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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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The Democratic political establishment of the City of Chicago is down to its last Ed.

In the October 29th edition of the Sun-Times, columnist Steve Neal reported on the retirement of former Parks Department chief and long-time Machine heavy Edmund "Ed" Kelly, the Committeeman of the 47th Ward. Kelly, a colorful and powerful remnant from the days of Richard J. Daley, once commanded an army of 5,000 patronage jobs in the Parks Department and controlled the slating of Democratic candidates in all county-wide elections.

Now he's stepping down, not too long after a failed attempt to oust Gene Schulter, the current alderman of the 47th. It was Kelly who originally got Schulter the gig in 1975, after years of Republican dominance in the heavily residential Ravenswood-based ward. A few years ago, however, Schulter tried to remove Kelly from the committeemanship of the 47th, a move which prompted Kelly to remark to the media, "He's a real piece of shit...We're going to retire him."

But Kelly's choice for Schulter's opponent in the 2003 municipals, Jack Lydon, failed to pull off a victory, and Kelly may have seen the pointlessness in his struggle against the popular, notoriously efficient Schulter.

Kelly, now 79, is emblematic of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization. It is such a cloistered, self-perpetuating clique that it becomes difficult for local residents to see just how ultra-Democratic it is. But when any Chicago Democrat is faced with a Republican challenger, their fierce loyalty to the DNC comes shining through: look, for instance, to the NAACP-sponsored debate between candidates for the upcoming Senate nominations, when men like Gery Chico and Dan Hynes were faced with Republicans Jack Ryan, Jim Oberweis, and Andy McKenna. It was like reading a Terry McAuliffe memo. Unlike Republicans in the suburbs, Chicago Democrats are not Democrats-in-name-only.

Kelly endorsed Jane Byrne in 1983 and again in 1987 because he feared what would happen to the Machine if Harold Washington and his supposed reform movement grabbed hold of the RDO. This was not conservative racial politics, which would appear completely contrary to Democratic party ideals, but rather Chicago politics: keep it in the Organization, to better beat the Republicans across the state and nationally, too. It was Kelly who as the slatemaker for so many years helped get the city's first county-wide African-Americans, women, and Latinos elected. Neal quotes him as saying, "We've got a county government that now reflects the diversity of the county."

This from the same man who said Harold Washington was "the biggest racist I've ever seen. I think he perpetuates the fuel and the fire that's constant here in the city." (Not exactly a rhetoricist). The implication was clear: Chicago's Democrats are all for reform, but reform must come from above.

As it stands, Kelly has handed over slatemaking duties to his friend Ald. William Beavers (7th) via his long-time political ally Tommy Lyons, Cook County Democratic chairman and committeeman of the 45th Ward, chinaman of powerful Aviation Committee Chairman Ald. Pat Levar (45th).  The list of Kelly's proteges, many of whom came up through the patronage jobs in the parks department, have all gone on to shape every aspect of the city's day-to-day life. US Rep. Bill Lipinski, Democratic National Committeeman Thomas Hynes (father of state comptroller Dan Hynes), former Attorney General Neil Hartigan, Secretary of State Jesse "I'll Tumble For You" White, Cook County Board President John Stroger, State's Attorney Richard A. Devine and Sheriff Michael F. Sheahan all owe their current political careers to one degree or another to the munificence of one Ed Kelly, the man who transformed the Republican 47th Ward into the "Fightin' 47th" Democratic stronghold.

Kelly's retirement leaves only one of the "Three Eddies" from the Richard J. Daley Machine of the '60s and '70s still in power: Ald. Ed Burke (14th).  The other Ed, "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, became a Republican and is currently working the shadows of politics around the suburbs and the city's vicinity.

Kelly has pledged to remain in politics, probably mostly in the upcoming Senatorial and Presidential campaigns of November 2004. Although he has suggested he will not get involved in the Democratic primary for Senate, it would not be far-fetched to assume he'll throw his considerable weight behind the son of his long-time friend Tom Hynes, Comptroller Dan Hynes.

Despite his role in the opposition to Harold Washington, Ed Kelly was immensely helpful in the elections of men like former senators Paul Simon, and Alan Dixon, Senator Dick Durbin, and ex-Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  Whatever his sins, his greatest faith was the Democratic Party, and if there's any value to loyalty anymore, the city should fondly remember him.

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