Secrets of the HDO

Mayor Daley is retiring in May, but his departure is not the only one we'll be celebrating.

Another political reign comes to an end in May, when Al Sanchez, former Hispanic Democratic Organization honcho, reports to a federal prison to serve out his conviction for trading city jobs for political favors.

On Thursday evening, Your Ward Room Blogger ate dinner at an Italian restaurant in Hegewisch with an HDO turncoat who laid out the group’s origins, and explained its downfall.

HDO was born in the Southeast Side’s 10th Ward, as the result of two neighborhood crises in the 1980s: the collapse of the steel industry, and the collapse of Ald. Edward Vrdolyak’s political career.

After the steel mills closed, family men on the Southeast Side were desperate for work. As one Vrodlyak’s most powerful precinct captains, Sanchez could hand out jobs with the city, the county and the state. He found ex-steelworkers jobs as janitors, truck drivers and pipefitters. In return, he demanded their political loyalty at election time.

In 1987, Vrdolyak left the Democratic Party to run for mayor against Harold Washington, and then to run for Clerk of Circuit Court as a Republican. His Latino precinct captains refused to follow, knowing their neighbors would never vote for the party of Ronald Reagan.

Richard M. Daley was preparing to run for mayor, and had seen that Latinos were the swing voting bloc that elected Harold Washington. He wanted them on his side. At a meeting in the 11th Ward Democratic Party headquarters, attended by Committeeman John Daley, the old Vrdolyak crew pledged its loyalty to the Daley family. That meeting, and a meeting in Loncar’s, the South Chicago tavern that became the group’s headquarters, marked the birth of the HDO.

By 1999, Sanchez was assistant superintendent of Streets and Sanitation, and thought it was time for him to get into politics. He asked Daley for permission to run for alderman. Daley said no. The 10th Ward wasn’t ready to vote for a Latino alderman. Instead, Daley ordered Sanchez to work for a 30-year-old City Hall aide, John Pope. The mayor wanted control of the redevelopment of the old U.S. Steel South Works, and to prevent the re-emergence of Vrdolyak.

Pope was not well known in the neighborhood, but Sanchez put him over by using all the city’s powers, both benign and sinister. If anyone needed a tree trimmed or a sidewalk repaired, the job was done. But if any city worker volunteered for one of Pope’s opponents, he was told he’d be on “bad paper” at City Hall. Pope’s opponent, Bob Wisz, saw the defection of several city workers who couldn’t risk their jobs. Pope won. In a recent study of aldermanic independence, he was found to have voted with Daley 100 percent of the time.

As a reward, Sanchez was promoted to superintendent of Streets and San. Suddenly, he had hundreds of jobs to hand out. Employment in the 10th Ward skyrocketed. Then Sanchez got arrogant. It’s OK to promote your political allies, but you have to at least make it look good, by taking applications from no-clout chumps who have no chance at the job. Sanchez didn’t even do that. That ticked off other political bosses around the city. They ratted out this guy who was threatening the beautiful system of patronage.

So now Sanchez, who served Daley so loyally for 20 years, is going to serve a prison sentence for him, too. Daley got what he needed out of Sanchez. He controls the 10th Ward, Vrdolyak is in prison, and a developer is about to build apartments and a shopping center on the old U.S. Steel site. Daley got a lot more from HDO than HDO ever got from Daley. But that’s how it always is when you get in bed with the mayor. 

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