When Jewish Upon a Star

If Rahm Emanuel wins next year’s election, he’ll be Chicago’s first Jewish mayor. Chicago has produced plenty of Jewish political talent -- Gov. Sam Shapiro, Judge Abner Mikva, Congressman Sid Yates -- so why haven’t we had a Jewish mayor?

The answer has to with the city’s complicated ethnic politics.

Mayor Anton Cermak, the founder of the Chicago Machine, was a Bohemian who outmaneuvered the WASP and Irish politicians of his day by running on a platform of making the city “a house for all peoples.” Cermak was strongly supported by the Jews and the Germans, who were also chafing for their fair share of political power. First, he beat the Irish, by taking over the Cook County Democratic Party after George Brennan died. Then, he beat the WASPs, by defeating Republican mayor William Hale Thompson in 1931.

Cermak’s triumph was ended by a bullet. He was riding in a motorcade with Franklin D. Roosevelt when a mad assassin tried to shoot the president-elect. He hit Cermak instead, killing the mayor.

After Cermak died, the Machine had to appoint a replacement. One of the names floated was Jacob Arvey, the powerful alderman from Lawndale. The West Side was then the heart of Chicago’s Jewish community, and Arvey’s 24th Ward produced the biggest Democratic vote in the city. There was just one problem with Arvey’s candidacy: Illinois had a Jewish governor, Henry Horner. That didn’t fit Cermak’s formula.

“To have a governor of Illinois Jewish, and a mayor of Chicago Jewish, at that time would have been rubbing it in to the Irish,” Arvey said.
So the job went to Edward Kelly, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Sanitary District. Once the Irish took the mayor’s office, they never gave it back. It’s been held by an Irishman (or -woman) for 70 of the last 77 years.

Emanuel’s situation is different from Arvey’s. On the one hand, Jews don’t play as big a role in Chicago politics as they did in Arvey’s day. The only Jewish ward left is the 50th, in West Rogers Park. That deprives Emanuel of a large ethnic base, but it also means his religion won’t be an issue. Nobody thinks a Jewish mayor will upset the ethnic balance of Illinois politics. That, of course, is because ethnic issues have been replaced by racial issues. (Rep. Art Turner didn’t get the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor because there were already three African-Americans on the ticket; Joe Berrios is appealing to Latino pride in his race for assessor.)

To most voters, Emanuel will be just another white guy in the field. Although if he gets into a runoff against Tom Dart, let’s see how many Irish votes he gets.

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