#862: The Secret History of Illinois License Plates

December 13th, 2017

Vanity license plates are one of the strangest displays of clout Illinois offers. They’re highly sought after and passed down through politically connected families for generations, with the lower number the bigger display.

“Low-number plates, that shows you have big you-know-whats,” an anonymous political operative told Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1999.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar tossed off single-letter plates as favors to friends when he left the Secretary of State’s Office for the governor’s mansion, reserving “E” for Edgar for his eventual use as ex-governor.

The owner of the “0” plate (zero, not O) got in a spot in 2007. His family had the zero plate since Secretary of State John Lewis gave it to his grandfather in 1971 as thanks for advising on agricultural issues. But in 2007, Chicago parking meter enforcers started punching in “0” to test their new equipment, not knowing “0” was a plate that could exist. Mr. Zero received 170 parking tickets before turning to the Chicago Tribune for help.

Starting in the 1939s, license plate “1” was passed through a series of Chicago archbishops until Cardinal John Cody thought it too showy and returned it in 1970. Secretary of State Paul Powell gave it to himself, a jump from his previous plate of “17.” After Powell’s death in 1970 (after which the executor of his will found $750,000 of bribe money Powell kept in boxes of loose cash at the hotel room where he lived and the $50,000 of cash kept in his office),“1” ended up on the car of the wife of Gov. Richard Ogilvie. When strangers would ask about the plate, Dorothy Ogilvie would tell them she got it by sleeping with the governor.

She gave up the plate in 2002. Secretary of State Jesse White kept the fact it was available again a secret for a decade.

When Gov. Pat Quinn found out in 2012 that “1” was on the market, he wanted to auction it off to the highest bidder to raise money for military veterans. Reclaiming and auctioning off low-digit plates had been a pet issue of Quinn’s since the 1990s. He told the Sun-Times in 2012 that auctioning off the state’s 10 single-digit plates (0-9) could raise as much as $25 million for underfunded and unfunded state services if they weren’t in the hands and on the cars of clout-heavy politicians and their heirs.

In the 555-page “Fawell list” of political favors Gov. George Ryan — one of Illinois’ four governors who went to prison — was accused of pulling off for cronies was organizing a “low-digit” license plate for the car of mob boss Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo.

But sadly, the fact we’d rather have influential politicians and mobsters get the plates than fund services with them is the second most-angering story about Illinois license plates I know.

In 1955, county official and former state legislator Richard J. Daley became mayor of Chicago. As I wrote about before, the race had been nasty, rife with allegations of election fraud. The papers ran a photo of a Daley operative nicknamed Short Pencil Louie actually changing votes, which led to a censure of the guy who took the photo. Fliers started appearing in white neighborhoods from the American Negro Civic Association endorsing Daley’s opponent for his integration policies, and others from the Taft-Eisenhower League endorsing Daley because the opponent hung around lefties and possibly Communists.

Neither the American Negro Civic Association nor the Taft-Eisenhower League existed. But talk of blacks and Reds in white Chicago neighborhoods in the 1950s got the job done. The opponent got about 500,000 votes, Richard J. Daley got 708,222.

For the rest of his life “708222″ was the vanity plate on Daley’s car. It was a city-owned car. We the people paid for The Boss to crow for 21 years.

I’m obsessed by the pieces that make up the whole, wonder about the deals and each individual vendor behind each individual lamppost. It might come from spending five years now writing about the people who make up the parts of this city, or it might be why I chose it.

But the point of these stories are not to glower and whimper next time a car passes you and you notice its scramble of letters and digits. The point is to remind you there are secret stories everywhere, and the thousands of metal sheets you’ll see just today are part of a larger, fascinating tale you might not have known about.

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