Cermak The Public Servant

As the spoils system of Prohibition descended on Chicago and the city council had it’s services looted by years of Thompsonism, Alderman and lead council member Tony Cermak trolled and domineered his political stock and sphere of influence.  As biographer Alex Gottfried wrote of him; “He appeared to consider the entire realm of municipal problems his personal concern.”  Thus amidst the frivolous recreation of fellow council members, Cermak drove himself into the details of city leadership and commanded a respect that rose out of fear of his power and aptitude.  Wielding his status as a head councilman and President of the United Societies, Cermak demanded that those elected to ‘public service’ actually serve the public, an attitude that made him few friends in Prohibition Chicago.

Capone And Cermak

Both Alphonse Capone and Antonio Cermak came from families of the Old World.  Capone, the son of a barber born in Sicily, Cermak, the son of a coalminer from Bohemia.  Both men were reared on the tough streets of big cities: Capone, the Five Points of New York, Cermak, the southwest side of Chicago.  There the similarities ended, despite their common origins.  Capone chose a life of crime, learning from and serving mentors that regarded all persons as expendable to their desires, while Cermak became a soul of industry and public service.  If ‘Scarface’ Al was a devil, ‘Pushcart’ Tony was certainly no angel, but assumed and affirmed an ideal that Capone would scoff at; there were solutions to problems that would not be found by a physical threat or the point of a gun.

The Great Depression

On October 28-29, 1929, the New York Stock Market fell by almost seventy points, lost over $30 billion and triggered a collapse of American and International trading markets. Immediately, countless Americans lost all assets, life savings and complete investments. Consumer confidence tumbled and the American economy began to capsize. Unemployment rose nationally to over 25%, while the big cities saw a climb to over 40%. The Great American Depression had began. Across the country, the jobless were cast out of their homes due to foreclosure and indigence. In both rural and urban areas, individuals and families formed destitute camps called “Hoovervilles”, named after U.S. President Hubert Hoover, largely blamed for the expanse of the financial devastation. Here hope became a ghost and the future was gravely uncertain. For years, luckless Americans poured into them, having no where else to go.

The Time Is Now!

During the Depression, more than 9000 banks–banks that were not federally insured–closed, forever burying countless millions of American savings.  After this incredible failure, banks and consumer grew tight.  Their great thrift, in lending and in spending, piled on the slide.  Little credit was extended, few purchases were made.  No more to pay nor to hire employees.  Massive unemployment.  Mayor Cermak saw the U.S. Federal Reserve as the lynchpin to recovery.  He pleaded with Washington to aid Chicago and the rest of the country in it’s time of need.  Cermak clearly stated: “The first thing that must be done us re-establish public confidence and initiative by a program of building, construction and public improvement.  All the people need is an example and they will do the rest.”  These words were the very essence of FDR’s ‘New Deal’ that his administration would embark upon several months later.

'He Doesn't Like My Name'

In 1931, the mayoralty election was Tony Cermak’s to lose. Chicago was more than ready to run the disastrous William Thompson out on a rail, yet ‘Big Bill’ retained two things: Money from the Mob and his power to put his foot in his mouth. “I won’t take a back seat to no Bohunk. Chairmock or Chermack, ” he bellowed, “Who’d want a World’s Fair Mayor with a name like that?” Cermak responded cooly: “He doesn’t like my name. It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower,sir.  But I got here as soon as I could.”  On election night, Tony Cermak became Chicago’s 44th Mayor by landslide, the largest voting margin in the history of the city.  As the Democrat’s victory celebration began, Cermak was caught by reporters leaving by a side exit of party headquarters. “Mayor Cermak!”, one shouted, ” Are you headed over to the victory reception?”

Cermak looked at him and said flatly, “God, no. I’m going home to bed.”

There was a lot of work to do in the morning.