When Richard J. Daley presided over the Cook County Democratic Party, the so-called “machine” had the power to make or break political careers from the bungalow belt to Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Daley is the ballgame,” Robert F. Kennedy once said when asked what would determine who won the Democratic presidential nomination.
Now, the county party’s clout has diminished so much that the current Cook County Democratic chairman, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, couldn’t even keep himself in the game, losing his re-election bid last month.
But despite the party’s diminished stature, Democrats are still jockeying to take the reins, now that Berrios is stepping down as party chairman.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced she was running for the party’s top spot just a few days after beating challenger Bob Fioretti in the March primary to secure a third term.
Preckwinkle is the likely frontrunner, but she is not getting a free pass.
On Thursday, Paul Rosenfeld, 47th Ward Committeeman, announced his candidacy and released his plans for the party if elected chairman.
Those plans include changing the party’s structure by installing a labor representative and ensuring progressives “will have a larger voice, a higher profile, and our process will be run fairly and with integrity.”
State Rep. Luis Arroyo is also interested in leading the party.
In his message to fellow committeemen, the Northwest Side legislator said “our party needs leaders with ideas more in line with our current affairs and with a more progressive vision of our future.” Though one committeeman said the email landed in his junk box.
Other names swirling among committee members included 9th Ward alderman Anthony Beale, and Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie.
Lang said he has not thrown his hat into the ring, but is waiting to hear from other candidates about their commitments to suburban Democrats. Some committeemen have said Beale has approached them to gauge support and has asked them to keep an open mind. He has not confirmed nor denied whether he’s running.
Being chairman of the party, while still a powerful political seat, doesn’t carry the same election-deciding influence it used to.
Daley held the position for 23 years, including at the height of its influence in the 1960s — his tenure and tight grip on the reins of the county machine made it “the largest, richest and the last in the nation still at full thrust,” according to a New York Times obituary for him.
The perks that came with the job, like rubber stamping candidates for various county offices, have subsided thanks to Shakman decrees that have curbed patronage hiring. The ability to hand out those jobs translated into power.
The late mayor’s son, John Daley, a Cook County commissioner and chairman of the Finance Committee, said that in some ways the position still holds power, but “the individual sets the tone.”
“Preckwinkle would be a strong chair for the party,” Daley said. “Look at any position she’s held, she doesn’t do anything by halves, and I think she’ll lead the party to more success.”
Still, the chairman, and the party he or she leads, does not bring the clout of Daley’s father’s day.
Being endorsed — or slated, as it’s popularly called — is no longer a virtual guarantee that a candidate will win, as Berrios was reminded last month. State Rep. Dan Burke — brother of powerful 14th Ward alderman and committeeman Edward Burke — also lost out, beaten by political newcomer Aaron Ortiz.
But despite those high-profile defeats, the party did well in the March primary. Rosenfeld said 86 percent of party-endorsed candidates pulled through. Slated candidate state Sen. Kwame Raoul took the nomination in the crowded race for Illinois attorney general. In down-ballot races, all but two slated candidates for circuit court judge won.
“It certainly is a lot less powerful than in the days of political patronage,” Ald. Joe Moore (49th), said. “Political patronage is over with and now the party has to depend on volunteers and grassroots activism and that’s the key to the future of the party.”
Moore said he’ll vote for Preckwinkle as chairman, noting she already has the financial resources and influence to support the party. He disagrees that her loyalty to Berrios during the primary reflects poorly on her, but despite Berrios’ challenges “I thought he was a good party chairman.”
The combined 80 Chicago ward and suburban township committeemen will have their say Wednesday, with their votes weighted according to the results of the March primary. The winner will need a majority, or 50 percent plus one of the weighted votes cast. Most of the committeemen the Chicago Sun-Times interviewed said they were committing their votes to Preckwinkle, or leaning her way.
When Preckwinkle announced she would seek the top party position, she vowed to modernize the party, end the “Good Old Boys Club” and prioritize diversity and grassroots organizing in opposition to Gov. Bruce Rauner and President Donald Trump.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), longtime ally of Preckwinkle, supports electing her as chairman.
“She has been very active and involved, she has made sure there has been diversity within the party, she pushes the boundaries,” Hairston said. “I’m glad to see a woman in this highly male-dominated arena, a capable and competent woman.”
Preckwinkle’s experience as a former alderman and teacher are just a few of the reasons why Calvin Jordan, who represents Rich Township, is voting for the board president.
“She can bring the party together and, based on her background, she’s well versed in both the city and the townships,” Jordan said.