Judge Aaron Jaffe: Reforming Illinois: A Progressive Tackles State Government,1970-2015

Judge Aaron Jaffe: Reforming Illinois: A Progressive Tackles State Government,1970-2015

by Charles M. Barber;, Aaron Jaffe


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Judge Aaron Jaffe: Reforming Illinois is an oral history of Aaron Jaffe's legislative, judicial, and executive branch careers. It is also a story of how the author met Judge Jaffe and gained wisdom from a master politician operating in one of America's most notorious political battlegrounds.

As legislator, Jaffe changed rape laws to reflect victims' perspectives. Though white, he was recruited to the Black Caucus because of a better voting record than other legislators, black or white. As judge, he presided over divorce laws he passed as legislator and, in Chancery Court, preserved the Auditorium Theatre for Roosevelt University. As chair of the Illinois Gaming Board, he kept Illinois from adding other episodes to its scandal-ridden traditions.

In mutual appreciation, Aaron Jaffe listened to stories of genuine characters in Illinois politics that defy the imagination of fiction writers. Their hilarious foibles, machinations, and insights appear in this volume, alongside Judge Jaffe's witty observations about humans as political animals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504983853
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 03/19/2016
Pages: 702
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.54(d)

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Judge Aaron Jaffe: Reforming Illinois

A Progressive Tackles State Government, 1970â"2015

By Charles M. Barber, Aaron Jaffe


Copyright © 2016 Charles M. Barber with Aaron Jaffe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5049-8385-3


Chicago Political Folklore vs. Precinct Reality

Illinois has a storied history of political corruption, not the least of which has played out in Chicago and the rest of Cook County. What's not widely known or understood though, is that at one time the county's underlying political structure went a long way toward keeping the people strongly connected to their politics.

Over time ... the public began to view precinct captains as hacks who did the bidding of political parties. ... There was more to it than that, though. There were hacks, but precinct captains went out and talked to people in the community about the party and its candidates. And if precinct captains were good at what they did, they would find out what people were thinking, and they would come back and report to the committeeman. Because the party wanted your vote, you could be sure that if people felt a certain way, the party would fall in line.

— Aaron Jaffe


Aaron Jaffe was born on May 16, 1930, to Karl and Dora Jaffe, who had migrated to Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood after World War I, seeking a new life, also fleeing the systematic persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe, known as pogroms.

In his book of reflections, Goodbye American Dream?, Aaron recounts the dreams his parents allowed themselves to dream in a land that promised opportunity despite economic hardship. Although many professional doors were still closed to Jews in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, the vicious, state-organized anti-Semitism that presaged the Holocaust was absent. A tailor and his wife could therefore provide food and shelter for themselves and their children without fear of state-organized violence to rob them of life and limb. Also, despite hardships that characterized the Depression years, they could dare to plan for their family's future, especially the education of their children.

In the predominantly Jewish and partially Catholic environment of Lawndale, in which Aaron grew up, his parents were very neighborly and opened their doors to everyone. Their willingness to talk to almost anybody who came in or near their doorstep provided a direct link to social skills so necessary in the profession of politics their son would eventually enter. Like their neighbors, the Jaffes were also willing to help anyone in need in those tough times, and this sense of community and their unflagging work ethic nurtured their son in the values he would carry into his personal and professional life.

Aaron Jaffe also benefitted from the Roosevelt–Truman era of support for public higher education that made it affordable to ambitious sons and daughters of immigrants — a frame of mind and set of policies that came under increasing attack in the self-centered political world ushered in by President Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Back then [the 1940s and 50s] higher education was affordable. I went to the University of Illinois and UCLA and then attended law school at DePaul University. Tuition cost a couple hundred dollars a semester, not the fortune that it costs today. This made higher education accessible to most people, providing race or religion didn't get in the way at universities that had quota systems. Those barriers have largely disappeared, but today they have been replaced by economic barriers that have the same effect of excluding people.

A product and a beneficiary of the New Deal, Aaron Jaffe would engage in an intellectual defense of those ideals, using the practical precinct-level weapons he acquired in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago and Illinois politics.

Jaffe on Politics — In the Wards of Chicago: From Sy Sigel to Vito Marzullo, and Ed Vrydolyak

Sy Sigel and Jake Arvey

Although I made my political reputation in Skokie and the northern suburbs, my real training took place in the city of Chicago. I grew up in the Twenty-Fourth Ward on the West Side, or the GVS in Chicago Yiddish parlance — the Great Vest Side — with renowned bosses like Jake Arvey.

Our family never owned a home then but rented at places like 1251 S. Avers and 1319 S. Komensky.

My father was a tailor from Poland.

He came to America as a young man ... put his pennies together and eventually was able to bring his mother and several brothers and sisters over from the old country. ... He had a little shop of his own, the Karl Jaffe Tailor Shop on Pulaski Road....

During the fall and winter he also worked in a women's coat factory. ... He did piecework and was paid per garment. There was no such thing as minimum wage.

My mother came from Lithuania.

Dora had lived through pogroms in Lithuania and would tell stories about how a chicken had saved her life. "One day I bent down to pick up a chicken ... and a bullet went over my head."

In my home today hangs a photo of her brother's wedding in 1913 or 1914. All those in it would perish in the Holocaust except my mother....

As a child I lived in a building where each apartment was heated by a stove — but this was a land where you could advance from living with stove heat to living in an apartment heated by steam from radiators.

I always had a fascination with politics as a young man, although I didn't do anything actively in high school at Chicago Marshall. When I was eighteen [in 1948], Harry Truman was running for president, and I wanted to see if I was a Democrat because my parents were Democrats or because I really believed. I looked at all of the other party platforms — Socialist, Republican — and concluded that the Democrats still had an edge when it came to the issues that counted in this country:

I had the good fortune to come into my political awareness at a time when there were a few great men. During the Depression [Franklin] Roosevelt instituted programs that would change the country dramatically. Then along came Harry S. Truman, a man who had been a farmer, a haberdasher. ... He was not a college graduate, but he was self-educated. He had read his way through the Independence, Missouri, public library.

Truman became an army captain in World War I, and his troops adored him because he was a good leader. ... He took a minor position in state government but did a wonderful job at it, and all of a sudden he started to rise.

Among all the political machinations, here was a very decent guy doing a very decent job. ...

Truman was basically an everyman, a guy who came out of nowhere. His record wasn't perfect, but on balance he did a lot of good, especially considering that he was the underdog who couldn't fill FDR's shoes. In October 1948 the pollsters projected that there was no way Truman was going to win the election. ... But Harry S. Truman won, and he became my hero. Not only was he a man of action, but he was also a man of conscience — and a man of the people.

When I was in law school, I did some precinct work in the Twenty-Third Ward, which was right next door to Arvey's Twenty-Fourth Ward at that time. In the past forty years, it has been redistricted at each ten-year reapportionment from the Far West Side to the Far Southwest Side, in order to keep it "white." In 1948, the Twenty-Third Ward was mostly Jewish and Bohemian. I entered its political life young, idealistic, and an assistant precinct captain, a combination that didn't surprise anyone in those days.

I worked with Sy Sigel, the precinct captain, and he could really turn out a vote.

When I was growing up in Lawndale we had a direct line to our elected representatives. Sy's job was to get out the vote in the precinct. He would come around to talk to the people, but he would do it all year round, not just at election time. Part politico and part social worker [a kind of ombudsman] he would find out what people needed. Was there a pothole in the street, a crack in the sidewalk? Did someone need another garbage can? Was someone sick?

If you had a problem that was beyond Sy's ability to solve, such as a water bill that was too high, he would make an appointment for you or take you down to see the alderman or ward committeeman, who would then contact the water company to check the meter and see what could be done. If there was a mistake, they would work on straightening it out. The whole idea was to serve the people.

When a holiday came and someone didn't have the resources to celebrate in a proper fashion, Sy would bring over a turkey or a chicken to make sure that no one would go hungry.

The bottom line was to get your vote. But the politicians were there to serve you and to make sure that the government served you.

All the precinct captains of those days could really turn out a vote. Even an uncontested primary in the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Third Wards had over a ninety percent turnout because the precinct captain was obligated to turn out the voters.

The theory as I understand it now, and understood it then, was that the general election never counted as showing your true precinct captain credentials, that is, how you could deliver the vote. It was the primary election that counted, more especially, the uncontested primary. If you could bring out ninety percent in an uncontested primary — that showed that you had contact with your people, and had some control. In other elections, other contingencies could kick in that would stop you from delivering for one reason or another, beyond your reasonable control.

You weren't expected to rustle voters, just herd them.

One day before the 1952 primary election, Sy Sigel and I were walking Komensky Avenue, and we stopped at a bungalow where a very old lady answered the doorbell and Sy asked, "How is John doing?"

She explained that John was terminally ill and on his deathbed. The priest had come in and given him his last rites, and they were just waiting for him to die.

Sy mentioned that he had known John for many, many years and asked, "Would it be alright if I came in and talked to him?"

She said, "Of course!" So then she showed us into the bedroom. I'll never forget that bedroom — it was the dingiest, oldest bedroom that I could remember. There was an aura of death around it, and there was old John lying there, and as Siegel talked to him he could hardly respond. You could almost hear the death rattle. It was very depressing, but here was Sy, talking to old John in his bedroom.

A few days later it is primary day, and I'm standing in front of the polling place and Siegel says to me, "I want you to take the car and I want you to go pick up old John. He's ready to vote."

I think he's kidding me. And I say to him, "That's very funny."

"No, I'm serious." And for ten minutes Sy tries to convince me that he is serious.

I said, "Don't you remember we were there two days ago? This guy was on his death bed. The priest had come in and given him the last rites. He's probably dead at this moment."

"No, his wife has him dressed and he's ready to go. And he wants to vote."

I got in the car with somebody else and we drove to the house and there she had him propped up on the front porch. It looked like rigor mortis had already set in.

Old John was no ghost voter, however. He was, indeed, alive. We picked him up and carried him into the car, drove to the polling place, and into the voting booth. I don't know if he voted or if Sigel voted for him. We carried him back to the car and took him home and he died a few days later.

Now that was a precinct captain!

* * *

By the 1960s Aaron Jaffe was no longer a political novice, but he was still willing to learn from the masters of the machine.

Committeeman Vito Marzullo and Professor Milt Rakove

As Sy Sigel was the consummate precinct captain in the 1940s, so was Vito Marzullo the consummate ward committeeman, as alderman and boss of the Twenty-Fifth Ward from the 1950s through the early 1980s.

When I was Niles Township Committeeman from 1969 –1970 and sat on the Cook County Central Committee, I always sat next to Vito. He had this very heavy Italian accent, but his physical appearance reminded me of my father.

I loved to talk to Vito. We would talk for hours at a time at the Bismarck Hotel, close by City Hall in Chicago's North Loop, where the Central Committee meetings were held.

Vito was so colorful, and he would tell me all of his stories. He knew I was an independent and a liberal, but for some reason — perhaps my West Side origins — he liked talking to me. He would seek me out and the people on the Central Committee would wonder what we were talking about.

Vito had come from the old country and he was quite happy with his position as committeeman. He even turned down Mayor Daley's offer of a county clerkship of Probate Court. There were several clerks of the court in those days, and they were considered to be real plums. The Mayor didn't understand why Marzullo declined the clerkship, but as Vito explained it to me:

"I say to the Mayor: 'Mr. Mayor, I don't want that job. If you give me that job, I'm a little fish in a big pond, and I don't want to be a little fish in a big pond. If I stick as the alderman of the Twenty-Fifth Ward, and I'm the committeeman of the Twenty-Fifth Ward — I am the alderman. I'm the big fish. I thank you for considering me, but no.'"

Daley said OK because Vito was one of the few who could say no to the boss. In fact, he was the only one who could tell Daley off because in the last analysis he was the most loyal to the Mayor. Daley would take it from Vito because in a pinch Vito would always deliver.

I had a great fondness for Vito, and he knew it. He would always send me checks as campaign contributions, but he never hid his feelings about my fellow independents.

As a rule Vito Marzullo did not like reformers. This he made especially clear when Adlai Stevenson III came before the Central Committee to be slated to run for the US Senate in 1970. Vito hated him and said to me: "You're crazy, but I like you. You're not like the other crazy guys [reformers], and I can talk to you. I can't talk to the other crazy guys."

Just before Adlai III spoke to the Central Committee, Vito turned to me: "You know that Adlai Stevenson is coming here to be screened for the Senate nomination?"

"Of course I know that he is coming."

"You know, we don't need him."

"What do you mean?"

"In the Twenty-Fifth Ward we get the same amount of votes for US senator whether it's Adlai Stevenson or whether it's a yellow dog because the people of the Twenty-Fifth Ward don't vote for Adlai Stevenson. They vote for my organization and for Vito Marzullo because I deliver for my people. I don't need Adlai Stevenson. We can live without Adlai Stevenson because he's only the leader of the yippies and the hippies." [In 1970 Vito was still angry about the turmoil caused at the Democratic Convention and the impact it had on the 1968 election. He would support Republican Richard Nixon in 1972.]

"I understand that, Alderman. I know that I am green compared to your years of experience, but I think that Adlai would make an excellent candidate for the US Senate, and I'd like you to give me a couple of minutes to tell you why."

With a big grin, he said, "Go ahead and talk."

For the next twenty minutes, I give him my best Adlai Stevenson pitch.

I finish.

Vito looks at me and says, "Are you through?"


"You know, you're right."

"I'm right?"

"Yeah, you're green."

I laughed uncontrollably. Vito had put me down in a masterful way, but despite his animosity, Vito delivered for Adlai on election day, 1970 — as well as for anybody else on the Democratic ticket.

Sometime later, again at one of the Central Committee meetings, I noticed Vito carrying a huge tome the size of the Chicago telephone directory.

I asked him: "What are you carrying?"

"What am I carrying? Why the ad book for my organization."

As Niles Township committeeman, I was probably the world's worst political fundraiser in the entire history of the Cook County Central Committee at putting together an ad book:

Asking people for money so I could run for office was just about the worst thing I could do ... When we had fundraisers, they were $10 or $25 a head, and we'd give people a dinner for that.

I [once] met with a [professional] fundraiser and he told me how I would have to go after certain people, talk to them, make calls, and he would give me an entrée. What he described bothered me, though. ... Having to ask for handouts would have meant spending most of my time doing the thing I didn't like to do, and it would have taken me further and further away from the people I was running to represent.

The fundraiser would have sent me to people who would give me money and when they did that, they would become my new best friends. But some of these new best friends inhabited places I didn't want to go for money. I didn't want to become beholden to such people, and I found the idea of selling myself for money to be repugnant.

But political campaigns were getting more expensive. They were using marketing tactics. Not too long after I left office candidates were spending more on one campaign for the legislature than I had spent in 14 years.

[So] I could hardly put four pages together, and here comes Vito with a telephone book — the Yellow Pages.

Vito says: "Do you want to take a look at it?"


Excerpted from Judge Aaron Jaffe: Reforming Illinois by Charles M. Barber, Aaron Jaffe. Copyright © 2016 Charles M. Barber with Aaron Jaffe. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents


Preface Aaron Jaffe's Political Prescriptions for Illinois and the Nation, xvii,
A Note on Oral History and My Recorded Conversations with Aaron Jaffe, xxv,
Introduction: My Journey to Aaron Jaffe's World, xxvii,
Chapter 1: Chicago Political Folklore vs. Precinct Reality, 1,
Chapter 2: Daley and Me: The Regular Democratic Organization: City and Suburbs, 52,
Chapter 3: Clyde Choate and the Three Laws of Illinois Legislative Politics, 116,
Chapter 4: Chicago and Cook County vs. Downstate Illinois, 194,
Chapter 5: The Politics of Gender and Rape Legislation in Illinois, 263,
Chapter 6: The Crime of Punishment in Illinois and the US, 1970–Present, 301,
Chapter 7: An Unseen Rainbow: Aaron Jaffe, Harold Washington, and the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, 353,
Chapter 8: Legislative Combat, Media Myopia, and Other Lessons, 430,
Chapter 9: Independent of the Independents, 471,
Chapter 10: Epilogue: The Wisdom of Chairman Jaffe, 529,
Bibliography, 605,
Index of Names, Places and Terms, 639,

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