In the 1889 Democratic mayoral primary, former Mayor Carter Harrison Sr. was told to wait in the lobby.
It was the old Sherman House hotel lobby. Technically, it was the third of what would be five Sherman House hotels built on that spot. The Thompson Center’s there today.
Harrison was former mayor at the time he was told to wait in the lobby. He was planning on making a big splash at the convention to endorse a local businessman named King for mayor of Chicago.
Harrison’s associates said great idea, good job, we’ll make a big show wait right here and we’ll send an escort to the convention.
So Harrison and King waited.
When they gave up and started walking to the convention, they noticed a group of Democratic politicians pointing and laughing at them. They asked about the convention, to find out it had adjourned. They asked about King, to be told “Hell no, we nominated Cregier!”
Harrison’s associates knew the ex-mayor had clout and could have swayed the convention toward King, so they ditched the pair in a lobby. The escort was never coming.
DeWitt Cregier served as mayor of Chicago from 1889 to 1891. There’s a plaque on the side of the Water Tower in his honor.
In the mid-20th century, the Chicago Tribune had a picture page on the back of the main section. News of the day photos, stuff tied to previous stories in the paper, general visual muckity to fill a page and get some interest going for the inner contents.
On the picture page for Feb. 24, 1955, the day after the mayoral primary, they ran photos an operative of Republican mayoral candidate Ald. Robert Merriam took in a polling place.
The photos allegedly showed a political operator named “Short Pencil” Lewis erasing votes on ballots cast for incumbent Democratic Mayor Martin Kennelly, changing them to votes for the other Democrat on the primary ballot, the chairman of the Central Committee of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Merriam was running unopposed on the Republican ticket, so took his free primary time to get some ammo against the chairman.
He took his findings to the Cook County Election Board of Commissioners, who were outraged — outraged! — that someone would violate the sanctity of the polling place.
By sneaking in a hidden camera.
They censured Merriam.
The Democratic head of the board was quoted in the Tribune as saying “Merriam is following Hitler’s tactics which consisted of this—if you tell a lie often enough, people will begin to believe you.”
During Merriam’s general election race against the chairman, fliers started appearing in white neighborhoods from the American Negro Civic Association endorsing Merriam for his plans to integrate white neighborhoods.
There were no plans. There was no American Negro Civic Association. But when you bet on racism in Chicago, that’s a bet you win. Merriam got 581,555 votes. The chairman got 708,222.
To celebrate his victory over Merriam, 708222 was the vanity license plate on Mayor Richard J. Daley’s city-owned car for the rest of his life.
I told these stories and more to a crowd at an underground speakeasy at an Atlas Obscura event 2,000 years ago. Or 12 days ago. I can’t remember time since the world burned down.
It was a talk I gave about dirty politics, about gerrymandering, voter suppression and what the Nixon-era politicos charmingly called “ratfucking.”
Ditching someone in a lobby is legal. Changing ballots and libelous fliers are not (and saying someone advocated for black rights in Chicago in 1955 was a terrible libel). Legal or illegal, both undermine democracy.
Much has been made over the last week about politics and democracy, what’s legal and not. But I tell these stories to you today to remind you it’s never been about legal and illegal. It’s never been about following the rules or not.
It’s about what’s right and wrong, the spirit of the law drowned in an endless ocean of letters.
It’s wrong to have a white nationalist as White House strategist.
It’s wrong to have a vice president pledge to put his personal savior in our public laws.
It’s wrong to have the Electoral College quite literally trump our people’s demands.
It’s wrong that the Klan’s endorsee will replace our first black president.
It’s wrong to pledge the thousand horrid things he pledged then claims he never said that, bad media needs to be suppressed.
As we ready for a four-year fight against this man and his horrid pledges, as we learn to use the system as the weapon it can be in educated hands, let’s never forget that “legal” does not mean “moral.”
We the people will not be ditched in a lobby.