Perhaps more than any other U.S. city, corruption has been a way of life in Chicago. This, after all, is a city that always got things done; "the city of big shoulders."
Chicago began in 1833 as a small town with a population of about 350. But by 1860 it was the fastest growing city in America and had a population of about 112,000 residents. That year Abe Lincoln was selected in Chicago on the third ballot to become the Republican Party's first candidate for president. Lincoln supporters famously jammed all the seats of the Chicago convention hall, known as the "Wigwam," locking out supporters of New York Senator William Seward. Since then Chicago has hosted more American national political conventions than any other city.
Chicago always did things in a big way. In the 1850's it reversed the flow of the Chicago River to open a path from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. The 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed more than one-third of the city; they were primarily wooden structures. Chicago quickly rolled up its sleeves and rebuilt itself. By 1885 it became the site of the world's first "skyscraper," which had a steel skeleton. In 1893 it hosted the spectacular Chicago World's Fair, which featured great architecture and electrical power.
Chicago became the "Second City" in size but the first city in railroads, serving as America's transportation hub for decades. Chicago also became the "hog butcher" to the world, as the Chicago Stockyards were America's leading source of livestock. Because of its central location it became a through way for all things going east and west. And up until recently, Chicago's O'Hare airport was the world's busiest.
But there was always a dark side to the city. Chicago became the home of the notorious "Outfit" in the early 1900's. By the 1920's Al "Scarface" Capone was the boss. This powerful crime family operated independently of the five families in New York. During their heyday the Outfit ran illegal activities throughout the Midwest, Miami, Las Vegas and Hollywood. Using skimmed Teamster pension funds they built many of the original casinos in Las Vegas. Jimmy Hoffa may have known too much. Couriers would regularly travel from "Vegas" carrying suitcases full of cash. Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti, Paul "The Waiter" Ricca, Tony "The Big Tuna" Accardo, Jackie "The Lackey" Cerone and Joey "The Doves" Aiuppa all got their cut. Rumors had it that the Kennedy administration talked to Sam "Momo" Giancana about taking out Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Outfit wasn't happy it lost its Havana business. Soon Momo had too high a profile so in 1975 he was "whacked" while cooking Italian sausage in the basement of his home.
Politics in Chicago has always been rough and tumble. Heads got busted, people were shook down, deals were made and things got done. It was always part of the city culture. From the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley ran the city. He was the last of the big city bosses. His powerful machine elected alderman, senators, governors and even President John Kennedy. "Vote early and vote often," was the Daley machine mantra. Supporters got city jobs and political favors. The trains ran on time.
Daley harshly cracked down on anti-war demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Famous for his malapropisms, Daley declared, "Let's get the thing straight, gentlemen. The policeman isn't there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder." He was appalled that tens-of-thousands demonstrators would disrupt and damage his city. At one point Daley issued a "shoot to kill" order to police to be carried out against violent rioters. Daley was widely denounced for his tactics.
Over the years, Mayor Daley consistently brushed aside charges of government corruption. "Look at our Lords disciples," he once said, "One denied Him; one doubted Him; one betrayed Him...If our Lord couldn't have perfection, how are you going to have it in city government?" But soon the Daley machine began to crumble as three powerful aldermen, and Daley associates, were convicted on a series of fraud, conspiracy and bribery charges. The U.S. Attorney described it as a "turning point" in the battle against corruption in Chicago. One local publication wrote, "Chicago politics will never be the same again."
But forty years later, Chicago style politics seems little changed. The charges against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich may make "Lincoln role over in his grave," but many Chicagoans are probably just thinking, "Here we go again."
That's why the late great Chicago newspaperman, Mike Royko, gave the "Windy City" its official motto: "Ubi Est Mea -- Where's mine?"