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Racial litmus test creates Democratic primary melee


According to the Chicago Tribune, "The [Cook County] Democratic central committee is primarily and fundamentally a society of patronage brokers and spoils seekers. It is a weak organization at present. . . about the only element of strength left to the Democrats is that the Republican committeemen are, for the most part, slightly worse."

No, the above was not written following the less than spectacular Democratic party slatemaking session held for the 1990 Cook County elections; rather this editorial appeared July 23, 1953, following the selection of a new county party chairman, Richard J. Daley. Elected while county clerk, Daley was an avowed New Dealer and a recognized leader in the liberal wing of the local party. He would become mayor of Chicago in less than two years and then quickly piece together an expanding city wide Democratic organization.

Key to Daley's success was his desire to push his party's political apparatus into the conservative, hard-core Republican wards on the city's periphery. Obviously changing demographics made his predominantly Catholic-Jewish ethnic alliance more appealing to voters living in these so-called "outer zones" of the city, but to his credit Daley also advanced "blue ribbon" types for political and governmental office. The latter were vital players in Daley's plan to attract the better educated, middle-class voters to his organizational banner.

Daley also incorporated the expanding black vote into his "machine," although recent critics correctly point out eventual diminished black loyalty to his organization.

The feeble attempts at racial compromise (especially in post Harold Washington Chicago) are open to instant rejection without regards to competence or 'winnability'

For over two decades the Democratic organization dominated Chicago and Cook County politics. Certainly there were periodic and persistent groups of opponents. Among them were:

Do-good dabblers mainly party reformers living along the lakefront.

Suburban starvers suburban Democrats left out of the process.

Republican diehards city GOP types who remained loyal to their party in mainly national and state elections.

30/February 1990/Illinois Issues

Philosophical dreamers centered in Hyde Park and north suburbia and whose answerving purified liberalism provided them with a long string of "glorious defeats."

Upstart buy-their-way "inners" new leaders, groups and organizations who demonstrated vote-gathering ability and were eventually welcomed into the party apparatus.

Race and racial politics was the one area Daley's organization could not overcome,and it is the main reason his once "mighty machine" is dead. Today the rusting body that passes itself off as the Democratic central committee reflects more nostalgia than reality. Racial militants of all hues now use skin color as the new litmus test of power politics. The feeble attempts at racial compromise (especially in post Harold Washington Chicago) are open to instant rejection without regard to competence or "winnability." How else can one explain the logic of some that former Appellate Judge Eugene "Hang 'em High" Pincham is qualified to be county board president while 14th Ward Aid. Ed Burke is not? Or that the county central committee could not find a place on its slate for 29th Ward Aid. Danny Davis, a west side leader who could have energized the black vote in Chicago this November?

Racial political polarization in Chicago has turned the March 20 Democratic primary into a free-for-all in Cook County. The irony of all this is that over the past 35 years the so-called "machine'' was one of the few institutions that attempted to bridge the racial gap in the city. Although some may scoff, old Mayor Daley's attempts to replace racial loyalty with party loyalty created vote patterns that often made race a non-issue. It may not have been Periclean democracy, but it did bring organized multiracial politics to the city. The 1988 racially balanced county "dream ticket" put together by Harold Washington prior to his death in November 1987 was in this tradition.

The Bismarck Hotel 1990 slating debacle reflects expanding divisiveness inside the Cook County Democratic party, and it gives the perpetually slumbering local GOP an incredible opportunity if they wake up.

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors Sale University.

February 1990/Illinois Issues/31

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