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The death knell is sounding for Chicago’s political dynasties

A string of recent federal court cases in Illinois illustrate just how low Chicago's once-mighty political families have fallen.

CHICAGO (CN) — The Romanovs. The Qing. The Bushes. No dynasty lasts forever, and in Chicago a string of recent federal court cases involving members of the city's most prominent white political families — like the Daleys, Cullertons and Burkes - indicate these once-mighty clans may be nearing the end of their reigns too.

It hasn't been a sudden, cathartic collapse; with the exception of the internal Democratic purge that saw former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich sent to prison, there's been no revolution to sweep them from power. Instead these families' falls have been decades in the making — the result of shifting demographics and economic realities more than active political will to remove them.

But even crumbling columns sometimes need a push to fall, and in recent months that push has come from the federal government. Last week Patrick Daley Thompson, former Chicago City Council member and nephew and grandson of Chicago's two longest-serving mayors, was found guilty on several counts of federal tax fraud.

Ed Burke, another City Council member whose father represented the same city ward he now does, is currently under federal investigation on 14 counts of bribery and extortion. And just this past Wednesday, former Illinois state senator Tom Cullerton, whose family has been part of Chicago-area politics since the Great Chicago Fire, pleaded guilty to federal embezzlement charges for pinching more than a quarter million dollars from a suburban local of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

He was forced to resign his Senate seat.

Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at University of Illinois at Chicago and former City Council member himself, said these developments augur the slow dissolution of the Chicago Machine — the white Democratic patronage network which has helped shape Chicagoland politics for more than a century.

"The Keane Dynasty is gone, the Mell dynasty, including Blagojevich is gone," Simpson said. "I don't think the Cullertons have anyone left either."

The Chicago Machine grinding to a halt has far-reaching political implications for Chicago's working class and labor sector, and the timing of Cullerton's guilty plea coincides with significant changes in international union politics.

The court first accused Cullerton in 2019 of squatting on Teamsters Joint Council 25's payroll despite not actually doing any work for them, eventually racking up over $250,000. He was one of several Illinois lawmakers caught up in a sweeping anti-corruption investigation launched by attorney John Lausch's office; the same investigation implicated three other state legislators in energy company Commonwealth Edison's admitted yearslong bribery scheme in the Illinois Capitol building.

Cullerton pleaded not guilty when he first went before a federal judge that year, and held on to that plea throughout 2021. But at the same time, the Teamsters were having a dynastic collapse of their own.

In November 2021, a slate known as Teamsters United won several important elections in the international union's leadership, ousting the faction that had been in power since the latter days of Jimmy Hoffa. The new leadership, exemplified by General President-elect Sean O'Brien and General Secretary Treasurer-elect Fred Zuckerman, have said they plan to take a harder stance against employers compared to their predecessors.

No contacted Teamster local or slate responded to requests for comment, but labor historian and sociology professor Barry Eidlin of Quebec's McGill University, also a longtime Teamsters watcher, said the change bodes poorly for scions of the old guard like Cullerton.

"If there was one word to describe Teamsters United, the one word is 'militancy,'" Eidlin said. "Sean O'Brien was talking about taking a much harder line against employers... part of that more militant approach is a less corrupt approach."

Simpson too said he thought that "unions are taking a more hard approach to corruption." In the coming years, both professors said, the collaborative relationship between union leadership and employers that has defined labor relations for decades may be coming to an end — alongside the political blocs that benefitted from that relationship.

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"The [new Teamster] leadership is not going to tolerate that kind of relationship with politicians," Eidlin said.

Despite this change in the Teamsters' stance on political relationships, UIC Labor Education Professor Robert Bruno expressed skepticism of the idea that high-level Teamster politics had any direct correlation to Cullerton changing his plea. Bruno said out that the former senator's pull in the union was limited to his Local, and Simpson pointed out that federal prosecutors typically win corruption cases, so Cullerton looking to avoid the fight was probably a smart legal move anyway.

Cullerton changing his plea, Bruno said, probably had more to do with rising power blocs in Chicago and Springfield — power blocs that are distinctly not white, and not part of the old Machine.

"I think it's more a reflection of a change in the center of gravity in politics," Bruno said. "It's politics that comes out of grassroots activism, out of progressive energy."

Bruno pointed to the ascendency of left-leaning unions in Chicago — such as the Chicago Teachers Union and the Service Employees International Union — to bolster his point. These public sector unions have been able to challenge Chicago City Hall and win on multiple occasions since the mid 2010s, with the growing support of the city's residents. Bruno said their victories in securing better contracts for union members, as well as concessions from the city on social policies like ensuring nurses in every public school, show that Machine patronage doesn't have the hold on the body politic that it once did.

He added that free-market neoliberalism, another political force that has risen in Chicago as the Machine fades, is likewise challenged by these unions' growing influence.

"There is a harsh critique of neoliberalism from the Teachers Union, and from other sectors of the labor movement," Bruno said.

There is also the changing racial makeup of Chicago and Illinois to consider in analyzing the fall of the old political dynasties. In 1960, when Richard J. Daley was Chicago's mayor, only 11% of Illinois' population, and only 30% of Chicago's, was non-white. In 2020, more than 38% of the state reported non-white racial identities, while white people in Chicago only made up about 31% of the population. This is bad news for the Daley and Cullerton dynasties that have historically relied on white voting and labor pools, but it bodes well for more racially-diverse political movements.

It's no surprise, Bruno said, that Chicago's increasingly-powerful public sector unions have disproportionate representation by people of color, especially women.

"This labor movement is demonstrative of a more racially, geographically inclusive influence [in politics]," Bruno said. He added that their growing strength should serve as a wake-up call to white-dominated trade unions like the Teamsters. Much like Chicago's crumbling dynasties, he said they risk losing influence if they do not further diversify their membership.

"We might see less influence from the Teamsters and more influence from the teachers," Bruno said.

Outside the labor sector, the old Machine dynasties' electoral fiefdoms are also in danger of crumbling, Simpson said. This is most evidently seen in Chicago's 11th Ward, longtime stronghold of the Daleys and one of the few areas of the city's South Side that is still majority-white.

With the city needing to finish its long-delayed redistricting process by May or risk the issue going to voter referendum, Simpson said it is a very real possibility that the current white-majority 11th Ward will cease to exist as a political entity. Patrick Daley Thompsons was forced to resign his seat as the ward's alderman upon being convicted earlier in February, and Asian-American community activists hope to reshape the ward to include the entirety of the city's Chinatown neighborhood.

"The 11th Ward is in danger of being carved up," Simpson said. "It's not clear the old 11th Ward will be able to hold on to power."

Cullerton meanwhile was the last member of his family to have a seat in a state or Chicago political assembly, and if Burke is found guilty in his own federal trial, his 14th Ward will see the end of almost a century of his family's stewardship. A few days in court may end decades of dynastic power.

This does not mean Chicago politics will change over night. The Machine's progressive challengers may be growing and its dynasties crumbling, but the patronage networks themselves still run deep through the city and state.

But, as Simpson said, nothing lasts forever.

"The old Machine is beginning to fall apart," he said.

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