Why the Irish are More Powerful Than Ever in Chicago

This week’s retirement of Ald. Eugene Schulter marks the disappearance of yet another ethnic group from Chicago politics: the Germans. One hundred years ago, the Germans and the Irish ran this town together. The rule was, the police commissioner was always a Hibernian, and his assistant was a Teuton.

When Schulter was elected in 1975, Germans were still so prominent in Lincoln Square that his last name was an essential selling point. (The Davis Theater showed only German movies until the 1960s.) That’s not the case anymore. Lincoln Square is one of the city’s great Stuff White People Like showcases, home of the Old Town School of Folk Music, the Book Cellar and Laurie’s Planet of Sound.

Schulter’s place on the ballot will be taken by his assistant, Tom O’Donnell. That’s becoming a familiar story. As ethnicity has given way to race in Chicago politics, the Irish have squeezed out all the other white ethnic groups.

In the 13th Ward, Ald. Frank Olivo is retiring. He’ll be replaced by Marty Quinn. In the 19th Ward, Ald. Virginia Rugai will give way to Committeeman Matt O’Shea. In other wards around town, Irish dominance is absolute: aldermen Edward Burke, Patrick O’Connor, Tom Tunney and Brendan Reilly are all running unopposed.

In fact, the Irish have never held more power in Illinois. For the first time ever, the mayor of Chicago, the governor of Illinois, the House Speaker and the Senate president are all Irish.

The Irish first became successful in politics because they spoke English and because, coming from an island on the edge of Europe, they didn’t have a lot of ancestral enemies. As the old saying went, “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole, and a Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian. A German won’t vote for either of them. But all three will vote for a turkey. -- an Irishman." Only the WASPs hated the Irish, and the WASPs all lived on the North Shore.

As the importance of white ethnicity has disappeared in Chicago politics, the Irish have become even more powerful. Jews, Italians, Poles, Germans, Lithuanians and Bohemians have either become fully assimilated, or moved to the suburbs. There’s no more need to placate those groups with a spot on the ticket, so why not just run an Irishman? Everyone knows voters love the Irish. Look at all the Fitzgeralds and Cavanuaughs and Gaughans who get elected to judgeships, just on the strength of their names. In the new, tri-cornered game of ethnic politics -- whites, Latinos and blacks -- the Irish represent the white faction.

Of course, Chicago’s next mayor won’t be Irish. It may be Rahm Emanuel, a protégé of the Daley family. Or Gery Chico, a protégé of Ed Burke. Don’t worry. The Irish will never be too far from power.

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