From Ellis Island to GOP, a look at 5 memorable mayors

19 Mar

By Megan Ashley

Did you know Richard J. Daley started as a Republican? That a Chicago Tribune editor was a mayor of the city? That one mayor spent his first birthday as an immigrant on Ellis Island?

Rahm Emanuel joins a colorful group of predecessors when he’s sworn in and here’s a look at five of the more noteworthy:

Richard J. Daley

Years served: 1955-1976

Party: Democratic

Noteworthy News: Richard J. Daley, the current mayor’s father, played a major role in the Democratic Party, having pledged his support for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 and Hubert Humphrey’s in 1968. Daley oversaw construction of O’Hare International Airport, Sears Tower and McCormick Place. He gained notoriety for the violence that broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, as well as for his questionable machine politics. Daley died in office at the age of 74.

FYI: Daley was first elected to the Illinois House of Representatives as a Republican.

Jane Byrne

Years served: 1979-1983

Party: Democratic

Noteworthy News: Byrne was the first and only female to date to serve as mayor of Chicago. Despite the fact that Byrne worked for Richard J. Daley during his time in office, she presented herself to Chicagoans as a reformer. However, her actions as mayor were not always consistent with her image. David Axelrod told The New Yorker that Byrne’s “was a great reform campaign” yet “she became sort of a parody of a machine mayor.” Byrne is famous for her decision to temporarily move into Cabrini-Green, a public housing development that gained notoriety for its violence.

FYI: Many commentators cite severe snowstorms as Byrne’s ticket to City Hall. Mayor Michael Bilandic was in office when massive amounts of snow paralyzed Chicago in January of 1979. Voters saw Bilandic as an ineffective mayor and found a replacement in Byrne.

Harold Washington

Years served: 1983-1987

Party: Democratic

Noteworthy News: Harold Washington succeeded Jane Byrne and became the first African American mayor of Chicago. He graduated from both Roosevelt University and Northwestern University’s School of Law. Washington struggled to assert control over Chicago politics and local government; however, he is remembered for being a fair mayor who gave a voice to minorities. A Nov. 26, 1987 editorial in the Chicago Tribune wrote: “Harold Washington did not neglect white Chicago the way his predecessors neglected black Chicago, and let that be a permanent part of his legacy and a lasting tribute to him.” Washington died in office at the age of 65.

FYI: Washington dropped out of high school to work in a meat-packing factory.

Anton Cermak

Years served: 1931-1933

Party: Democratic

Noteworthy News: Anton Cermak mobilized the new immigrant population to challenge the Irish politicians who controlled city politics. With the help of minority groups, Cermak won the 1931 mayoral election. He spent most of his time as mayor dealing with the Association of Real Estate Taxpayers’ refusal to pay real estate taxes, and the lack of funds that resulted from the strike. Cermak was shot while shaking hands with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. Speculation around the shooting has raised claims that the assassin’s original target was Roosevelt. Cermak is said to have told Roosevelt, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.”

FYI: Cermak was born in Kladno, Czechoslovakia, and spent his first birthday at Ellis Island. Cermak’s opposition in the election criticized him for his immigrant background. His response has become famous: “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could.”

Joseph Medill

Years served: 1871-1873

Party: Fireproof

Noteworthy News: Medill served as editor-in-chief of the Chicago Tribune before taking office one month after the Great Chicago Fire. Medill established the Chicago Public Library during his term and reorganized government finances. He resigned from office in 1873, claiming that his health was deteriorating. He returned to the Tribune, where he worked until his death in 1899.

FYI: Medill, born in Canada, was one of the founders of the Republican Party and strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln and his administration.

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