Retirement of Cullerton paves way for Sposato


by RUSS STEWART

Begat is an archaic verb, the past tense of beget, which means bring into being or to procreate. In the Northwest Side 38th Ward, the begetting has ceased.

The retirement announcement on July 16 by Alderman Tim Cullerton (38th) means that Chicago’s 144-year "Cullerton Dynasty," dating back to 1871, is no more. He is, at least in the 38th Ward, the "Last Cullerton." The seminal well is dry. There is no offspring or sibling to inherit the job.

A Cullerton has been an alderman for 128 of those 144 years. The streak has ended.

The announcement also means that Alderman Nick Sposato (36th), a City Council maverick and a frequent critic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, will be the 38th Ward’s next alderman.

Of course, there are still other Cullertons around. John Cullerton of the 44th Ward, a cousin of the 38th Ward clan, is the Illinois Senate president, and another cousin, Thomas Cullerton of Villa Park, is a state senator.

In the 2011 remap, Sposato’s 36th Ward, which was centered on Montclare-Galewood, was dismembered to create a Hispanic-majority ward, and it was expected that Cullerton, with his union connections and allegiance to Emanuel, would have the $300,000-plus needed to beat Sposato, should Sposato move into the 38th Ward and run in 2015. Emanuel and the unions — the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — were ready to "fully fund" Cullerton. It won’t happen.

Sposato has moved into the 38th Ward, and he will formally announce his candidacy on Aug. 5. A Cullerton-Sposato race would have been a nasty and expensive affair, and Cullerton was not assured of winning. Roughly 45 percent of the new 38th Ward’s 40 precincts are from the existing 38th Ward, 45 percent are from the existing 36th Ward, and 10 percent are from the current 45th Ward. "I could have beat him," Sposato said of Cullerton. The consensus is that Cullerton, age 66, who unexpectedly said he decided to spend more time with his grandchildren, did so to avoid the perception that he was scared to face Sposato. If he quit after Aug. 5, that would have been thought the reason.

In actuality, the demise of the 38th Ward "Cullerton Dynasty" is attributable not to the Sposato threat, but rather to demographic, geographic, ethnic and technologic manifestations, plus the Shakman Decree.

First, a historical perspective. Tim Cullerton, the son of the late Alderman Tom Cullerton (who served from 1973 to 1993), was appointed to the council in 2011, when his brother-in-law, Alderman Tom Allen, was appointed a Circuit Court judge so he could avail himself of a pension loophole. By going on the bench prior to Dec. 31, 2010, Allen combined his years as a public defender with time as a judge and avoided the judge’s post-2010 pension cap, thereby maximizing his pension. Allen is married to Tim Cullerton’s wife’s sister, and he was appointed alderman in 1993, when Tom Cullerton died.

Any story about the "Cullerton Clan" begins with Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s, which prompted a huge Irish migration to America. The Irish immigrants settled in urban areas, such as New York’s Five Points and Chicago’s Near West Side. They lived in tenements, sired large families and worked as laborers or tavern owners until their votes merited jobs on the city payroll, or as police officers or firefighters. Once such Irish immigrant was the father of Eddie Cullerton, who immersed himself in politics, worked as a precinct captain, and got himself elected as alderman in 1871 from the Near Southwest Side 6th Ward, an area packed to overflowing with Irish immigrants, and in 1872 as a state representative. Back then, "double dipping" — holding two or more elective jobs — wasn’t frowned upon. At that time, each ward had two aldermen.

Eddie Cullerton served as an alderman for 45 of the next 49 years, until his death in 1920, chairing the council’s Finance Committee during the century’s first two decades. He is one of the few aldermen with a street named after him.

As Chicago’s population grew and spread, so did the "Cullerton Clan." Paved roadways and public transit pushed the city northwest. One of Eddie Cullerton’s nephews opened a tavern in the vicinity of what is now Portage Park, near the Six Corners intersection of Milwaukee, Cicero and Irving Park. That saloon keeper had a feisty and diminutive son named Patrick Joseph (P.J.) Cullerton, later known as "Parky," born in 1897. The kid was smart, a go-getter, zip-lipped and a Democratic precinct captain. Verbosity was not part of the Cullerton DNA. It was said, "If it talks, it ain’t a Cullerton."

A new ward was created in 1931, anchored between Six Corners and Belmont-Central, stretching to the vast and vacant western city boundary at Harlem Avenue. Wards then had only one alderman, and P.J Cullerton took a crack at the job. He lost, but Democrat Anton Cermak was elected mayor, replacing Republican Big Bill Thompson, and the Depression was raging. Cullerton went on the city payroll as an electrical inspector, got himself elected ward Democratic committeeman in 1932, and won the aldermanic seat in 1935. He was effortlessly re-elected thereafter. The post-World War II housing demand brought significant new development into the ward, with thousands of single-family brick bungalows being constructed, and precipitating an influx of working class families, mostly Irish American.

By 1951 Cullerton had risen to the chairmanship of the powerful City Council Finance Committee. He was an influential alderman and politician, but his horizons were limited to the 38th Ward. In 1954 he made a fateful decision: He backed Richard J. Daley at slatemaking, and he delivered his ward big for Daley in the 1955 Democratic mayoral primary. Daley defeated then-Mayor Martin Kennelly, Cullerton’s erstwhile ally. One of Kennelly’s forlorn supporters was county Assessor Frank Keenan.

In 1958 Cullerton got his payback. The Daley machine dumped Keenan and slated Cullerton for assessor. Cullerton easily dispatched Keenan in the primary, and a powerhouse was born. Blessed with the capacity to set, and adjust, a property’s assessed valuation, the assessor has long been the Democratic machine’s "breadbasket." Grateful commercial property owners donate early and often. Back in the 38th Ward, the "Cullerton Clan" still reigned. In 1959 P.J. Cullerton’s brother Willie, a longtime city worker, was anointed as alderman. As laconic as his brother, Willie Cullerton’s sole council contribution was to robustly yell "aye" on any Daley Administration voice vote.

Willie Cullerton died in 1973, just as the "Clan" was hitting a serious bump in the road. Cullerton’s son Tom, a longtime city electrical inspector, was handed the aldermanic job, but P.J. Cullerton had more pressing problems. In 1973, 18 employees of the assessor’s office were convicted of bribery, and rumors were rife that he was paid $250,000 by a parking garage owner to get city leases. No charges were ever filed against Cullerton, but he nevertheless bailed out. His buddy Daley slated deputy assessor Tom Tully, a 38th Ward boy, for assessor, and he barely beat Ed Vrdolyak in the primary.

The expectation was that Tully was on track to be mayor, Cook County Board president or governor. The 38th Ward was about to become Bridgeport North. In 1978 Tully got off track, for reasons unknown, and retired.

By the 1980s demographic change arrived, and the Cullerton machine was sputtering. P.J. Cullerton died in 1981, and Tom Cullerton became the committeeman. Patronage jobs were evaporating, meaning fewer precinct workers. A huge influx of Polish immigrants was flooding the Belmont-Central area, homes were flipping at a feverish pace, and "boarding house" problems, with six or more people living in the basements of homes, were endemic. Longtime residents were distraught.

In 1983 a young police detective named Walter Dudycz ran for alderman and held Tom Cullerton to an embarrassing 50.9 percent of the vote. Dudycz was poised to run again in 1987, but a Cullerton ally, Republican state Representative Roger McAuliffe, got Dudycz into the 1984 state Senate race, and he won. In 1987 a Dudycz protege, building contractor Marty Serwinski, seemed to have the energy, ethnicity and money to take out Cullerton, but in a blunder of epic proportions, Serwinski submitted a statement of candidacy which was notarized but not signed by him, and he was off the ballot. Cullerton won with 52 percent of the vote.

In 1991 Serwinski made it onto the ballot and forced Cullerton into a runoff but lost. Cullerton got 54.2 percent of the vote.

Tom Cullerton died in 1993. His daughter Patti Jo Cullerton became the committeeman, and Allen was named the alderman. Allen was a popular alderman, and he won easily in 1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007. By 2000 the Polish influx became an outflow, as the housing market hurtled toward collapse. The incomers were Hispanics, especially south of Addison Street.

"I can understand his mindset," attorney Tom Bucaro, who ran for alderman in 1991, said of Cullerton. "There’s no jobs to maintain the (Democratic) organization. There’s constant stress to provide services and attend community meetings. It’s become 24/7."
"It’s not what it used to be," state Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20) said.

Sposato will run for 38th Ward alderman and win. In 2016 Sposato will run for ward committeeman, and Patti Jo Cullerton will quietly retire. The "Cullerton Dynasty" is over.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.


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