The Price of a Political Job

by Lorenzia Shelby 

I did not have a particular interest in politics until a job search in Chicago gave me a firsthand view of the way “the game” was played here. My experience may interest the readers of Residents’ Journal.

My first introduction to politics was long distance and began in 1952. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was campaigning to become the 34th President of the United States, and his commercials and jingles–“I like Ike!”–dominated the airwaves. Eisenhower served two terms as President of the United States. I watched the president and Vice President Richard M. Nixon on television during the Republican convention. It was one long hullabaloo, with drums banging, trumpets blasting and voices bellowing. I wasn’t into politics. I was just observing white people on TV giving themselves a Grand Old Party. Later, from afar, I saw the election of John F. Kennedy and his assassination. My meager interest in politics continued through President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and through the end of his presidency in 1968.

It was a dismal period of time. The first four months of the year claimed the lives of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That led to an upheaval to the 1968 Democratic Convention.

In the aftermath of Dr. King’s death, there was rioting and looting in the black neighborhoods, there were buildings burned and businesses destroyed, and a lot of people were injured in all that madness. From the South Side to the North Side to the West Side to the East Side, it seemed that everyone was screaming and shouting about something. Some protested injustice in the war in Vietnam. Others protested race relations. The 1968 convention was held in Chicago, and it brought on a confrontation between the police and “hippies” in Grant Park that was the beginning of violence erupting all over the city, violence that was broadcast across the country and the world.

At the time of the Grant Park incident, I was part of a crew doing our landscaping duties when the police forced us to the Chicago Park District’s 9th Street service yard in Grant Park. They wouldn’t let us leave for fear that we would be mistaken as rioters by the police.

Why we were in Grant Park at that precise time? We were employees of the Chicago Park District. In those days, there were only two ways to become a Chicago Park District employee: you either took and passed the civil service test or you came in through politics. In 1968, I estimate that 97 percent of the employees in the 9th Street yard were political hires and the other three percent were hired through the civil service exam.

The civil service test consists of naming tools and equipment and their usage. To come in through politics, you had to be affiliated with a Democratic organization. The City of Chicago had been monopolized by the Democratic Party for many, many years.

This is how the political process worked. The first person you approached about a job was your precinct captain. He or she would set up an appointment with the alderman. You would be given a verbal test; you will be tested on your personality, confidence, communication skills and your knowledge of the precinct where you lived. He would pick up a long piece of paper from his desk and begin to ask questions from it. It was called a poll sheet, and it listed all the precincts in his ward. He ran his forefingers down the page until he got to your precincts. He would read off an address and ask you to tell him who lived there. He didn’t want you to guess; he wanted you to know. He called out four or five more addresses, and, if you answered his question with assurance, he would then let you know you met with his approval; you were a member of the Democratic Organization.

You didn’t just go to the alderman’s office to obtain a position with the Chicago Park District. You went to join an organization.

Upon being hired, you became a politician, an assistant precinct captain. The next order of business is in the alderman’s hands. He constructed a letter for you to take to the Chicago Park District administration building to be given to a contact person. That person would take your letter and assign you a park near your home. I was sent to Grant Park. The first day that I reported to work was less then memorable. Being new to politics and a little naïve, I was totally shocked to find out that 9th Street yard wasn’t what I anticipated. I expected stimulating, intellectual conversation about politics, but what I heard and saw were back-stabbing, throat-cutting, cheese-eating stoolies. It was a friendly war going on among the employees, and everyone, it seemed, was engaging in subordination against the supervisor. It was my observation that everyone in the yard was arrogant and bragging about their clout and how politically powerful they were, and how they could tell their supervisor about what work they would do and would not do.

In 1968, Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey and Republican Richard M. Nixon were running for president. Democrat George Dunne, the president of the Cook County board, was seeking re-election. I was just getting my feet wet canvassing the precinct. I knocked on my constituent’s doors, saying a prepared vote-soliciting sale pitch:

“Hello, my name is Lorenzia Shelby. This coming Tuesday is an election day, and I would appreciate it if you would endorse candidate George Dunne.”

I had rehearsed it until my little speech was nearly perfect.

Everything went fine until I knocked on Mrs. Urshire’s door.

She and a few of her church members had just gotten home from church. I say a few members; it looked like she had brought the whole congregation home. She invited me in, and I walked in handing her a long sheet of paper with George Dunne and his staff’s names on it. I started my sales speech, but she interrupted me before I could speak. She said, “Who is this?” and pointed at a name on the paper. I had to admit that I didn’t know who that person was. There were twenty five names on that paper. I didn’t know who they were nor the positions they held. She started reading names and which position they were in. I interrupted her.

I said. “Mrs. Urshire I only know two names on that paper. They are George Dunne and John Stroger. The others I never even heard of.”

“You are here asking me to vote for someone,” she said, “and you don’t know who you are campaigning for?” She was performing, and her audience was enjoying itself at my expense. She looked at me and asked, “What is George Dunne’s position?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

The three-flat building trembled from a monstrous roar of laughter released by her church members. I walked into Mrs. Urshire’s house standing six feet, two inches tall and I walked out feeling less them two feet tall. I picked up my bag of political literature and went home. I dumped everything that was in my bag on my bed. I read everything that was in my bag, three times or more, over and over again.

The following Sunday, I went back to Mrs. Urshire’s house ready for combat. I answered every question she asked me. At that moment, I knew more then she did about George Dunne and his staff.

Mrs. Urshire looked at me for a long time and said, “Mr. Shelby, I will be glad to endorse anyone that you’re endorsing. Now you are ready to work your precinct.” I left her house thinking, “So that is the duty of a precinct captain.” I asked a chauffeur in the 9th Street yard what he thought it took to be a good precinct captain. He said that you must be able to look people straight in their eyes and tell them the biggest lie that you can create and make them believe you.

Precinct captains must be willing to help their voters any way they can. They must be aware of garbage needing to be picked up, when literature is in from the ward office and then pass it out to the voters and engage in other activities that are, all together, known as “working the precinct.”

When I was at the park district, working the precinct was not the only thing that was required of you in order to keep your job. There were other obligations included in maintaining your employment. There was a monthly due to pay. You had to buy raffle tickets and spend money on other social activities, and you gave money to your precinct captain on Election Day. Those raffles and other kinds of tickets cost anywhere from five or ten dollars to two hundred dollars. If you refused to purchase the tickets, you were fired. A former employee, Obie Walker said, “This is the only job that I ever had that I had to pay for the privilege to work.”

Those employees were laborers in the landscape maintenance department. Their job description included cutting grass, picking up trash and marking baseball and football fields, among other summer duties. In the winter, they shoveled snow, spread salt on sidewalks and sprayed water in below-zero weather, making ice skating rinks. They worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. They could tell how cold it was by looking at the water; when it looked like blue smoke, the water was freezing. Working in those temperatures was very difficult to do. And they were the lowest paid employees in Chicago Park District.

Political employees were still obligated to the organization in this way until the Shakman decree, named for the attorney who successfully litigated the case, was established in 1979. The Shakman decree prohibits political hiring practices in Chicago.

The age old question of who runs the Chicago Park District can be answered a couple of different ways.

On the Chicago Park District website, the board of commissioners is said to run the park district. “The Mayor of the city of Chicago appoints the Chicago Park District’s seven-member board. The board is the governing body of the Chicago Park District. The board has three standing committees under which business is done: administration, programs and recreation, and capital improvements. The office of the secretary serves as the coordinating staff to the board.”

The reality, I discovered decades ago, can be much more complex.

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