The 1955 Mayoral Election

By Richard Anderson

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recent election marked a break with the past. For the first time, a black woman runs the country’s third-largest city. Yet the contest turned on a question that stretches back nearly a century in Chicago history: the legitimacy of machine politics. As the campaign unfolded, the Chicago Elections Project team happened to be mapping precinct-level voting returns from the city’s 1955 mayoral race, which also featured candidates united on most issues but divided over the merits of the Cook County Democratic Organization (the formal name for the city’s famous political machine). By examining Richard J. Daley’s first mayoral victory we can begin to understand how the machine system railed against by Lightfoot and her supporters recreated itself after World War II and how it has survived for so long.

In April’s election, the two candidates offered strikingly similar platforms. If anything, Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle’s long record as a progressive officeholder dovetailed with the surge of local leftwing activism in the wake of the police killing of Laquan McDonald. But Preckwinkle had also maneuvered her way to the top of the machine, becoming chair of the county Democratic organization in 2018. That proved to be her undoing. Lightfoot—a corporate lawyer, former Chicago Police Board president, and onetime federal prosecutor—hammered Preckwinkle over her deep ties to the “corrupt political machine.” She exploited a string of recent scandals within the local Democratic party involving veteran machine alderman Ed Burke, former county assessor Joe Berrios (Preckwinkle’s predecessor as party chair), Burke’s son, and Preckwinkle’s own son. Preckwinkle’s support plummeted. On election day, Lightfoot won all 50 wards.

Lightfoot’s rhetoric echoed previous generations of machine critics. For decades, columnists, reporters, and politicians have referred to “the Chicago way” or “Chicago-style politics,” as if the machine was—and is—a virus that infects the city’s water or residents’ DNA. However, However, my current book project, Windy City Spoils: Machine Politics and Urban Liberalism in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, will illustrate that the system emerged in a particular historical context and served a particular function. Chicago’s Democratic machine did not cause the city’s the many ills; it managed the problems created by urban-industrial capitalism. Under Daley, the Democratic organization mediated between different constituencies competing for economic resources and political power within a capitalist system that produced massive inequality and exploitation.

This does not mean that urban machines were necessarily good. Under Daley’s leadership, Chicago’s Democratic organization often made problems worse. It stifled the social democratic potential of labor unions, reinforced racial segregation, and perpetuated racist state violence while offering only token benefits to black and brown residents. Still, white anti-machine reformers past and present have failed to address the underlying conditions that pushed voters toward machine politicians. And they have rarely made common cause with the people they say are the biggest victims of machine corruption. (The clearest exception is the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.)

Richard J. Daley remains the most potent symbol of Chicago machine politics, but his rise to power was far from inevitable. The Democratic machine appeared vulnerable in the mid-1950s. Since World War II big-city machines had suffered major losses. In staunchly Democratic Chicago, the most likely route to toppling the machine would be to follow the examples of Boston’s Daniel Hynes and Philadelphia’s Joseph Clark—Democrats who toppled their cities’ machines in 1949 and 1951, respectively, with support from bipartisan coalitions of business executives and middle-class professionals. Those same forces were gaining strength in Chicago.

The Windy City’s two-term incumbent mayor Martin Kennelly was a pious opponent of machine politics. The Democrats had run Kennelly in 1947 to give the party a reformist veneer in a year when local Republicans were resurgent and corruption scandals had discredited the incumbent machine mayor, Ed Kelly. Machine critics viewed the Kennelly administration as a vehicle for their attack on the system. With help from a small group of anti-machine Republicans and Democrats on the City Council, reformers managed to enact some limitations on the machine’s governing practices. Further change seemed possible, but then the machine tired of Kennelly.

When city Democrats selected Daley, the Cook County clerk and county Democratic chairman, to run in Kennelly’s place, business executives joined with white-collar professionals, Republican officials, and the staunchly conservative Chicago Tribune to resist what both sides viewed as a battle to restore the machine to full power. Anti-machine forces initially backed Kennelly’s defiant primary campaign. Following Daley’s win in the primary, they pivoted to Alderman Robert Merriam, the former Democrat running as the Republican candidate. [Our maps cover only the general election.] In an editorial, the Tribune underscored the high stakes of the campaign. Although Daley had a “good reputation for personal integrity,” the newspaper opposed him because “[t]he issue is machine rule.”[1] Indeed, Chicago’s mayoral race became a contest to determine which constituencies had the right to wield political power and make demands on local government.

Daley’s campaign made anti-machine elitism its central theme by cultivating two key constituencies in the Democratic New Deal coalition that Merriam struggled to engage: organized labor and African Americans. These blocs had grown apart in the ten years since World War II ended. To win back the mayor’s office, the machine would need strong backing from both. At every turn, Daley emphasized his deep union ties. “I come from an American Federation of Labor family,” the candidate would remind union audiences while noting his father’s membership in the sheet metal workers union and his own background in Teamster’s Local 734.[2] (He remained a dues-paying member despite not working as a delivery driver since the 1910s.) Local 734 president William Lee, a close Daley friend, happened to head the Chicago Federation of Labor as well. The CFL put its full weight behind the party chairman. Its newspaper advised the nearly 500,000 CFL members that Daley’s “background and public service reflect intimate knowledge of and sympathy with the problems of working people.”[3]

Unions affiliated with the CFL’s more progressive counterpart, the Cook County Industrial Unions Council, were equally committed to a Daley victory. Spurred by its large African American membership, the CCIUC had lobbied the Democratic machine to sack Kennelly over his meek response to ongoing anti-black violence at the Trumbull Park Homes public housing project, in addition to several other racist assaults by white mobs. Having helped engineer Daley’s nomination, the CCIUC believed he would be an ally to their members.

The patrician Merriam, a professor’s son from the Hyde Park neighborhood near the University of Chicago, had no hope of reducing Daley’s union support. Yet, his record of supporting racial integration opened the possibility of drawing black votes from the machine candidate. The liberal group Independent Voters of Illinois touted Merriam’s support for integration, arguing that of all the candidates he had issued “by far, the most forthright statement on Trumbull Park.”[4] Black GOP alderman and civil rights champion Archibald Carey, recently defeated in the primary by the Democratic machine’s candidate, directed Merriam’s campaign in the majority-African American wards.

At the same time, however, Merriam’s campaign made a disastrous choice to attack Congressman William Dawson, vice-chair of the Cook County Democratic Organization and leader of the so-called “black sub-machine” that dominated the South Side’s African American wards. Dawson had led the revolt against Kennelly and enthusiastically backed Daley. In the general election, Merriam portrayed Dawson as a sinister force in Chicago politics, repeatedly citing his suspected links to the illegal numbers racket. At a massive rally three days before the election, Merriam condemned Dawson as a “ruthless politician” who had “gobbled up one, two, three, four, and now five wards.”[5] Dawson was a controversial figure, disliked by many white and black Chicagoans. Nevertheless, Merriam’s strategy exploited white suspicions of black criminality and doubts about the legitimacy of African American political power. Black residents noticed. Furthermore, the attacks gave Daley an opening.

Daley campaigned aggressively in the “Black Belt,” appearing several times alongside Chicago NAACP president Cora Patton Andrews or one of the five black aldermanic candidates endorsed by the Democratic machine. He also rushed to Dawson’s defense. Before a large black audience in the 6th Ward, Daley praised the “distinguished congressman” and proclaimed that “never in my years of political life did Bill Dawson ask me to do anything that wasn’t right.” [6] Although Daley’s campaign issued only vague calls for racial tolerance, his displays of solidarity with African American drew praise from black civic leaders and the black press. The Chicago Defender endorsed Daley in a front-page editorial that pushed back on Merriam’s anti-machine rhetoric. Daley was a “good, honest, able public servant” who had “served without blemish” for two decades. On issues of special concern to the Defender–civil rights, housing, schools, and policing–the county Democratic chairman had “taken a firm and laudable stand.” [7] In a feat of considerable political skill, Daley consolidated black support despite also receiving an endorsement from the South Deering Improvement Association, a white supremacist group behind much of the violence at the Trumbull Park Homes.

On election day, Daley won 708,660 to 581,461, capturing 55% of the vote and 29 of 50 wards (Fig 1). His 128,000-vote margin appears impressive at first glance. Yet five months earlier, Daley had won reelection as county clerk by more than 300,000 votes. In this much closer election, Merriam captured wide swaths of the white, middle-class north, northwest, and southwest sides. Daley’s cultivation of two core constituencies paid off. He won the four majority-black wards (and a fifth transitioning to majority-black) by 81,000 votes (Fig 2). Together, the five wards provided Daley with roughly 39% (49,000 votes) of his margin. The machine’s totals in the “Black Belt” were striking: 80% in 2nd ward, 76% in the 3rd, 66% in the 4th, 62% in the 6th, and 73% in the 20th.

Figure 1. Election results by precinct.
Figure 2. Election results by ward.

Driven by staunch labor union mobilization, white working-class voters also turned out for Daley in huge numbers. He racked up a 93,000-vote majority in the “river wards,” machine strongholds along the south and west branches of the Chicago River.[8] (Fig 3) In the 1st Ward–notorious for machine-mafia cooperation–Daley took 89% of the vote. The West Side 24th Ward, which was transitioning to majority-black, polled  92% to 8% for Daley. Even the 10th Ward, home to the violent white mobs around Trumbull Park, gave Daley 57% of its vote. Perhaps encouraged by the South Deering Improvement Association, the 10th Ward’s white voters overlooked Daley’s campaigning in black neighborhoods.

Figure 3. South Side wards and precincts.

What do the results tell us? From Merriam to Lightfoot, critics of the machine system argue that corruption explains why poor and working-class voters, especially people of color, voted for the Democratic machine. But coercion and patronage are only part of the story. In 1955, Daley’s key voting blocs made rational choices to vote for the representative of a deeply flawed system. African Americans and white union members believed the Democratic machine would be responsive to their economic interests and distribute to them a measure of political power. What’s more, they clearly understood that anti-machine reformers like Kennelly and Merriam were not their friends. The question for today is whether Lightfoot, having beaten the machine, will ally herself with Chicagoan’s most vulnerable residents.  

In future data visualizations, we will explore how the Democratic machine struggled to maintain its cross-class, interracial coalition in later elections. We will also examine how Daley’s courtship of conservative business leaders and middle-class professionals helped him win some of the Republican-leaning wards Merriam carried. And we will look at how Daley’s increasingly pro-growth, pro-business agenda heightened class- and racial conflicts among the machine’s core constituencies—and how those conflicts played out at the polls. Stay tuned!   


[1] Editorial, “Merriam’s Appeal to Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1955, 20.

[2] “AFL Committee to Elect Daley Opens Headquarters,” Federation News, January 22, 1955, 1.

[3] “Daley’s Record of Public Service Merits Full Support of All Voters,” Federation News, March 26, 1955, 2.

[4] Campaign Bulletin, I.V.I. Bell Ringer, March 1955, Independent Voters of Illinois Records, Chicago History Museum Research Center, Box 5, Folder 36.

[5] George Tagge, “No Area Is Safe In a Wide Open City: Merriam,” Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1955; 11.

[6] “Daley Hailed by Rep. Dawson as ‘Mayor Now,’” Chicago Tribune, February 21, 1955, 2.

[7] Editorial, “Elect Daley Mayor,” Chicago Defender, April 2, 1955, 1, 2.  

[8] Reporters, politicians, and scholars have offered different definitions of what constituted the river wards. This study classifies the river wards as the 1st, 11th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 26th, 27th, and 42nd wards. All general election vote tallies come from Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, April 5, 1955, Municipal Reference Collection, Chicago Public Library, Harold Washington Branch. Percentage calculations by author.

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