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Wisch list: Blowing through Windy City mayoral history

September 16, 2018

There only are two former Chicago mayors still alive and kicking today. But along the lakefront at the Old Bosses’ Home, 73-year-old David Orr and 76-year-old Richard M. Daley will soon be joined by a 58-year-old whippersnapper.

Last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stunned the Windy City — and well beyond — with the announcement he would not be pursuing a third term for the office he’s held since 2011. Already a horde of mayoral hopefuls was circling City Hall hoping to oust Emanuel. But now with Rahm flipping the script by ousting himself, we can expect even more high drama in the coming months as candidates clamor for Chicago’s throne.

Before the Running of the Bull begins, though, I thought we’d take a look back at some interesting facts about Chicago’s madcap mayoral history.

‘Weak Mayors’

It sounds like a punchline, but Chicago, by charter, actually has a “weak-mayor” system. That means most of the power is vested in the City Council — or, you know, is supposed to be.

In reality, however, everyone knows Chicago’s mayor is anything but weak, and traditionally is considered one of — if not the most — powerful municipal chief executives in the nation. A big reason for that? Unlike most other cities with weak-mayor systems, Chicago’s boss has the power to draw up the budget.

Irish ayes

If you’re taking bets on who will be the next mayor of Chicago, it might be wise to look for an Irish candidate. In the 181 years since Chicago was incorporated as a city, mayors of Irish descent — thanks in largest part to the Richard J. and Richard M. Daley — have ruled for more than 80 of them.

First impressions

Chicago’s first mayor didn’t have a very strong first impression of the city.

In 1835, William Butler Ogden traveled for the first time from his native upstate New York to Chicago to see a piece of land purchased for $100,000 by his brother-in-law, Charles Butler. Unimpressed, Ogden told Butler he had “been guilty of the grossest folly. There is no such value in the land and won’t be for a generation.”

Turned out Ogden actually was able to get $100,000 by selling just a third of Butler’s property. And he decided he liked Chicago well enough that he stuck around, becoming its inaugural mayor just two years later in 1837.

Fire and burnout

The Great Chicago Fire didn’t just spawn the city’s rebirth, it also sparked a new political party. After the massive inferno in 1871, Joseph Medill — the legendary former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune — was elected mayor as a member of the temporary “Fireproof” party.

Medill served in the role for two years, creating Chicago’s first public library and reforming the police and fire departments. But the stress of the job wore him down, and in August 1873, Medill appointed an acting mayor so he could spend the remaining 3½ months of his term on a convalescent tour throughout Europe.

One more year

Returning to the misnomer of “weak mayor” system, Chicago is the largest city in the U.S. to not have term limits for its top city official.

In the long-ago past, however, Chicago had mayoral limits galore. In fact, from 1837 through 1863, the term for mayor was just one year. That eventually was increased to two years, before ultimately being lengthened to four in 1907. And that’s probably for the best. After all, can you imagine having to listen to mayoral campaign ads every single year?

Windy City, indeed.

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