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Cermak, Anton

CERMAK, ANTON

Before there was a Roosevelt coalition of reformers, organized labor, and ethnics, there was a Cermak coalition. This one elected a mayor of Chicago and might have accomplished more had Anton Cermak (May 9, 1873–March 6, 1933) not been assassinated while meeting with president-elect Franklin Roosevelt.

Cermak was born in Kladno, Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Cermak came with his family to the United States as an infant, and grew up in Braidwood, a coal-mining community southwest of Chicago. He made his way to Chicago as a teenager with limited education but great ambition.

Like other newcomers, Cermak naturally gravitated to the Democratic Party, but with a difference—this regular politician never saw a need to fear or war on reformers. His tolerance for diverse viewpoints served Cermak in a career that saw his election as alderman, bailiff of the municipal court, president of the Cook County Board, and state representative.

Cermak's politics combined advocacy for immigrants with opposition to Prohibition. For years before passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, Cermak led the United Societies, an umbrella group that fought to keep legal the sale and consumption of liquor. While his standing as a "wet" on the issue of Prohibition made enemies, it also had advantages: By the mid-1920s, when voters later turned against the Amendment, Cermak was vindicated.

Cermak spent the 1920s courting other ethnic groups so that in 1931 he was ready to run for mayor of Chicago. Opposing him was Republican William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson. The three-term incumbent derided Cermak as "Pushcart Tony," a reference to Cermak's first real job in Chicago. Cermak's reply could have been a motto for Democrats in the Age of Roosevelt: "It's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could." Cermak even reached out, in a way, to African Americans. In the 1927 mayor's race, Democrats circulated the rumor that a Republican win would lead to a black takeover of the city, but Cermak refused to engage in such demagogy. The Chicago electorate picked Cermak by nearly 200,000 votes, and no Republican mayoral candidate has won Chicago since. Unfortunately for the victor, vote totals did not translate into the money necessary to keep government running. The city ran on funds generated mostly by real estate taxes, and with nearly half the working population unemployed, Chicagoans had stopped paying their taxes. Cermak soon was forced to slash budgets and lay off workers. At one point, the city owed its employees some $40 million in back wages. Cermak went to Washington, D.C., requesting assistance from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, only to have the Republican-controlled RFC turn him down.

Because Cermak was a committed "wet" who favored the speedy repeal of Prohibition, he favored Al Smith over Franklin Roosevelt as Democratic nominee for president in 1932. It was a decision that ultimately cost Cermak his life. In February 1933 Cermak traveled to Miami to repair his relationship with the president-elect. Aiming at the next president, assassin Joseph Zangara instead shot Chicago's mayor, who was sitting alongside Roosevelt in an open car. Cermak died of his wounds three weeks later.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bukowski, Douglas. Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of Image. 1998.

Gottfried, Alex. Boss Cermak of Chicago: A Study of Political Leadership. 1962.

Douglas Bukowski

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