The news that Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis is running for the New Jersey state senate made me think of Chicago’s own gold-medal-winning alderman and congressman, Ralph Metcalfe. And it made me wonder why our city doesn’t have more celebrity politicians.
Metcalfe was the second-fastest man in the world in the 1930s. He won the silver medal in the 100 meters at the Los Angeles Olympics, then won silver again in Berlin, finishing behind Jesse Owens.
After World War II, Metcalfe moved to Chicago, where he joined the Democratic Machine. He was state athletic commissioner, committeeman, alderman, and finally congressman. Until the 1970s, when he broke with Mayor Richard J. Daley over police brutality, Metcalfe was a compliant Machine mediocrity. Other than Metcalfe, though, Chicago hasn’t had many celebrity politicians. There are a few reasons for that.
First of all, celebrities like to start at the top. Think of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. The Machine required political aspirants to start at the bottom, often as doorbell ringers. Daley didn’t like self-made candidates, because their money made them independent of his organization. He’d worked his way up from precinct captain, and he expected everyone else to do the same. Even gold-medal winner Metcalfe had to start at the ward level.
“The rich guys can get elected on their own money, but somebody like me, an ordinary person, needs the party to get elected,” Daley once said. “Without the party, only the rich could get elected to office.”
In Chicago, politics is an all-consuming career, not a retirement hobby for bored millionaires. Look what happened to investor Blair Hull when he ran for the Senate. After using his fortune to build an early lead, he was tripped up when his divorce file was leaked to the press by an aide to Dan Hynes, scion of one of Chicago’s most powerful political families. Hull lost the election to Barack Obama, who’d paid his dues as a state senator from the South Side. Obama then showed he was a real pro by tipping off the press to the embarrassing divorce file of his opponent, investment banker Jack Ryan. Career Politicians 2, Millionaires 0.
In addition, politicians are the celebrities in Chicago. We don’t have a lot of tycoons or movie stars. Who was our contribution to Celebrity Apprentice? Rod Blagojevich. As Slate put it:
The star power of Chicago politicians may also contribute to the city's continuing problems with corruption. Incumbents tend to be big personalities who get celebrity coverage in the local papers—which sometimes translates into ethical leeway from voters. (In cities like Los Angeles and New York, local politicians take a back seat to the media celebs.)
Senator John Cusack? Congressman Vince Vaughn? They’ll have to run in California.
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