We love mayoral elections so much, Chicago, that we’re getting two this year.
But how much do you really know about how we’ve chosen our city’s leader for almost the past two centuries?
You probably recall that Chicago’s first Black mayor was Harold Washington, and its first female mayor was Jane Byrne. Outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot is the city’s first Black woman and openly gay mayor.
Yet, there are so many more quirky things about how and when Chicago elects a mayor that it seems like a good overview is in order.
My former colleagues Mark Jacob and Stephan Benzkofer wrote about this in their book, “10 Things You Might Not Know About Nearly Everything.”
But even history can’t foreshadow what steps need to be taken to address the city’s problems. Let’s hope the city’s next mayor — No. 57 — has the answers.
Become a Tribune subscriber: it’s just $12 for a 1 year digital subscription. Follow us on Instagram: @vintagetribune. And, catch me Monday mornings on WLS-AM’s “The Steve Cochran Show” for a look at “This week in Chicago history.”
Thanks for reading!
— Kori Rumore, visual reporter
William Butler Ogden, a real estate and railroad mogul from New York, arrived in Chicago in 1835. Shortly after the city was incorporated in 1837, Ogden defeated John Harris Kinzie to become mayor. He served for 10 months and refused to run for re-election.
Four days before Chicago’s 1865 mayoral election, Republican President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Realizing that the distraught public’s sentiment was with Republican mayoral candidate John Rice, Democratic candidate Leonard Rothgerber withdrew, saying the nation must stand united. Rice was nice enough to pay Rothgerber’s campaign expenses. Read more.
If you hate election season, thank your lucky stars you didn’t live in Chicago in the mid-1800s, when residents went to the polls every year to vote for mayor. The term was doubled to two years in 1863, and doubled again to four in 1907. Read more.
Saloonkeeper Fred A. Busse, who took office in 1907, served the first four-year term.
Busse’s election inspired a group of 40 men to ask him to help form a dining and political group called the Fat Men’s Club. Former state Sen. Thomas J. Dawson predicted that Busse would be “the best mayor Chicago has ever had.” The reason: “Take a fat man and he feels so good and joyful with himself and all the world that he just can’t keep from doing the right thing at all times.” Nothing much came of the club idea, and Busse’s single term in office was not particularly weighty. Read more.
William Dever, who was elected mayor 100 years ago, was a reformer with impeccable working-class credentials. Seeking reelection four years later, however, he found himself on the defensive. Read more.
Vintage Chicago Tribune
The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune’s archives featuring photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.
Over three terms as Chicago mayor from 1915 to 1923 and 1927 to 1931, William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson maintained a swagger that secured his spot in history as possibly the city’s most colorful mayor. Read more.
Thompson was defeated in 1931 by Anton Cermak, the first foreign-born mayor of Chicago who once sold firewood out of a wagon then worked his way up the political ranks. Cermak is credited with creating the Democratic machine that has chugged along for the past 92 years. Read more.
When viable Republican mayoral candidates — including one whose side job was Spanky the Clown — became almost unheard of in Chicago in the 1990s, the party primaries were replaced with the nonpartisan elections we have today. Read more.
- Campaigning in 1979 as “Spanky the Clown,” Ray Wardingley ran for the Republican nomination for mayor of Chicago and got 2,877 votes. He lost big, and, as intended, everybody laughed.
Lawmakers decided in 1996, that a runoff would take place if no candidate could reach a majority — 50 percent — of the vote. The measure wasn’t necessary until almost two decades later when then-Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forced a runoff against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Read more.
Plan to be back at the polls on April 4 to choose either Brandon Johnson, a Cook County commissioner and organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, or Paul Vallas, former Chicago Public Schools CEO. Read more.