Thursday, December 16, 1999
By CHARLES B. CLEVELAND
THERE is no orderly succession in a political dictatorship; leadership passes to the person who grabs the title by luck, guts, circumstance, naked power or a combination of these.
It's going on currently in Chicago following the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley, but it has happened before — most notably in 1933 when Anton J. Cermak, father-in-law of former Gov. Otto Kerner, was killed. The man who took charge then, in those early days of the Great Depression, was Patrick A. Nash. In a series of slick political maneuvers, he killed off a challenge within the City Council to elect its popular leader, Aid. John S. dark; switched to Springfield to pass a new law bypassing a special election, then returned to Chicago's City Council to push through his handpicked choice.
The choice was Edward Joseph Kelly and for the next 14 years the Kelly-Nash Machine ruled Chicago, Cook County, much of Illinois and was a major power in the nation.
At the time, Kelly's selection was a surprise. There had been speculation about many candidates — Nash himself, Corporation Counsel William Sexton, County Recorder Clayton Smith. Like the characters in a whodunnit book, Kelly was on stage and — once the secret was out — a fairly obvious choice.
Kelly was the prototype of Daley: Irish, born and raised back of the Chicago Stockyards. Young Kelly quit school at the Fifth Reader, worked at odd jobs until he became a surveyor for the 1893 World's Fair; then via night school and self-teaching became an engineer. Kelly also began dabbling in local politics and in 1905 ran unsuccessfully for Sanitary District trustee. Another candidate at the time was a Republican patrician named Robert R. McCormick, later the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who proved an outstanding executive, curbing much of the petty graft and patronage.
Despite their difference in politics, background and status, McCormick befriended Kelly and the friendship lasted a lifetime. In 1920 McCormick helped Kelly get the job as chief engineer of the Sanitary District.
Another Chicago tradition has the politicians getting a piece of the action that results in periodic scandals. The Sanitary District provided a particularly juicy scandal in the early 1930's, but Kelly (despite his key role) was never implicated directly. (By one story he was indicted but saved by McCormick.) Shortly after being named mayor, he also survived an intensive newspaper investigation into his income tax settlement that hinted, but never proved, that Kelly had made a fortune while on the public payroll. The investigation did, however, contain one fact that suggested why Nash had picked Kelly for mayor: As chief engineer of the Sanitary District, Kelly had given firms owned by Nash and his nephews more than $18 million in contracts.
Once those early months passed, Kelly concentrated on consolidating power. He operated on a simple theory: "Either you run the machine or the machine runs you." He sidetracked a chief rival, John S. Clark, by getting him out of the City Council and into the assessor's role. One by one he either neutralized or eliminated most of his rivals; meanwhile he and Nash achieved a working alliance that left Kelly in the limelight.
Unlike Daley who had little more than token opposition, Kelly never had a clear track. He had a running battle with State's Atty. Tom Courtney, Gov. Henry Horner and County Judge Edmund K. Jarecki, and he lost key battles to each. But Kelly held the key political cards all his life, thanks in part to his influence with President Roosevelt.
Kelly found favor in Washington by a more direct route. When his two-year appointive" term ended, Kelly ran for the mayor's office. He and his Machine bought out the Republican party, stuffed the ballot box and piled up a landslide victory in 1935. For some reason, Roosevelt was not all that confident of reelection in 1936. (The famous Literary Digest Poll said he would lose and so did others, even though the election itself proved a pushover.) Kelly's vote-getting power impressed Washington that he could swing Illinois, a pivotal state, and despite a lifelong feud with a key cabinet member (Harold Ickes) Kelly got a steady stream of federal dollars for schools, the subway, airports and other job-producing favors.
These events pushed Kelly into the national spotlight with the big city bosses of the country. He climbed to prominence in 1940. By then Roosevelt had completed two terms as President, and political tradition said that was all there could be. Kelly engineered a "draft" of Roosevelt which helped tear down that historic barrier of a third term for a President.
Time eroded Kelly's strength. The school system had been a continual source of criticism because of economies forced by the Depression coupled with outright political domination of contracts and school administration. These problems, coupled with a reform wave which hit after World War II, ended the Kelly era in 1947.
There was an eight-year hiatus with an independent mayor, Martin Henry Kennelly, but then boss rule came back with Richard J. Daley who, like his predecessor, followed the rule: "You run the machine or it runs you." And Daley ran it. Now? Well, that's tomorrow's story.
30 / June 1977 / Illinois Issues