Col. Jack Arvey: A master politician
for the Democratic organization

AT THE END he wasn't even invited to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and his obituary in Newsweek was a mere eight lines. But, maybe that just averaged things out. Jacob M. Arvey was born a poor boy in Chicago's 24th ward, but managed to insinuate himself close to the heart of the city's political action for several decades. He was the subject of millions of lines of news copy and commentary. In the process, he lived two lives.

Before World War II he was "Jake" Arvey, the number three man in the Kelly-Nash-Arvey machine, one of the most powerful of the big-city machines that dominated American politics during the Roosevelt years. Arvey broke into politics around World War I when he backed a Republican candidate. But he became a Democratic worker and, as the party first took over Chicago, then the nation, he climbed with it. He did the "poor boy" jobs of deliveryman and others, but studied law nights, then joined a politically connected law firm as a clerk; in the early 1920's he was elected to the city council and, in time, became its undisputed leader.

His careers as lawyer and politician were intertwined. He was a shrewd lawyer, and his firm, obviously helped by his political influence, became one of the leading ones in the city. He was also a brilliant political tactician and his 24th ward organization was the best vote- getting machine in the Kelly-Nash- Arvey operation. The 24th was a Jewish ghetto, and the Democratic party — it was once said — knew any time a sparrow fell within its borders. Every citizen was contacted regularly; every constituent wish became a possible favor that would be repaid on election day. Every precinct had a leader'and every leader had assistants, and breaking into that machine was often tougher than passing the bar exam. As Arvey put it one time, "Every man had to belong to a church, a lodge, some such group. He had to be active in the Elks, Masons. K of C, places where he could spread the word about the Democratic party,"

But it was more than that. The precinct captain was expected to deliver a one-sided vote at election time and there the secret, Arvey said, was "service": "If an apartment was vacant and you moved in, the precinct captain was there to welcome you. He'd get the electricity turned on, perhaps get milk for your children; he'd help with your tax problems, garbage. Our organization is geared to the needs of the masses — our candidates depend on the precinct captain and our captains are trained to go into the home and make personal contact with the voter."

It paid off. The 24th ward delivered regularly 9 to 1 for Democratic candidates — even against a popular Jewish governor. Henry Horner, when the organization tried to dump him in 1936.

From Jake to Jack
During World War II, Arvey left politics to serve as judge advocate of the 33rd Division in the South Pacific. When he returned, only his enemies or strangers called him "Jake" — he now was either "Colonel Arvey" or "Jack" Arvey. He was—or outwardly attempted to be — different, not just in name. First, he tried to retire from politics completely. But, by now the Democratic machine was crumbling, and, gradually, he found himself trying to save it.

Arvey — once the symbol of spoils politics — now took on the role of reformer. He persuaded Ed Kelly to quit as mayor when a voter revolt threatened; instead a businessman (Martin Kennelly) was nominated and elected. The next year — 1948 — the party was in national trouble. Harry Truman had succeeded Roosevelt in the White House but appeared a certain loser in the fall. Arvey tried to engineer a coup — Dwight Eisenhower to become the party nominee— but it fell through.

Arvey sought to "save" the ticket by nominating Paul Douglas, a former University of Chicago professor and maverick alderman, for U.S. senator and a relatively obscure diplomat, Adlai Stevenson, for governor. It was a master stroke; each won in a landslide and Truman squeaked through Illinois and the nation to win. Later Arvey helped pave the way, with other party professionals. for the nomination of Stevenson twice for president.

These campaigns helped support those who felt Arvey had returned from war service determined to erase his machine image in favor of a good government role. Critics would point out that neither Douglas nor Stevenson appeared to be likely winners at the time, and Arvey's real motive was windowdressing to attract enough independent voters for the Cook County candidates who controlled patronage jobs. They also point out that two years after Stevenson-Douglas, Arvey produced a county ticket headed by a police captain, running for sheriff, who was under federal investigation — hardly the handiwork of a good-government advocate.

Nor did Arvey ever get a handle on political success again. As a presidential nominee, Stevenson moved to independents like Steve Mitchell as national chairman — a rival from Arvey's own area. Dick Daley rose to take over party leadership, and Arvey was gradually relegated to senior citizen. Finally, he was even denied a token role in the last campaign.

Arvey's death less than a year after Daley's underlines the fact that an era has ended.ž

34 / November 1977 / Illinois Issues

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