Ward Room
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Chicago's Polish Power Outage

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Chicago's Polish Power Outage
Jack Higgins

The Polish consul general visited the Chicago City Council on Tuesday, and Mayor Daley said all the right things in honoring the memory of Lech Kaczynski, the Polish president who was killed in a plane crash last week.

Daley met Kaczynski when the fallen leader was mayor of Warsaw, and remembered him as “an international leader of peace and discovering the ill effects of communism and Nazism.”

Daley also heaped praise on Chicago’s Polish-Americans, lauding their hard work, religious faith and family values, and pointing out that Polish churches sent food and money back to the homeland during the Communist years.

But there were only a couple of Polish alderman to join in the tributes: Michael Zalewksi, of the Southwest Side’s 23rd Ward.

The lack of Polish aldermen is a sign that, while Chicago still takes pride in its Polish heritage -- it has more Poles than any city but Warsaw -- the city’s once-mighty Polish political bloc isn't what it once was.

In the interest of ethnic balance Chicago’s Irish mayors always chose a Polish city clerk as a running mate. Richard J. Daley had John Marcin. Richard M. had Walter Kozubowski and James Laski. After both were indicted and sent to prison, Daley ended the Polish tradition by naming Miguel del Valle as city clerk. That’s because nowadays because of demographics Latinos are a more important constituency than Poles.

The Northwest Side was once such a Polish redoubt that Division Street was nicknamed “Polish Broadway.” For years, it was represented in Congress by two Poles: Dan Rostenkowski and Roman Pucinski. You can still celebrate Paczki Day on the Northwest Side, but now, the congressman is an Irishman named Quigley. The last Polish alderman in the historically Polish 30th Ward was Michael Wojcik. His ward was redrawn in 2001, and now elects a Puerto Rican, Ariel Reboyras.

Roman Pucinski’s daughter, Aurelia Pucinski, was clerk of the circuit court for 12 years, but failed in a bid to become president of the Cook County Board. She is now a judge, surviving politically on the fumes of her once-potent family’s name.

The last prominent Polish-American politician left in Chicago is U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, the goofy son of former Rep. William Lipinski, who still runs things in the 23rd Ward. And Dan is in danger of losing his seat to redistricting next year. Ald. Ricardo Munoz is relishing the possibility of challenging Lipinski in a mostly-Latino congressional district. If Munoz wins that race, it’ll be just another sign that Latinos have supplanted Poles as an ethnic power bloc in Chicago.

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