The Chicago “ward boss” is more than just a figure of speech. It actually refers to the Democratic ward committeeman, a once vaunted elected position that would control everything from city jobs to garbage pickup. Today, ward committeeman are not nearly as powerful as they were in the 1950’s but almost every big political name in Chicago is a ward committeeman and most political hopefuls want to become one.
First things first: Although Ward Committeemen are up for election on March 20, 2012, the position is political, not governmental, so voters, Democratic, Republican and Green, in each Chicago ward, choose a ward committeemen based on which party ballot they select in the March primary elections. Thus, in any given Chicago ward there could be three different ward committeemen, one for each major party.
So what do committeeman actually do?
According to Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and now a professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, “Ward committeemen have one legal authority, to vote on judicial nominees. In addition, when needed, [they] fill vacancies to replace a party candidate.” The former happens every two years, and the process can seem convoluted. While judges run in both the primaries and November election, Simpson says, “the party primaries determine the outcome.”
So if you want to be a judge, you need the support of Democratic committeemen.
Occasionally, an elected official will step down or move on to higher office in the middle of their term, so Democratic ward committeemen choose the replacement in accordance with Illinois Election Code. A weighted vote, based on the number of primary voters in each ward, is used to determine who will fill the vacancy.
Probably the most important job for committeeman is to rally volunteers and support the party candidates in general elections. Every yard sign posted, as well as literature dropped on doorsteps in November is distributed by party volunteers, organized by the ward committeeman.
Committeeman also try to get out the vote in primary elections, since their weighted vote for candidate replacement depends on the number of primary voters each year.
One thing that ward committeeman do not do anymore is control patronage jobs, says Prof. Simpson. According to Simpson’s research, in the 1970’s, the city doled out some 35,000 patronage jobs. But three decades have passed and because of a federal ruling limiting political jobs, the Shakman Decree, that number is closer to 5,000 now. Patronage in Chicago is “not dead, but very much reduced,” says Simpson.
When the city and Cook County government had tens of thousands of patronage jobs to dole out, ward committeeman called upon those workers to work on political campaigns, swelling their “volunteer” armies and increasing their political power. Now that there’s less patronage, committeeman have less power.
Finally, each ward Committeemen is a member of their party’s Central Committee. Each party’s Central Committee is comprised of the 50 Chicago ward committeemen and 30 committeemen from the suburban townships.
The Central Committee’s endorsement, once a powerful political lever (old man Daley, Richard J., famously used his position as Cook County Democratic Chairman to toss out the incumbent Democratic Mayor and slate himself instead in
1952 1954) is now mostly limited to endorsing judge campaigns and lesser county-wide jobs, like recorder of deeds and treasurer.
As Prof. Simpson says, committeeman and the Democratic Central Committee, “once in a while can be very powerful, but is not as powerful as it once was.”
Ward committeeman races will be determined by the primary ballot which will be held on March 20, 2012.