By Ben Joravsky

It’s Christmastime in the 47th Ward, but the air at Democratic committeeman Ed Kelly’s annual senior citizens party was hardly filled with good cheer.

Betrayal was on the minds of the 500 or so seniors who shuffled into the social center on Western Avenue for last week’s lunch of pork and mashed potatoes. They were spitting contempt for Alderman Eugene Schulter, who’s challenging Kelly in the March 21 Democratic primary.

“Mr. Kelly gave Schulter his start and now he wants to shove him out of office,” said Patricia Franzen, a longtime resident of the area. “Where’s Schulter’s loyalty? Where’s his respect? It’s hard for me to talk about because it makes me so upset.”

Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable for Schulter or any other regular Democrat to challenge Kelly for control of the 47th, a northwest-side ward that includes most of Ravenswood and North Center. Back then, Kelly was among the most powerful politicians in the Cook County Democratic organization. Mayor Richard J. Daley had handpicked him to run the Park District and also asked him to take over the 47th. “The ward was run by Republicans in those days and Mayor Daley asked me to build a local Democratic Party,” says Kelly. “I wasn’t going to do it, but he asked me so I did. I loved that man–I loved him to the day he died.”

Kelly hammered together a machine stocked with dozens of disciplined patronage workers who brought out the vote. By and large he’s been a benevolent boss, sponsoring dances and parties for senior citizens and youth basketball and baseball leagues in Welles Park. Almost every Democratic officeholder on the north side, not just the 47th Ward, owes him a debt. Schulter is no exception. “I remember Gene coming in for a job–he wanted to be a precinct captain,” says Kelly. “That was sometime in the early 70s, I guess. I put him to work at Welles Park as a janitor. Then I put him over in the assessor’s office.”

In 1975 Kelly ran Schulter, then only 27, against incumbent alderman John Hoellen, a rare council Republican. “I ran Gene’s campaign. I made sure the organization delivered. We won what, 60 percent of the vote?” says Kelly. “Gene was a nice kid. He had a German name and the ward used to be heavily populated with Germans.”

Schulter pledged unswerving allegiance. He rarely if ever said anything in the council, much less challenged the mayor. He didn’t even establish a strong local identity; he and state representative Bruce Farley (another Kelly acolyte) shared the committeeman’s Lincoln Avenue office.

After Daley died, Kelly’s power continued to grow during the administrations of mayors Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne. But in 1983 Kelly made the biggest blunder of his career. Instead of embracing Mayor Harold Washington he took him on. For that, Kelly, who takes pride in all the youth programs he’s sponsored in black wards, was lumped in the minds of many voters with aldermen Edward Vrdolyak and Ed Burke as a bigot. In 1987, wearied by four years of battle with Washington, Kelly stepped down from the Park District.

By then much had changed in politics and his ward. A series of antipatronage court rulings had loosened his hold over city workers; demographically, his ward was becoming more like a north lakefront district. The new home owners–a wealthier, more highly educated bunch–either had never heard of Kelly or held him in contempt for his role in Council Wars.

Kelly was slow to reach out to the new voters. His greatest strength became a weakness as, out of loyalty, he continued to slate precinct captains, some of whom were blue-collar workers without college degrees. In 1998 he backed Farley for the senate over house speaker Michael Madigan’s stepdaughter Lisa Madigan (a corporate lawyer who graduated from Latin), though Farley was under indictment in a ghost payrolling scheme. The area’s upscale voters were charmed by Madigan, recognizing her as one of their own, and she clobbered Farley.

As the years wore on Schulter found it more difficult to remain quietly loyal. He backed Washington for reelection in 1987 though Kelly didn’t, and after Farley was indicted in 1997 opened his own ward office. Kelly remembers finding Schulter taking down the pictures of himself that had hung on the walls of Kelly’s office. “I said, ‘Gene, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’ve got to take them down, Ed. I can’t have TV cameras filming me on the wall next to Bruce.’ He said, ‘You can’t endorse Bruce.’ But I wasn’t going to walk away from Bruce. Yes, he was indicted. But in this country a man’s innocent until proven guilty. Gene was cold. He didn’t want to be around Bruce once he was indicted. And you know the worst part about it? Bruce was the best man at Gene’s wedding. How’s that for friendship and loyalty?”

Schulter says Kelly’s lost touch with his ward. “The era Ed represents is long gone,” says Schulter. “Ed is the last of a long list of old-line politicians who make slating decisions in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors. I think of all the bad slating decisions they’ve made over the years that resulted in a series of people getting elected without Ed’s support. Now he’s supposed to work with these officials on issues that affect the ward? Please. You see what happens when you don’t support the right person with the right education and background. You can’t run your precinct captains if they’re not qualified.

“I openly supported Mayor Washington in ’87. It was the right thing to do and I’m proud of that. But for the most part I held my tongue regarding the slate making. But it gets to be too much. The worst was his support of Farley, who was under indictment. I said, ‘Ed, you really can’t do this. You’re affecting the credibility of our community. Even though you like Bruce a lot, you’d better start listening to the people.’ But he decided he’d go down with the ship. That’s unconscionable.”

In November Schulter decided it was time to take over. “He called me up and said he had to meet with me,” says Kelly. “We met at the Zephyr restaurant over on Wilson and he asked me why wouldn’t I turn over the baton to him. That’s the word he used, baton. I told him Bob Dole was 75 when he wanted to run for president. ‘What makes you think 75 is too old to be committeeman? My health is excellent. I’m at the ward office every day.'”

Earlier this month, Schulter made it official, filing his nominating petitions for the March 21 election. Since then it’s become a bitter battle.

“He wants everyone to think I’m old and out of touch,” says Kelly. “That’s funny. I wasn’t so old and out of touch when I was winning those elections for him. He’s telling people that the mayor supports him. What a joke. I was at a meeting with the mayor and I asked him, ‘Mr. Mayor, if you want me to step down I’ll do it gladly.’ And he told me, ‘No, I want you to stay.’

“Then he called the people at Welles Park and told them I wasn’t going to sponsor this year’s basketball league. The folks at Welles Park didn’t know what to do. They know I’ve sponsored the league for over 30 years, but they don’t want to antagonize the alderman. I called up [Park District board president] Michael Scott, who’s been a friend for years. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Ed.’ It was resolved. I’ll be sponsoring the league.”

Schulter says he has no regrets about how he’s handled his relationship with Kelly. “This is nothing personal against Ed,” says Schulter. “I certainly appreciate everything he’s done for me. Likewise, I’ve done things that have helped him. But at a certain point you have to make decisions that aren’t for us as individuals but for the betterment of our community.”

It’s not certain what voters will make of this showdown, which one politician calls “Shakespearean, the son turning on his father.” Many new residents will probably vote for Schulter because he’s got a familiar name. Still, Kelly’s hoping to make inroads with voters disgruntled over rampant development. (“I support the Davis [movie theater] 100 percent,” says Kelly. “I won’t let it become residential.”) He also has a strong base among seniors, as indicated by the big turnout for last week’s Christmas party.

They sat at long rows of tables and ate platters of pork, mashed potatoes, and purple cabbage, while a beefy man played an electric keyboard and serenaded them with “Jingle Bells” and other seasonal songs. During his brief remarks Kelly refrained from talking politics. But his guests couldn’t help but express their disdain for Schulter.

“When I called Schulter’s office they told me Mr. Kelly’s party had been canceled,” says Franzen. “The next day I got my ticket in the mail. Can you believe that? They lied to me. That really bothers me. OK, you want to be committeeman. But don’t lie to me. I hate liars and sneaks.”

The mention of Schulter’s name prompted another woman to tell a highly personal tale of betrayal that had nothing to do with him. “She was my niece, for goodness sakes. ‘How could you?’ I asked him.” The “him” was her husband.

She paused as her eyes swelled with tears. “That was 20 years ago and I still remember. So I guess I’m not surprised by what Schulter’s doing to Mr. Kelly. After that I can believe anything.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.