This weekend marks the end of an era, not just for Chicago, but for Ravenswood. Today, for the first time since 1975, the 47th Ward will not be represented by Eugene Schulter.
Schulter’s impact on the Ward will last well into the future, even as the laminated signs disappear from our alleys and his name from projects completed.
Schulter joined the council at the age of 26 in 1975. At the time he was the youngest alderman to ever serve.
Schulter will be remembered in the Ward for his leadership in the movement of the Old Town School of Folk Music main campus to Lincoln Square, the establishment of the Sulzer Regional Library and the economic revitalization of Lincoln Square.
In this first part The Bulldog examines the political legacy of Schulter. In part two, we look at the civic projects and legacy of his time in office.
Russ Stewart, an attorney who often editorializes on Chicago politics for the Nadig Newspaper chain, describes Schulter as “the caricature of the meek, mild, loyal, do-what-you’re-told” Chicago alderman.
Back in 1975, when Schulter was just 271, powerhouse 47th Ward Democratic Committeeman Ed Kelly plucked him from obscurity and ran him for alderman. In a major upset, Schulter beat 28-year Republican incumbent John Hoellen by 2,300 votes, getting 57 percent of the votes cast.
In a 2009 history of 47th Ward politics by Ben Joravsky in the Chicago Reader, Schulter was called “one of the most cautious cats in the City Council.”
In 1968 (Richard J) Daley anointed Ed Kelly, soon to be named general superintendent of the Park District, as the (47th) ward’s Democratic committeeman, the party’s ward boss. In those days the job consisted of building and marshaling a patronage army that could deliver the vote on Election Day—and the better the results, the more jobs and power were granted from the mayor. Kelly was just what Daley was looking for. He handed out Park District jobs and chipped away at Hoellen’s base, and by 1975 he had enough campaign workers to oust this gadfly once and for all. All he needed was a candidate.
Kelly drafted Schulter, then a 27-year-old aide in the county assessor’s office, to run against Hoellen for alderman. “We needed a German name to run against Hoellen and Schulter is a German name,” says Kelly. “I bought up all the billboards in the area. Put Schulter’s name all over the ward. People didn’t know Schulter’s name when the election started. They did at the end.”
Schulter remembers things a little differently. As he recalls it, he wasn’t exactly a creation of Kelly’s organization. “Yes, I had the Democratic Party’s support, but I had a lot of support in the area,” he says. “I was a community activist.”
The 26 or 28 year old “community activist” played get-along and go-along politics at first. In the council wars he first sided with his political mentor, Kelly, working to block Mayor Harold Washington from appointing replacement Park District Board members. Schulter’s biography in CloutWiki notes:
The parks stalemate broke following the 1986 special Council elections, when the council tied between Washington supporters and Vrdolyak supporters, giving Washington the tie-breaking vote. One of the new council’s first actions was to appoint a new Park District Board and oust Kelly. In response, Schulter startled his long-time mentor, Kelly,
by moving out of Kelly’s 47th Ward office and switching his support to Mayor Washington. Schulter supported Washington in 1987 and began a long-running enmity with Kelly.
With Kelly in control of the Ward organization and Schulter in City Council, the next 16 years were tense. Members of the 47th Ward Democratic organization wanted to replace Schulter, but were held back by Illinois Senator Bruce Farley and also by Kelly’s lack of interest.
Farley’s conviction on mail fraud in 1999 changed the equation.
In 2000 Schulter took on Kelly directly, running for 47th Ward Committeeman. Schulter lost that election by 153 votes. When Schulter ran again four years later the 80 year-old Kelly did not oppose him.
Schulter’s independent streak manifested itself again in 2010.
In that campaign, Cook County Democratic Party boss Joe Berrios ran for Cook County Assessor.
Berrios had won an early primary in 2010, gaining the party’s nomination with just 40.58 percent of the vote. His election was challenged by the editorial pages of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.
However, it was only after Forrest Claypool’s entry as an independent that there was a chance of success of defeating Berrios, according to political watchers.
Schulter joined other Democrats opposing Berrios and supporting Claypool. Berrios gathered more than twice as many votes in the city as all other candidates combined, and 48.03 percent of votes in the county overall.
The 1987 split with Kelly reappeared as Schulter’s end was forecast by anonymous commenters on sites such as CapitalFax.com. Older precinct captains indicated they hadn’t forgotten what “Mean Gene” had done to mentor Kelly. Berrios didn’t need to wait long to deal with Schulter.
In December 2010 Schulter announced he would seek the opening on the Cook County Board of Review created by Berrios’ move to the assessor’s office.
As noted at the time in The Bulldog, Berrios opposed Schulter’s appointment.
Schulter threw an all-in bet, announcing he would not seek reelection as alderman.
As the door closed on Schulter’s bid for alderman, his bid to be on the Cook County Board of Review closed too. In late January 2011 Schulter was passed over for the position.
That left Schulter supporting Tom O’Donnell’s failed bid for alderman in the 2011 municipal election.
Schulter’s ability to support candidates had been in question for several years.
For example, in the 2010 primary Schulter had backed Dan Farley against two candidates for the 11th Legislative seat. Ann Williams, who was supported by Lisa Madigan won the election with 46.23 percent. Farley, the son of Bruce Farley, garnered just 32.06 percent of the vote.
A further example is Schulter’s attempt to fill the seat of Larry McKeon in 2006. In a four hour executive session of four Democratic committeemen, Schulter’s candidate, Tom O’Donnell was abandoned as Schulter, with 32.85 percent, joined committeemen Patrick O’Connor, (D-40) 21 percent, and Tom Sharpe, (D-46) 35.75 percent, in appointing Greg Harris.
1Stewart has the age for Schulter at the beginning of his term as 27. The website of the City has it listed as 26, which is the age used by The Bulldog. However, further clouding this small detail, Schulter’s birthdate is listed as November 14, 1947. If he took office in 1975, how could he be 26 and born in 1947? Perhaps we should demand the birth certificate?
*** UPDATE 05/16/2011 1.19P *** Schulter did not move out of Kelly’s offices until 1997.