Cook County Democratic Organization

The Cook County Democratic Organization is one of the most powerful political machines in American history. Historically called the "Chicago Democratic machine", or simply the "Chicago Machine", the organization has dominated Chicago politics (and consequently, Illinois politics) since the 1930s. It relies on a tight organizational structure of ward committeemen and precinct captains to elect candidates.


Early history

Before the 1930s, the Democratic Party in Chicago was divided along ethnic lines - the Irish, Polish, Italian, and other groups each controlled politics in their neighborhoods. Under the leadership of Anton Cermak, the party consolidated its ethnic bases into one large organization. With the organization behind, Cermak was able to win election as mayor of Chicago in 1931, an office he held until his assassination in 1933.

After Cermak's death, Patrick Nash and Edward J. Kelly took control of the machine. They were able to add African-Americans to the organization's fold, as they had been previously loyal to Republicans since the Civil War. Due to scandals and liberal policies on housing, Kelly lost favor with the machine.

Jacob Arvey assumed the chair of the organization after Nash's death in 1943 and Kelly's ouster in 1947. Arvey wanted to clean up the image of the machine, so he put reformers on the slate, such as Martin H. Kennelly for mayor, Paul Douglas for United States Senate, and Adlai Stevenson for governor of Illinois.

Worried about the power of the reform movement, the organization turned to Richard J. Daley, who brought the Cook County Democratic Organization to the height of its power and notoriety. Daley took the reins of the machine in 1955, and successfully put himself on the machine's slate for mayor. He won election fairly easily, and ruled the city and machine for the next twenty years.

The most famous example of the Chicago machine in action was in the 1960 presidential election. Daley believed John F. Kennedy would be a tremendous help to Democratic candidates on the ticket, and so he used all the machine's power to turn out the vote for Kennedy. Kennedy won Illinois by only 9,000 votes, yet won Cook County by 450,000 votes, with some Chicago precincts going to Kennedy by over 10 to 1 margins. Illinois' 27 electoral votes helped give Kennedy the majority he needed.

Under the regular machine was an African-American "sub-machine" led by William L. Dawson. In the predominantly African-American wards, Dawson was able to act as his own political boss, handing out patronage and punishing rivals just as Daley could in the larger machine. However, Dawson's machine had to continually support the regular machine in order to retain its own clout.

Temporary weakening of the machine in the 1980s

The power of the machine began to wane during the 1960s and 1970s. Racial tension over issues such as urban renewal in Woodlawn and Lincoln Park, red lining, open housing and public school desegregation drove African-Americans and Latinos from the machine, as the machine tended to side with its white ethnic base (who started to flee the city for the suburbs). Though Daley himself never faced any criminal charges, a number of his associates did, including Thomas Keane and Arvey. After Daley's death in 1976, the machine lost even more of its influence. Michael Bilandic, Daley's successor, did not have nearly the power that Daley did, and indeed lost in a 1979 mayoral primary to Jane Byrne. Reform movements also eliminated many of the patronage jobs that it previously could hand out, reducing the number of voters who owed their livelihoods to the Democratic party.

Some argue that the machine ended when Bilandic lost the mayoral Democratic primary to Jane Byrne, and that the last remnants of the machine finally collapsed during the racially charged three-way mayoral primary in 1983. This is an oversimplification of a complex network of relationships and political structures; the reality is that the machine was never monolithic and that damage to some of the machine's branches never destroyed its roots. It is true that after Byrne's victory, the machine had no one central leader, and it became unusually divided as its chieftains vied for power. Byrne's base of support, both politically and popularly, was on the Northwest side of Chicago, and to a lesser extent the Southeast, and she also benefited from the first flexing of independent African-American electoral power. However, while originally a Daley appointee, Byrne did not have the backing of the powerful Southwest Side political clans (Daley, Madigan, Hynes, etc.), and while she enjoyed for a while the support of George Dunne, her election occurred without her ever taking simultaneous control of the city or county Democratic Party; thus she could not wield the power of a boss.

The split between Party and City Hall did lead to a period of demise of the Machine, and when Richard J. Daley's son Richard M. Daley challenged Byrne for mayor in 1983, it enabled a historic coalition of African-American, Hispanic, and "good government" or "lakefront" liberals to coalesce.Latinos who had been displaced for years from the downtown and lakefront neighborhoods joined the West Town Coalition and the Young Lords Harold Washington and he emerged as the victor in the three-way primary election.The Young Lords leader Jose Cha-Cha Jimenez,introduced the new victorious mayor in June,1983 in Humboldt Park,before a crowd of 100,000 Puerto Ricans.The machine, for the next five years, was weaker and more divided than ever before. The split in the Chicago City Council and Chicago Democratic politics, largely along racial lines, led to several prominent machine Democrats, notably Cook County Democratic Party chairman Edward Vrdolyak, defecting to the Republicans. Washington's supporters and allies waged unprecedented battle not only for positions such as alderman and state representative, but for the relatively obscure (to the public) party positions of ward and state central committeeman, as well as some countywide positions, and achieved numerous successes, primarily on the largely African-American South and West Side, in the Hispanic communities on the north lakefront, and in the liberal communities clustered around the University of Chicago. However, the dominance of machine politics on the northwest and southwest sides, and in some of the western and southern suburbs of Cook County, was never seriously challenged.

Similar to the weakening of the machine after Richard J. Daley's death, the Washington coalition wobbled and then collapsed after Washington's death in the fall of 1987, only a half-year into his second term. No subsequent African-American candidate was able to unify the West and South Side African-American communities as Washington had, nor mobilize the same degree of support among white liberals. In the 1988 primary election, the machine was able to woo several prominent formerly independent, anti-machine leaders, such as Carol Moseley Braun and Luis Gutiérrez, to back the county organization's slate, further splintering the loose independent coalition.

Recent years

Richard J. Daley's son Richard M. Daley was elected mayor in 1989, and rebuilt a powerful political organization that has reelected him five times. This bloc has involved Daley reaching out to the growing Hispanic community, as well as retaining old machinist wards, and raising unprecedented campaign funds. Unlike his father, the younger Daley also reached out to those who initially opposed him, and primarily through negotiated apportionment of city funds for aldermen's local projects, was able to gain control of the City Council to a degree that even the elder Daley never enjoyed. Most of the former "independents," granted a share of the budget and thus the ability to fund their support base, became, themselves, permanent incumbents; in return they supported Daley and gave up on efforts to challenge City Hall's control over the largest contracts and projects, and the machine's control over slating.

In recent years, investigations, indictments, and criminal convictions for hiring fraud and graft, including the federal conviction of the current Mayor Daley's patronage chief, have left little doubt that the machine, if it ever died, was reincarnated since its apparent collapse in the early 1980s. In July 2005, a federal court-appointed monitor reported widespread abuses of a previous court decree against patronage hiring, and the President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners alone still controls 200+ political jobs. The U.S. Attorney's office contended in 2006 that the machine had been rebuilt.[1]

Today, as has been the case for over half a century,[2] no one individual or even small group holds central power in the party,[3] schism such as that between South and West Side persist,[4] and the likelihood of the various machine politicians continuing to act as free agents, rather than automatic team players, creates the potential for further change.

On February 1, 2007, Joseph Berrios was unanimously elected Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.



  • Cohen, Adam and Taylor, Elizabeth, American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation. Little Brown & Company; 1st edition (2000)
  • Connolly, Stump, "I Smell the Meat A Cookin", TheWeekBehind, 21 July 2006. Retrieved on January 4, 2007.
  • "Democratic Party". Encyclopedia of Chicago. [1]
  • Grimshaw, William J, "Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931–1991". University of Chicago Press (1992)
  • Krebs, Timothy B, "Money and Machine Politics: An Analysis of Corporate and Labor Contributions in Chicago City Council Elections". Urban Affairs Review, Vol. 41, No. 1, 47–64 (2005).
  • McDermott, Terry. "What is it about Obama?" Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2006.
  • O'Connor, Len; "Clout: Mayor Daley and His City". (1975)
  • Rakove, Milton L, "Don't Make No Waves, Don't Back No Losers: An Insider's Analysis of the Daley Machine". (1975)
  • Rakove, Milton L, We Don't Want Nobody Sent: An Oral History of the Daley Years (1979)
  • Royko, Mike. "Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago" (1972) Plume reprint edition (1988). ISBN 0-452-26167-8

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