenkowski's 32nd Ward organization provided many other forms of assistance from the home on Evergreen Street, including seasonal gifts and special programs to commemorate important local events during the year. "During the hard depression years, Rosty's ward organization kept busy distributing coal and food baskets and helping to pay gas and electric bills for constituents," Kantowicz wrote. "He attended carefully to the physical appearance of his ward, giving personal attention to garbage pickup and street cleaning." In return, the local Democratic organization deployed a network of fifty to sixty precinct captains whose only demand was loyalty at election time. In what became a practice followed by his son, Joe also helped many local charitable projects. "If you wanted to make money, you had to see Joe," said Dykla, who grew up in the neighborhood. According to several accounts, Alderman Rostenkowski was loyal to friends and faithful to his word. His son often told the story that when immigrants applying for citizenship were asked who was the President of the United States, they answered with the name of Joseph Rostenkowski.
On legislative matters Joe exercised his influence most directly on businesses with which he was most familiar. For many years he chaired the City Council's licensing committee, whose chief responsibility was to set operating fees and permissible business hours for taverns. He and his fellow aldermen no doubt winked at the conflict of interest with his saloon on Evergreen Street. In focusing on local details, he revealed either a modesty or a lack of self-confidence by refusing to pursue opportunities for office that extended beyond his neighborhood. As would become the case with his son, Joe avoided taking risks that might have ended his career but that could have advanced him up the city's chain of command. A steadfast team player for the Democratic organization, "he just never made it to the Inner Room" at city hall, where the most important decisions were made, said the local political scholar Paul Green. In 1942 he turned down the opportunity to take a seat in Congress that went instead to his son's predecessor. In 1945 he won news clippings as a potential candidate for a Cook County Board; in 1946 it was the city treasurer's office; in 1953, again, he was mentioned as a candidate for the county board. But he never showed the combination of personal ambition and outside support needed to move up in the Democratic hierarchy. "Somewhat limited in intelligence and cunning, blunt, straightforward and emotional, he was as strong as a feudal lord in Polish Downtown but was not the man to appeal to respectable America, any more than the other ward bosses of Polonia's capital were," wrote Kantowicz in his book on Chicago's Polish community. He also was a victim of the Democratic slate-makers' customary deference to Irish contenders for citywide positions.
Still, Joe Rostenkowski was not afraid to play hardball in the city's rough-and-tumble politics. "You didn't mess with him," Dykla said. That lesson was truer than life, according to incidents that are chronicled in musty Chicago newspaper files and have survived in family lore. In 1939 two workers for another candidate filed a police complaint that accused Rostenkowski of threatening them when they were posting election signs. As reported by the Tribune, Rostenkowski approached one of the workers, "chased him nearly a mile through alleys to his home, and then told his wife he, the alderman, would `get even.'" A more serious incident a year earlier was never resolved. Shortly after six o'clock one morning, two of Rostenkowski's precinct workers were sitting in a parked car in front of the alderman's house when another car pulled alongside. The passenger stepped out and fired four bullets that killed the two other men; then he and his driver sped away. "I haven't the faintest idea of what happened or why," Joe Rostenkowski claimed at the time. "Both men worked for me but I don't know of any enemies they might have had and I haven't any myself who might have wanted to get them." Newspaper reports later implied that the victims were targets of crime bosses who were punishing them for attempting to bring stolen slot machines into neighborhood bars without the "mob's" permission. Shortly after they were stolen, the machines, "carrying marks identifying them as property of the gambling syndicate operating in the territory, began to appear in saloons in the 32nd ward." Although there were no reports linking Rostenkowski to the mischief, the newspaper report added that the two murder victims had been "using the alderman's name in pushing the [slot] machines."
Joe Rostenkowski was unabashedly devoted, above all, to the party organization. The Polish Democratic regulars were Democrats first and Poles second. The most revealing proof of this attitude was Joe's single setback, which came in 1955 and was a defining moment in the city's ethnic politics. In advance of a three-way Democratic primary, the party had voted to deny endorsement for reelection to two-term mayor Martin Kennelly. Following his 1947 victory on a pledge to clean up local corruption, the bosses eventually grew weary of "his stubborn insistence upon dismantling the patronage machinery on which the Chicago Democrats depended." They complained that Kennelly's public works projects were directed to improving transportation to the suburbs more than to fixing local problems. In a preelection letter to Polish-American Democrats, the regulars wrote, "Look at our transportation, why it's a joke, look at those sewers, look at those basements that are flooded everytime it rains, there is absolutely no excuse." Joining in the Democratic machine's endorsement of Cook County Clerk Richard J. Daley to replace Kennelly were most of its leading Polish-Americans, including Joe Rostenkowski.
What was most significant about the Polish leaders' choice was not their abandonment of the incumbent mayor but their opposition to the third candidate, Benjamin Adamowski. He was a maverick Pole who had sparred frequently with his party's top brass. Under prevailing customs, Joe Rostenkowski's decision to stick with the party rather than back his ethnic brother was hardly surprising. At a preelection meeting of the Polish-American Democratic Organization, Joe advised its members to "ask Adamowski where he was all these years and why he has never helped to support any Polish-American candidates." Rostenkowski was one of six to sign "an open letter to the Poles of Chicago," which cited the Democrats' extensive support of their community. "Supporting any party is a two-way street," they wrote. "For years, our group has been working toward a definite political goal. It has been our constant endeavor to place Americans of Polish descent on the Democratic ticket, as well as in other places of prestige and influence." After listing numerous Poles who had been elected with the party's endorsement, they asked, "Is there any doubt in your mind of the sincerity of the Democratic Party's intentions?" But, given the Polish community's proud insularity, the regulars' plea fell on deaf ears. Even after World War II, Polonia remained a close-knit community in which blood ran deeper than politics. Its population gave Chicago the second-largest Polish community in the world, behind only Warsaw. The cloistered domain of modest homes and old-fashioned urban shopping areas remained more insular than other Chicago ethnic villages. Rostenkowski and the Democratic loyalists could not counter Adamowski's strong support from those voters. Although he finished a distant third in citywide balloting with 15 percent of the vote, Adamowski handily won the four predominantly Polish wards, including Rostenkowski's.
As a "regular Democrat," Joe felt he had no choice other than to back Daley and the organization. "Joe knew exactly what he was doing, but he thought he could survive it," said Terry Gabinski, the protégé of Dan Rostenkowski. "It was a very difficult decision because the neighborhood was so Polish. But an organization can't function as an organization if you pick and choose who to support." Later Mayor Daley would repay his gratitude for Joe's loyalty to the organization. "It was a gutsy thing for a Polish alderman to go against Adamowski," said William Daley, the son and brother of the Mayor's Daley and a prominent Democrat in his own right, who served as secretary of commerce under President Clinton. "It's hard to understand now. But that was the way people succeeded then, by staying together in politics. There was strength in numbers.... Joe Rostenkowski made the ultimate sacrifice in some ways. There was a lot of loyalty by my dad to Danny because of Joe's support for my father."
That decision to support Daley had devastating consequences for the alderman. Former state representative Bernard Prusinski, who ran Adamowski's campaign in the 32nd Ward, had challenged Rostenkowski's bid for a seventh term as alderman in another Democratic contest held the same dayFebruary 22, 1955. A lifelong engineer for the city and the Cook County highway department, Bernard Prusinski did not style himself as a politician, said his son Joseph. True enough, after two terms, Prusinski's legislative career ended abruptly in 1954 when Joe Rostenkowski engineered his reelection defeat as part of a maneuver intended to move his son to the state Senate. "The organization wanted someone else," Joseph Prusinski recalled. A year later, Prusinski unexpectedly exacted his revenge in the Democratic primary for the alderman's seat. In the initial balloting in February, Joe Rostenkowski led the vote count, 6,380 to 4,796. But the failure of either candidate to receive a majority of the vote in the five-candidate contest forced a runoff on April 5, the date on which Daley comfortably won the general election for mayor. In abandoning its earlier support for the incumbent and endorsing Prusinski, the Sun-Times editorialized that the challenger had "consistently espoused the kind of progressive measures that Chicago must have to combat crime and corruption" and that he was a "refreshing contrast to the incumbent, Ald. Joseph P. Rostenkowski, an undeviating member of the plunderbund which now controls the council." Prusinski also benefited from the support of Robert Merriam, the Republican nominee for mayor.
When the votes were counted, Joe Rostenkowski was stripped of the seat he had held for twenty-four years9,709 to 7,830. "I represented my people for a long time," he told a reporter the next day. "And they were satisfied. But when Adamowski came along, they thought I should drop the organization cold and support him." Ever the loyalist, Rostenkowski said he had an obligation to "a lot of men" who had been stalwarts in his organization. "I couldn't just say, `Boys, you're on your own.' I owed it to them as a leader to stick by them and I did." In a scenario reminiscent of the tumult that doomed his son four decades later, Joe Rostenkowski also suffered because his gruff style offended many voters; even though he had done much to help them, they wanted a fresh face. The outcome showed the limits of machine politics, even in 1955.
Still, the battle was not over. In Chicago's tangled politics, Joe Rostenkowski remained boss of the 32nd Democratic Ward organization despite losing the aldermanic seat. And he began immediately to plot revenge. The showdown came in April 1956 when Prusinski opposed Rostenkowski in another election, this time for the party job of ward committeeman. To "regular" Chicago Democrats there was no mistaking the importance of this battle within the Polish community. "While this primary may not be very important to some," Rep. Lillian Piotrowski said at a preelection organization meeting, "every worker in the 32nd Ward was told to go into every home and that for us Poles every election is important." The contest was bitter, with charges and countercharges of intimidation and vandalism of campaign offices. "Beer bottles were hurled through two windows of Prusinski's office," the Tribune reported. Rostenkowski responded that "tires and seats of four automobiles bearing his campaign stickers were slashed." This time Joe Rostenkowski won by 826 votes. Prusinski soon left the Democratic party and supported Adamowski that November in his successful campaign as a Republican for Cook County state's attorney (in that office Adamowski became a Daley nemesis). "I find that I cannot sacrifice my principles of government in favor of blind party devotion," Prusinski told a reporter. "I am not alone in recognizing the gross injustices because of which several highminded Democrats have left the party." In 1959 the tables turned again. By a nearly two-to-one margin, Robert Sulski stomped Prusinskiwho ran that year as a Republicanand regained the aldermanic seat for the Rostenkowski organization. With his political career over, Prusinski won Daley's blessing to return to his job as a highway engineer, where he remained until his retirement in the early 1970s.
Joe Rostenkowski's city hall friends, meanwhile, did not forget him. In 1958, at age sixty-four, he was placed on the city payroll as superintendent of sewer repairs, with a monthly salary of the then-ample sum of $763 per month. When Republican Alderman Elnar Johnson charged two weeks before the election that year that Rostenkowski was doing no work in his patronage slot, the plea fell mainly on deaf ears. "He's superintendent of all" the thirty-four bricklayer crews repairing the sewers, responded Thomas Garry, deputy commissioner in charge of the sewer department. "He checks the foremen and he checks the gangs. We'll prove it by his requests." But, according to the news report, Garry submitted no written report in response to Alderman Johnson's charges.
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