Edward Kelly

Thirty-Eighth Mayor of the City of Chicago (1933-47)

At a time that saw traditional political machines dying out all over the country, Chicago’s was one of the strongest ever under the leadership of Edward Kelly.1

Kelly began work for the Sanitary District in 1894, at 18 years old. He remained with them for over 40 years, going on to become their Chief Engineer. Alongside this, he was President of the South Park Board, earning him the nickname the “Father of the Lakefront.”2 In 1932 Chicago was bankrupt and dealing with a 40% unemployment rate. It was against this backdrop that Pat Nash convinced Kelly to run for mayor, seeing him as competent to fill Anton Cermak's shoes.3 With Nash behind him, Kelly would go on to win the 1933 election, giving birth to the famous Kelly-Nash machine.

His first official act as mayor was to pay the City’s teachers and issue tax warrants for some $1.7 million. Attempting to cut the budget, Kelly would focus on reforming the public school system.4 This would all prove fairly successful, and he saw his popularity continue to rise with the Century of Progress Exposition.

Kelly’s bid for reelection in April 1935 saw him handily defeat Republican Emil Wetten with 76% of the vote, winning praise from all over the country.5 It was then that his machine really began to coalesce. With his old friend, (and Democratic Committee Chairman), Pat Nash, the two controlled one of the most powerful machines in the nation, with many rewards being doled out to party faithful.

It was an all inclusive machine that saw support from both business and labor. Money and votes poured in from blacks, organized crime, and the New Deal - all of which allowed the Democrats to reign supreme in Chicago through the 1930s and 40s.6 With all of the money changing hands, however, there is little evidence that any of it went to Kelly personally, although, of course, he benefited greatly from it.7

Continuing the traditional relationship between Chicago machine bosses and U.S. Presidents, Kelly was an often consulted adviser to FDR. Thus, Chicago would end up receiving enormous aid from New Deal programs, especially the WPA.8

Kelly’s machine allowed him to win the 1939 election against Republican Dwight H. Green and the 1943 election against Republican John S. Boyle. In this, what would be his last term, Kelly tried to deal with the transit issue, which so many before him had tried and failed at.9

The plan that Kelly presented would end up creating the Chicago Transit Authority, which began operation in October 1947, and is still in operation today. The Democrats start to fall apart once more beginning in 1943, with the death of Pat Nash, who had done much to keep the Party discipline together. Plagued by scandals and Party infighting, Kelly falls from power, leaving office in 1947. He would serve as Illinois Democratic National Committeeman until in his death in 1950.10

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