Ward Room
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Why Chicago Has No WASP Politicians

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Why Chicago Has No WASP Politicians
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Last week, a Palatine woman named Judy Marcus published a column in the Sun-Times celebrating the election of Chicago’s first Jewish mayor.

Recalling the days when Jews were forbidden to join the South Shore Country Club, Marcus wrote, “as a Jew and an American, I’m particularly pleased that Rahm Emanuel has won the Chicago mayoral race. Emanuel’s win, coupled with Barack Obama’s 2008 historic and dramatic triumph, leads me to believe a person’s racial, ethnic or religious makeup matters less and less, at least to voters.”

Truthfully, anti-Semitism has not been a barrier to Jewish politicians in Illinois. We elected a Jewish governor in the 1930s and were the first state to have two Jewish governors, when Samuel Shapiro succeeded Otto Kerner in 1968.

There is, however, another ethnic group that suffers from a woeful lack of political influence in Chicago, especially considering their numbers, and their history in this city. I’m talking about my own people, the WASPs (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.)

Chicago’s very first mayor, William Ogden, was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but it’s been exactly 100 years since we elected a WASP mayor, Carter Harrison Jr. The last WASP alderman, David Orr, left office in 1991 to become city clerk. (Orr was mayor for a week after Harold Washington died, so technically, he’s also the last WASP mayor.)

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert rarely agreed on anything, but they once ranted about WASPs controlling all the money and the power in this country. “Protestants,” Ebert said in a disgust. “The only religion that has the Reader’s Digest as a prayer book... The only time Protestants get on their knees is to adjust the TV set.”

Siskel, who was Jewish, and Ebert, who is Catholic, gave each other a soul handshake for belonging to “real” religions who were fighting when “Martin Luther was just a gleam in his mother’s eye.”

WASPs have contributed most of America’s presidents, from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. So why don’t we have any clout in Chicago?

First of all, because WASPs were the first ethnic group to move to the suburbs after World War II. Catholics were attached to their parishes, and blacks were confined to ghettoes by restrictive covenants, so they stuck it out longer. WASPs, on the other hand, were not ones to turn down a good real estate deal in a brand-new subdivision. Hillary Clinton’s father moved the family to Park Ridge after losing an election for 49th Ward alderman.

Second of all, the Chicago Machine is modeled on the Catholic Church, with the mayor as the Pope, the aldermen as cardinals, and the precinct captains as priests. That’s not the kind of club WASPs like to join. Instead, they became Republicans, or formed good-government groups. The chairman of the Better Government Association is named H. Roderic Heard. Nuff said.

Chicago’s most successful WASP politician is former Gov. James Thompson. Thompson, who grew up Presbyterian on the West Side, bypassed the Machine by getting himself appointed U.S. Attorney. In that job, he busted former Gov. Otto Kerner and Ald. Thomas Keane, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s right-hand man on the City Council. The Chicago Machine didn’t like it, but Thompson’s crusade against corruption won him the admiration of his fellow WASPs statewide. They elected him governor in 1976. Thompson succeeded another WASP, Democrat Dan Walker. One reason Walker failed as governor was that Mayor Daley couldn’t look at him without thinking of the Irish Potato Famine.

No WASPs were elected to the City Council on Feb. 22, and none are competing in the runoffs. Sigh. At least we still control Northern Trust and the Union League Club.

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

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