Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cermak tale teaches more than history

Friends of ours: Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Giuseppe Zanagara, Paul "The Waiter" Ricca

It felt strange giving a history lesson to a potential mayoral candidate about the Chicago Outfit and Chicago politics. And I probably should have kept my mouth shut. But when did that ever happen?

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Chicago Democrat, and I were talking politics over the phone Wednesday. He explained the importance of coalitions and how other Chicago mayors have put such coalitions together. "If I don't organize Latinos, who will?" he said. "How do I challenge others to be fair and just and more equitable, if I don't organize that voice? If that leads people to seeing me purely in a very myopic way, well, you and I both know that's not representative of my life's work." What is a politician's life's work? This is an eternal question.

I'm more interested in the immediate, like: Will Gutierrez position himself as a viable alternative to Mayor Richard Daley as the feds hammer City Hall? Or, is it more likely that a three-way mayoral campaign between Gutierrez, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-Ill.) and Daley would split the vote and keep Daley in office? Consider it the Incumbent Protection Committee. We'll see. These can't be answered in a day, and Gutierrez was talking about coalitions.

"My life's work has been about immigrants. If you came to my office, you'd see Polish people, right? Irish people, Greek people, others, my office is rich in the immigrant history of Chicago. You go to my rallies, you see Asians, from China and the Philippines. That's been my history, but that's kind of the history of Cermak, wouldn't you agree? He kind of put together a coalition of those that were not part of the Thompson machine." Anton Cermak? "Yes," Gutierrez said.

Some of you have probably driven on the street named after Cermak but not known what happened to the former mayor. Gutierrez is correct. Cermak was a masterful coalition builder.

This is how I understand what happened: Back in the 1920s, the puppet mayor was William "Big Bill" Thompson, a blowhard who once threatened to punch English King George "in the snoot." But one snoot he'd never punch belonged to Al Capone. Thompson couldn't even think about touching Capone's snoot. That would have been more painful than punching himself in the nose hard, every day for a lifetime.

After doing the Outfit's bidding for years, Thompson was used goods. The boys found another politician--Anton "Pushcart Tony" Cermak, who was elected mayor in 1931 on the reform ticket. Foolishly, he decided to double-cross the Capone gang by siding with Capone rivals and sent police to exterminate Capone successor Frank Nitti.

Unfortunately for some, Nitti survived. So Cermak decided to take an extended vacation and hang out with President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Florida. On the night of Feb. 15, 1933, a former Italian army marksman, Giuseppe Zangara, was waiting in a crowd at Bayfront Park in Miami. Zangara had three things going for him as an Outfit assassin. He had an inoperable disease, he had a family and he had a gun. From about 30 feet, he popped Cermak in the chest. Roosevelt was not injured because he wasn't the target. Zangara was later executed.

By this time, Capone was in federal prison, slowly going insane as the result of a little something he picked up in his earthier travels between Chicago hotel rooms. His illness is well known to people who've watched the many movies made about Capone.

As I've written before, Hollywood never made a movie about Paul "The Waiter" Ricca. He was too shy. And he wisely let others pretend they were the boss and grab all the publicity. But he knew how to send a message. There was a main Chicago thoroughfare leading from the Capone headquarters at the Lexington Hotel on 22nd Street to the Outfit's hangouts in Cicero. This road was renamed Cermak Road. Every hood traveled it. They laughed. And every politician understood. But that's such ancient history.

On Wednesday, Chicago was still the reform capital of Cook County. And Gutierrez was talking on the phone about coalitions. "Cermak put together a coalition of those who were not part of the Thompson regime, right?" Gutierrez asked. Right. "And he put together a great coalition, of disparate people," Gutierrez said. And what happened to Cermak? There was a silence. "Oh, I know," Gutierrez said. "He got assassinated." I explained how Cermak was honored with his own street.

"Oh, I never thought of that," Gutierrez said. "I didn't know about that. I guess my point is, I look at the history of the city of Chicago, I look at the turn of the century, you know the Bohemians came together. It was a revolution in Chicago politics. Ask all the Irish politicians that have been elected ever since."

Gutierrez would make an entertaining candidate and might become mayor someday. He's smart enough. And besides, he likes history.

Thanks to John Kass

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