Rahm, runoffs and more Chicago mayoral history

RahmEmanuelFrom the Saturday, Feb. 28, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

With the death of Jane Byrne last fall at the age of 81, there are now only two former Chicago mayors still kicking today.

However, 70-year-old David Orr and 72-year-old Richard M. Daley could soon have company in the Old Bosses’ Home along Lake Michigan, if Mayor Rahm Emanuel can’t get his act together soon.

Thanks to his inability to eclipse the 50 percent benchmark in Chicago’s election earlier this week, the deep-pocketed Emanuel has now been embarrassingly forced into the a mayoral runoff this April against upstart Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the current Cook County Commissioner.

The runoff is uncharted waters for Emanuel, who garnered just over 45 percent of the vote to Garcia’s 34 percent. That’s a far cry from 2011 when Emanuel rolled into his first term on the strength of a 55 percent clip, far ahead of closest opponent Gery Chicago, who received just 25 percent.

The runoff, set for April 7, is also uncharted waters for Chicago, which never before has experienced one. As a result, we can expect the Running of the Bull to continue on local airwaves for six more weeks. But perhaps that’s only fitting since the Windy City earned its nickname on the words of political blowhards.

And in preparation for the ongoing war of words, here are a few more about Chicago’s mayoral history.

‘Weak Mayors’

It seems like a punchline, but Chicago, by charter, actually has a “weak-mayor” system, which means that most of the power is vested in the city council. Or, you know, is supposed to be.

In reality, however, everyone knows Chicago’s mayor is anything but weak, and instead has long been one of the most powerful municipal chief executives in the nation (see: Daleys, Richard J. & Richard M.).

One big reason? Unlike mayors in most other weak-mayor systems, Chicago’s boss has the power to draw up the budget.

First impressions

Chicago’s first mayor didn’t exactly have a strong first impression of the city.

Back in 1835, William Butler Ogden, a native of Walton, N.Y., traveled to Chicago for the first time to look over a piece of land purchased by his brother-in-law, Charles Butler, for $100,000. Unimpressed, Ogden told Butler that he had “been guilty of the grossest folly. There is no such value in the land and won’t be for a generation.”

As it turned out, though, Ogden recouped Butler’s $100,000 by selling off just one-third of his property and then decided he did like Chicago well enough to stick around and become its inaugural mayor in 1837.

Fire and burnout

The Great Chicago Fire didn’t just spawn the city’s rebirth, it also sparked a new political party. In 1871 after the massive inferno, Joseph Medill – the legendary former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune – was elected mayor as a member of the temporary “Fireproof” party.

Medill served in the role for two years, creating Chicago’s first public library and reforming the police and fire departments. But the stress of the job wore him down, and in August 1873, he appointed an Acting Mayor so he could spend the remaining 3½ months of his term in Europe on a convalescent tour.

One more year

Back to that “weak mayor” misnomer, Chicago is the largest city in the United States to not limit the term of service for its top city official. During the past, however, it had limits galore.

From 1837 through 1863, the mayoral term was just one year. It then increased to two years before being lengthened to four in 1907. And thank goodness. After all, can you imagine annual campaigns?

Windy City, indeed.