Among the most prominent of ethnicities that immigrated to Chicago in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the Bohemians of Eastern Europe. Preceded in historical number only by the Germans and the Irish, these Bohemians founded communities, built businesses and became a large political constituency that greatly aided and augmented the career of Tony Cermak. However, as a young man, Cermak belonged to neighborhood saloon gangs that tangled with the established Irish toughs on the ‘block’. These young Irish were protecting their patch of Chicago against these rising ‘Bohunks.’ These cultures-and young men-clashed often, the Irish looking to hold ground, the young Bohemians, looking to gain it.
Ambition, Work, Status
At age sixteen, Tony Cermak struck out on his own to Chicago’s southwest side. At first a mere laborer in the towing business, young Tony eventually took a gamble and bought the horse he was using and began to haul discarded lumber around his surrounding neighborhoods to sell as firewood. From this time of his working life comes the moniker, ‘Pushcart Tony’. Within a few years, Cermak had employed several teams and numerous employees and did significant business. The Bohemians of the city’s southwest side were proud of him. His reputation grew, as did his ambition, and he thought seriously of improving not only his lot in life, but of those around him.
Tony Cermak stepped in the political world at a distinctly local level. During this time, Chicago had become a heated battlefield between city Republicans and Democrats. The southwest side Bohemians, aligned with the Democrats, were at the time a party strictly run by the Irish, and only available to someone like Cermak at the lowest position. Tony accepted a role as ‘ward heeler’ and vote-getter in the city’s 12th Ward. Quickly, he proved himself more than formidable in the job. By the success of his business, Cermak had friends, and in this new chapter of his working life, made new ones quickly. He listened and he learned, using all his personal power to convince those in his territory to support city Democrats. Soon he became a ward precinct captain, with increased stature and responsibilities. At a very early age, Tony Cermak was proving a great value to his party, and those above him took notice.
Tony Cermak was no scholar. The formative years of his political education were upon the streets and precincts of his part of Chicago. Canvassing his neighborhoods to getting out the ethnic vote and organizing those under his influence, he was diligent, intelligent and aggressive. When the time came for him to rise among the ranks, he set his sights on his first significant elected position in Illinois, a seat in the state council in downstate Springfield. The competition was in his own party, as young men of merit had similar ambitions. The vote for nomination was close, influenced by ethnic politics, but Cermak won by a narrow margin. As a new Illinois General Assembyman, he was greeted in Springfield by his future colleagues: lawyers, professors, men of legislative reputation and financial means. But being less educated and sophisticated hardly slowed young Cermak down. He quickly found his own voice among the prominent men of the state council. Later in his career he stated: “I felt as though I knew people better, and had as much common sense.”
The United Societies
Destined to become a champion of Chicago’s ethnic classes, Tony Cermak began this great endeavor as secretary and founder of an organization called “The United Societies For Personal Liberty”. This ambitious vessel centralized over 300 of the city’s ethnic groups and created an undeniable political force in Chicago. Originally designed to defeat new charter laws being forced on the city from Springfield and the state council (most notably the Sunday closing laws of city taverns), Cermak and the United Societies showed the power of the ethnic working (and voting) classes in America’s urban democracies, and gave Tony Cermak both political prestige and great influence in his ascending career.