Italian pride swells at the success of its emigrants around the world. Italian hospitality welcomes all «returning» emigrant descendants, but it welcomes none so extravagantly as Italian American elected officials. Whether it be the exalted Governor of New York or the more humble Mayor of Chicago Heights, the fact that the American electorate has chosen as a leader someone with an Italian name, validates us all. Together our world-wide network of Italians has discovered America!
But, alas, the news that I have to report of dramatic political success in Chicago and Illinois politics is meager. No Italian American has ever been a serious contender for Mayor of Chicago or Governor of Illinois. There have been no Cook County Board Presidents with Italian names. In fact, only two Italian-named persons have ever been nominated for statewide office by a major party. And only one of them (as of this writing), Jerry Cosentino, has ever been elected to statewide office as Treasurer in 1978 and 1986. After living in the state for a century, that’s all that the population of half a million Italian Americans has gotten out of Illinois.
Exaggerated and oversimplified? Of course, but this stark record is reason enough to give us pause to learn the rest of the story. It is the purpose of this personal essay to sketch a narrative of political events in the city and state that can suggest an analysis and explanation for the comparative political weakness of Italian Americans in Chicago and Illinois. The very measure and definition of political power also come into play. Do we assess political success by counting the number of Italian-named people in elective office? Is it the behind-the-scenes power brokers who really count? Other considerations include patronage jobs, symbolic issues, and real issues like neighborhood redevelopment. Any explanation will, no doubt, tell us as much about the American political environment as it will about the Italian American political community.
Italians have been in Chicago since the 1850s. Up until about 1880, the group consisted of a handful of enterprising Genoese fruitsellers, restaurateurs, and merchants with a sprinkling of Lucchese plasterworkers establishing themselves in the central city and the near North Side.
Most Chicago Italians, however, trace their ancestry – with some important and notable exceptions – to the central and southern parts of Italy and to the poor and illiterate country folk displaced by the land and economic policies of an uncaring government. This wave of unskilled southern immigrants came to the United States between 1880 and 1914.1 Most of them were young men, birds of passage, who intended to work for a season or two and return to their families. Many did just that. Others became part of intricate chains of migration that re-established villages and towns in Chicago’s neighborhoods and suburbs. The culture they brought with them, while not quite the culture of the Roman Empire or the Italian Renaissance, was richly textured, agrarian, peasant, Catholic, and family-oriented. One writer has gone so far as to describe the South Italian culture as being so exclusively family centered (amoral familism) as to discourage the development of trust in government, the education system, and voluntary associations.2 The original Italian immigrants of the peasant class were also imbued with a campanilismo (loyalty to hometown clans) and almost certainly brought with them a cultural bias against political participation.
As a rail center, an industrial center, and America’s fastest-growing major city, Chicago offered opportunities for immigrants from all nations. In the mid-nineteenth century it was the mecca for German and Irish migration. In the early twentieth century, Italians, Russian Jews, and Poles found a place in Chicago. Later, African American from the South, Mexicans, Asians, and a steady stream of others added their presence to the city, making it today the home of sizable colonies of over eighty different nationalities.3 Chicago’s Black population is second only to that of New York City; at one time or another it has been the largest Lithuanian city, the second largest Polish city, the second largest Bohemian and Ukrainian city, and the third largest Swedish, Irish, and Jewish city in the world.4 But it has never been claimed that Chicago had enough Italians to be one of the largest Italian cities of the world. Being part of the complex interaction and outnumbered by the Irish, Poles, Blacks, and Hispanics, Italian aspirations for power and prestige have often been thwarted. Efforts at developing internal unity and at building coalitions with other ethnic groups have not offset their numerical weakness. And while Italians have played a significant role, they have never been as important in Chicago’s mix of ethnics as they have been in New York, for instance.
Into the 1950s Italians clustered in neighborhoods north, south, and west of the Loop business district. Significant additional Italian colonies sprang up in the suburbs of Melrose Park, Chicago Heights, Blue Island, and Highwood. Downstate in such places as Spring Valley, Cherry, and Herrin Italian coal miners and former coal miners settled. Though ethnic population statistics are always somewhat suspect, it appears that by the 1920s Italians made up about 5 per cent of Chicago’s population. This figure has remained relatively steady throughout the last decades of the century and in the absence of high profile issues, outstanding leaders, and coalition building, there would seem to be no reason to expect political dominance from Italians in Chicago.
Writing about the political interaction of ethnic groups in Chicago before 1936, John Allswang observed of the Italians that they were relative latecomers to the scene – 82 per cent of them arriving here after 1900 – after the rules had been set and the Irish had ensconced themselves in the Police and Fire Departments. Moreover, apparently practicing the sojourner mentality, Italians were slow to apply for citizenship. Even by 1920, only 35 per cent of Italians had obtained citizenship and the right to vote. That is about half the rate of the foreign born Irish, Swedish, German, and Norwegian population.5 The lag in female citizenship and voting among Italians was another debilitating factor. Interest in political participation among the immigrants advanced enormously in the 1920s when Prohibition enforcement became a major local issue.
On the national level, Italian Americans generally supported the Republican Party. Whether this was an aversion to Woodrow Wilson's racism and his anti-Italian stance on the Trieste issue in the Versailles Treaty is unclear. Competition with Chicago's Irish who controlled the local Democratic party may also have been a factor in pushing Italians toward the Republican column. Both of the major Italian language newspapers generally supported the Republican Party on the national level.6 Moreover, Capone's alliance with Republican Mayor William Hale «Big Bill» Thompson gave Italian voters yet another reason to support the GOP. Italian voters seemed to break ranks in 1928 to support Democrat Al Smith who was the first Catholic major party presidential nominee. Later Franklin Roosevelt brought Italians and most other ethnic groups into his winning Democratic coalition that lasted into the Nixon years, by which time Italian Americans had moved comfortably into the Republican middle class. Since the 1930s, the Democratic Party has been the only game in town in Chicago, successful Italian political operatives from the City tend to be Democrats (except for the West Side Bloc). Suburban politicos tend to be Republican while Downstate Illinois seems to produce Democratic leaders.
Chicago's Italian community also included a small cohort of socialists, loosely affiliated with the American Socialist Party. The latter had some credibility before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Under the leadership of Giuseppe Bertelli and his La Parola del Popolo the tiny group supported the labor movement and fought fascism, with some elements of the group surviving into the 1980s thanks to Egidio Clemente's valiant efforts to keep La Parola alive.7 There was also a good deal of Anarchist activity in the Spring Valley area.8
Despite the fact that Italian Americans have not reached the highest offices in the city and state, some progress was made on the ward level even before 1900. Not much is known about the first Chicago aldermen, Stephen Rovere who served in the City Council from 1885-1897 or Frank Gazzolo (1892-1913).9 Schiavo lists Frank Brignadello, Stephen Malato and William Navigator as elected state representatives in the 1890s.10 Italian immigrant voters seemed to ignore the local recommendations of the two prominent Italian American journalists of the era, Alessandro Masto-Valerio (La Tribuna Transatlantica) and Oscar Durante (L'Italia) who were allies of Jane Addams and her circle of reformers in the West Side Italian neighborhood. Instead, Italian voters supported bosses like Irishman Johnny Powers (Gianni de Pow to Italian speakers) in return for minor patronage jobs and municipal services packaged as political favors.11
In his upbeat 1928 analysis of Italian politics in Chicago, Schiavo claimed that the group was «beginning to climb the ladder.» He then proceeded to list a dozen office holders including State Senator James Leonardo, State Representatives Joseph Perina, Charles Cioa, Michael Durso, Aldermen Prignano and William Pacelli, City Sealer Daniel Serritella, Chief Clerk in the Prosecutor's office, Peter Granata, and Board of Improvements member James Vignola as men with a future. But Schiavo reserved his highest accolades for former Judge Bernard Barasa, «the leading Italian in politics in Chicago.»12 Though he ran unsuccessfully in mayoral and county primaries in the early twenties, Barasa never achieved the success that Schiavo had predicted for him. Serritella, on the other hand, became Ward Committeeman and a powerful State Senator from the First District. Granata later became one of the West Side Bloc, nominal Republicans who at strategic times switched their votes to support the Democratic Kelly (later Daley) machine. Both Serritella and Granata ended up with besmirched reputations.13
Humbert Nelli describes the rough and tumble struggle of colorful Anthony D'Andrea, president of the (mostly Italian) Hod Carriers' Union and the Unione Siciliane (and also an «unfrocked priest, red light district luminary and convicted counterfeiter») against Johnny Powers in the Near West Side 19th Ward 1921 aldermanic race. Typical of the era, the campaign was marred by political bombings, feuds among Italians who supported rival candidates, kidnappings, and fist fights.14 Despite his ability and willingness to fight fire with fire, D'Andrea lost to the «Prince of the Boodlers» by 389 votes. In May 1921 D'Andrea was dead, the victim of a shotgun attack. To avoid this kind of embarrassing challenge in the future, the Powers and the Council majority increased the number of wards from 35 to 50 making sure to gerrymander the Italian vote in Ward 19, where it was a majority, into four different wards, where Italians were in the minority.15 It was only through the efforts of Al Capone later in the decade that Italians were able to capture political power on the Near West Side.16
In contrast to Schiavo, Nelli's analysis of Italian American political figures in the 1920s portrays the group as pals of Al Capone. Nelli and the Capone biographer contend that by the mid 1920s, Big Al was the most powerful Italian American political figure in the City and people like Serritella, Granata, Pacelli, Prignano, and Roland Libonati (pictured in the Schiavo book) were Capone cronies.17
Organized crime and elected officials have a natural affinity. Candidates need campaign funds and volunteers while bootleggers, gamblers, and pimps need elected officials to «look the other way» and apply lax enforcement of the laws concerning their illicit commerce. Add to that situation the universal unpopularity in Chicago of the Prohibition law and the fact that some Italian American political figures had grown up with (or were related to) organized crime functionaries, and you get a formula for undermining the credibility of Italian American office seekers. It is a stereotype which has dogged ambitious Italian Americans since that era.
John Kobler presents evidence that Serritella served as Capone's agent in the City Council in the 1920's.18 Capone and other organized crime leaders helped engineer the mayoral victory of Bill Thompson over incumbent William Dever. From 1923 to 1927 Dever had waged a sincere battle to enforce Prohibition as the law of the land and had been so successful that Capone was forced to move his operations outside the city limits for a time. But Thompson, who described himself as «wet as the Atlantic Ocean,» promised a wide open town with 10,000 new speakeasies. Needless to say, Capone and his rival bootleggers jumped heavily onto Thompson's bandwagon. Capone reportedly used every technique of bribery and terrorism on behalf of Thompson and Kobler credits the gangster with coining the slogan «Vote early and vote often» in this 1927 election.19 As the anonymous wag put it, «Chicago politics ain't bean bag.» Big Bill's electoral victory created a situation in which Capone claimed to have half the Chicago Police Department on his payroll ($300,000,000) and to have thousands of Italian immigrant families producing illicit beverages to satisfy millions of thirsty Chicagoans – policy also led to increased competition among the bootleggers which escalated into widespread violence, the most spectacular example of which is the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
Thus, the Italian American electorate and political leadership was schooled in an milieu in which bossism triumphed over Jane Addams' reformism, one in which non-Italian bosses were often the best sources for patronage jobs, and in an atmosphere where most political campaigns were characterized by violence, intimidation and hooliganism. The practical reality of this era is that almost all politicians of whatever ethnicity were corrupt. Italian Americans in the late 1920s did not need Sacco-Vanzetti or Mussolini's American Fascist movement to make them (confused) cynics? Better to focus on honest work and family affairs.
It is with this dubious heritage that Italian Americans moved into the second half of the century. The boys came home from military service, the population moved to the suburbs, and the working class generation was succeeded by a better educated, more middle-class cohort. This generation, or these next two generations after 1950, produced a wide range of office seekers and political pressure groups who used a variety of approaches but somehow never found a degree of success that could satisfy the group's desire for place and respect. They were not alone. The Irish-oriented Democratic Machine leadership had since the early thirties stingily parceled out perks and incentives to the European ethnic groups and in the last part of the century faced additional demands from African Americans and Latinos for their share of the pie. The success of African Americans in getting elected as Mayor, Cook County Board President and U.S. Senator in the 1980s and 1990s only increased the frustration level of the Euro-ethnics.
The general pattern for Italian American political achievement in the two decades after World War II was for a half dozen Italians to be elected to the Chicago City Council (out of 50) from the wards in which they could find some Italian base. Some of those same districts and the Proviso Township (Melrose Park) and the Chicago Heights areas generally elected a handful of Italian Americans to Springfield. It continued to be an era when candidates, officeholders and patronage workers had to have a «sponsor.» As the writer, Milton Rakove, brilliantly put it «Don't make no waves. Don't back no losers.»20 This could have been the slogan for two generations of savvy machine operatives who knew how to take care of themselves and their relatives. Occasionally Italian American aldermen got caught up in the periodic corruption investigations that are a staple of Chicago politics. All Chicago politics is based on place and influence. The one time that an Italian issue did emerge in the 1960s – when Mayor Richard J. Daley decided to tear down the Italian neighborhood to make way for the University of Illinois at Chicago – the Italian elected officials rolled over and played dead, leaving only a heroic housewife, Florence Scala, to lead a fruitless battle to save the near West Side Italian community.21 In fact, when the north side Sicilian neighborhood was programmed for public housing (Cabrini-Green) there was even less resistance.
The most colorful of Chicago Italian politicians, Vito Marzullo became a precinct captain in 1920, was elected state representative in 1940, and became alderman from the near Southwest Side 25th Ward in 1953. Fiercely loyal to the Democratic machine, Marzullo put into practice the maxim that «all politics is local politics.» He was a powerful ally of the first Mayor Daley and in the 1980s was referred to as the dean of city council. Lionized at Harvard University, where he lectured in nonstandard English, Marzullo, perhaps unconsciously, symbolized the limited ambitions of his generation of ethnic politicians.
Frank Chesrow (Cesario) parlayed a college education, training as a pharmacist, a honeymoon trip to the Amazon, and experience in the U.S. occupation forces in Italy into a seat on the Cook County Sanitary District Board and then on the County Board itself where he served as a Commissioner from the 1960s to the 1980s. His brother, a physician also worked for Cook County as director of the Oak Forest Hospital.
Roland Libonati in 1957 became the first Illinois Italian American elected to the U.S. Congress when he was chosen in a mid term election in the 7th District (Central Chicago and the West Side). A veteran member of the West Side Bloc in the Illinois House and Senate, Libonati's Democratic seat was passed on to Frank Annunzio in 1964. And on the state level, Senator Peter Granata continued into the early 1960s to reign as chief of the West Side Bloc.
The two most significant and enduring factors in Italian American political circles in the last half of the century were the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the Justinian Society (Italian American Lawyers).
The JCCIA was founded in 1952 in response to the Republican State Central Committee's removal of Emil Caliendo, a candidate for municipal judge, from their ticket because of recent organized crime activity in the city that had nothing specifically to do with Caliendo. The city-wide fledgling organization was made up of leaders from 50 different Italian American clubs and under the leadership of Joseph Barbera was able to get the Republicans to reinstate Caliendo. Thus began the work of the officially non partisan umbrella organization that became the official voice of the Italian American Community of Chicago. Under the guidance of Anthony Sorrentino, (who served as executive director into the 1980s) and a series of well known community activists who served as presidents, the JCCIA became the arbiter of culture, prestige and honor within the Italian Community as well as the champion of the Italian American reputation against those who would defame it.22
By the mid-1960s the JCCIA was working closely with newly-elected Congressman Frank Annunzio. The dominant political figure among Chicago Italians from the '60s to the '90s has been Democratic Congressman Frank Annunzio. Annunzio began his career in the mid-1930s as a business arts and history teacher. He later became the legislative and educational director of the Steel Workers Union, and then Director of the Illinois Department of Labor in the administration of Adlai Stevenson. In the later 1950s he played an important part in the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans’ campaign to support the Villa Scalabrini (Italian home for the aged), bringing together the two most dynamic groups in the city. The personal alliance between Annunzio and Fr. Armando Pierini (Director of the Villa) was a powerful and a lasting one. In the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide, Annunzio was elected to Congress from the 7th District, succeeding Roland Libonati. In Washington, Annunzio successfully fashioned for himself the role of «leading Italian American Congressman.» He was a major protagonist in getting Columbus Day proclaimed a national holiday. He spearheaded earthquake relief funding for Italy in 1978, and he used his influence to promote the fledgling Washington-based National Italian American Foundation. He was the champion fund-raiser for Villa Scalabrini and for the Joint Civic Committee, and he was responsible each year for attracting a top political celebrity to be the grand marshal in Chicago’s Columbus Day Parade. Annunzio served until 1992 when old age and redistricting hastened his retirement. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Congressman Marty Russo (a younger man with a more «modern» political style) from the South Suburbs was defeated in the primary election by Congressman William Lipinski, a darling of the machine, in a newly-created district that favored the latter. For the first time in thirty years, Illinois Italians were without a Congressman to call their own until Republican Donald Mazullo of Rockford was elected a few years later. Mazullo, however, seems much less interested in pursuing an ethnic agenda than his Italian American predecessors. Another major organization with significant political influence is the Justinian Society, an active fraternity of Italian American lawyers whose roots go back to the 1920s. Its membership has at times reached as high as 1000 and the leadership of this group has vigilantly monitored judicial appointments on the city, county and state levels for almost a century. Sometimes the Society has been so successful that Italian names seem to be overrepresented in the judiciary. This is a result of several factors. There are thousands of Italian American lawyers in the city, and every lawyer wants to be a judge. Constitutionally, judges in Illinois are elected, but many judicial careers begin with appointment to mid-term vacancies. And lobbying by the Justinian Society and other intermediaries has often produced favorable results. Moreover, the judiciary offers a political career without the necessity of enduring an all-out political campaign and the inevitable Mafia smears and innuendoes that are mounted against any candidate with an Italian name. On the other hand, in recent judicial elections, many experienced, well-respected Italian American judges have been knocked off by unknowns with Irish names. It is clear that when the voting public is confronted with choosing names on a ballot of candidates who are unknown to them, Irish names are more appealing than Italian, Hispanic or Polish names. In fact, judicial candidates have been known to change their names to acceptable Irish ones to get elected. Though none serve at present, several Italian Americans have sat on the State Appellate Court, and only one, Moses Harrison III of Carlinville has ever been elected (and is currently serving) on the Illinois Supreme Court.
The post war era also saw the emergence of a new independent brand of Italian American politician. Closely in touch with his Italian roots AnthonyScariano became one of the most accomplished Italian Americans in the state. Born in 1918, he grew up in the North Side Sicilian neighborhood. His development was influenced by the Chicago Commons Settlement House. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Scariano attended George Washington University. During World War II he was recruited into the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. His undercover work in Northern Italy and Naples during the war was featured in Stud Terkel’s The Good War23 After serving in the OSS, Scariano worked his way through Georgetown Law School by serving as a guard at the Capitol Building and later as assistant to Illinois Senator Scott Lucas.
Scariano moved to Park Forest, opened a law practice in Chicago Heights and was elected to the Illinois State House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1956. He distinguished himself in the legislature as a champion of education and of the open meetings act. Scariano was so popular with educators and labor unionists that in the 1964 «Bedsheet Ballot» in which all 236 state representative candidates ran statewide for 177 seats, he ran third. He served in the Illinois House until 1973 when he was appointed to the Illinois Racing Board by maverick Governor Dan Walker. Previously a critic of the board, Scariano is generally credited with reforming the operation which had been plagued by scandals. In 1985 Scariano was appointed to the Illinois Appellate Court and elected in his own right to a ten year term in 1986. After a distinguished career on the bench he retired in December 1996, at the height of his prestige among Italians and non Italians in the state. He speaks perfect Italian and Sicilian and is one of the founding members of SACA (Sicilian American Cultural Association), and was recently installed as its new president. He currently writes a Fra Noi column on the origins and meanings of Italian names.
Scariano has often spoken of his frustration with the bossism of Mayor Richard J. Daley and of his embarrassment with the antics of his West Side Bloc legislative colleagues. If there were a figure whose advancement would have uplifted the reputation of Italian American politicians, it was Scariano. But his liberalism and his independence won him more favor with journalists and the progressive elements of the Democratic party than it did with the regular party slatemakers. He was especially shunned by the party regulars for his vote (with the Republicans) for a statewide grand jury to investigate organized crime.24 Coming out of the same geographic area as Scariano, another «modern» political figure of similar campaigning style, but of different politics, was Republican State Senator Aldo DeAngelis. The son of Marchegiani immigrants, DeAngelis was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1978 where his business background, personal skills, and liberal Republicanism (he supported John Kennedy in 1960) made him so popular on both sides of the aisle that he was quickly brought into the leadership circle. Renowned for his ability to bring state funds to public projects within his district, DeAngelis was honored on the national level with an appointment by President Reagan to the Columbus Quincentennary Committee in the late 1980s. In 1990 he ran for the presidency of the Cook County Board, a post traditionally dominated by Democrats. Despite his pleasing personality and a vigorous campaign, the Senator was defeated. And though he lost by a wide margin, DeAngelis attributed a good part of his deficit to the unacceptability on the county level of his Italian (first and last) ballot name. Changing demographics and a highly spirited campaign by newcomer Debbie DeFrancesco Halvorson defeated DeAngelis in his bid for reelection in 1996. Nevertheless, De Angelis continues to wield power in his new role in Springfield as a legislative lobbyist for some of the largest interest groups in State of Illinois.
In the post war era, only one woman, Theresa Petrone, emerged as an enduring political force. The wife of a county judge from a political family on the near North Side, Ms. Petrone was a long term appointed member and sometime chair of the Illinois State Board of Elections. A quick perusal of state Blue Books25 (biannual directories of elected and appointed officials) revealed that several females from downstate served briefly as State Representatives, sometimes assuming the unexpired term of their deceased spouse. Otherwise, this writer is unaware of female Italian American elected officials with a significant and enduring power base.
It was also, finally, in 1978 that the first Italian American was nominated by a major party for statewide office. A Democrat, Jerry Cosentino had served on the Metropolitan Sanitary District Board before he was slated and elected State Treasurer by a margin of over 150,000 votes. His bid for the patronage rich post of Secretary of State in 1982 against Jim Edgar was a failure,26 but he bounced back and was elected for a second time as Treasurer in 1986. In 1990 Cosentino again garnered the Democratic nomination for Secretary of State, but lost this time to George Ryan.27 Later, charges mainly related to deceptive practices in his private trucking business resulted in a brief prison term for a man who once embodied the highest political ambitions of Italian Americans in Illinois. Observers often refer to the Cosentino experience as the reason party leaders are reluctant to support Italian-named candidates. With Jerry Cosentino, Italian Americans finally got the break for which the ethnic group had been waiting a century but were unable to capitalize on the opportunity.
On a less heady level in state government in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, the original West Side Bloc was replaced by people who got better press. For instance State Representative Ralph Caparelli is the dean of the State Representatives, currently serving his 28th year in the Illinois House and serving as a political columnist for Fra Noi. Also in that group were more Republican suburbanites like Aldo DeAngelis not beholden to the Chicago Democratic machine. Downstaters like Edwardsville Democrat Sam Vadalabene (named Outstanding Legislator of 1969 by the Association of County Superintendents Schools), Rockford Democrat Zeke Giorgi (known as Father of the Illinois Lottery), Carlinville Representative Vince Demuzio (a onetime Democratic hopeful for Secretary of State) and Spring Valley Democrat Richard Mautino (Chair of the Small Business Committee), despite their party affiliation were equally free to practice a degree of independence and help combat the stereotypes.
For a few years in the 1990s sometime State Representative Gary LaPaille chaired the State Democratic Party. Italian American representation in the State Legislature reached its peek in the 1993-94 session when 16 of the 177 members of both houses were Italian – almost 10 per cent representation from 5per cent of the population! This fact gives credibility to the informed opinion of Fra Noi editor Paul Basile who insists that recent Italian American political leaders have been remarkably successful in light of the fact that the ethnic population is relatively small and scattered.28 Moreover, Italians seem to have been able to establish themselves in both parties, insuring access no matter who is in power.
DuPage County, west of Chicago, began booming in the post war era, attracting many former city residents including Italian Americans. Sheriff Richard Doria emerged in the 1970s and by the late 1980s, a Republican Italian, Aldo Botti was elected DuPage County Board President. This broke the mold. DuPage has only a tiny Italian population. The post was an executive one and the DuPage arena seems about as distant from the Old Machine as one could get.
This era also saw the appointment of several Italian-named men as assistants to Governor Walker (Victor De Grazia) in the 1970s and Governor Thompson (Henry Anselmo) in the 1980s. Exactly what impact these gentlemen had on policies or patronage affecting the Italian American community is unclear. Also unclear is the impact of current Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan who is Italian on his mother's side. Sadly, Ryan and his family have been overwhelmed by a series of medical problems which he has faced with great courage.
Historically, the number of Italians in the larger electoral units has never been great enough successfully to challenge other more populous ethnic groups. However, in electoral units such as suburbs like Chicago Heights a base of 10,000 co-ethnics and a little coalition building can bring success, as it did for Mayor Charles Panici. Originally elected in 1975, Panici built up the most powerful Republican organization in the state, and his town was rewarded for that by a visit from President Reagan in 1986. Seven years later, Panici and most of his City Council found themselves in Federal prison convicted of bribery and racketeering.
On the plus side, a survey of the current mayoral scene reveals that some key Italian American mayors are leading their towns in a progressive direction. Anthony Vacco, the Dean of Italian American mayors, is in his 30th year as Mayor of Evergreen Park, a southwest adjacent suburb with a population of 21,000---mostly of Irish and Dutch descent and few Italians. A Republican turned Democrat, Vacco attributes his success to the respect that he shows toward all elements of his community, an attitude that he attributes to his Italian upbringing.29 Ron Serpico, the new Mayor of Melrose Park sees himself as a reformer who also bases his political approach on respect. In 1995 he led an ethnic coalition that swept the long ensconced Italian American incumbents from office. His ambition is to remold the image of Melrose Park by opening up the lines of communications within his community and by actively cooperating with neighboring municipalities.30
Jerry Genova has done such a good job of cleaning up Calumet City and ridding it of its «Sin Strip» that he has become the darling of the local press.31 Still a young man, the popular reformer was an unsuccessful candidate for Stated Treasurer in the 1998 Democratic primary. And in Chicago Heights Democratic Mayor Angelo Ciambrone (elected in 1995) strives to re-invigorate the town of 32,000 challenged by past political corruption and neglect. Young Peter Silvestri creatively doubles as President of Elmwood Park and Cook County Commissioner. The suburbs of Burr Ridge and Frankfort also have Italian American mayors.
In 1994 a group of Italian Americans led by Anthony Tortoriello (an executive in the utility industry) formed the Italian American Political Coalition. Although committees with similar names had surfaced in the past (usually during election years), the Italian American community had never had a viable and continuing organization forthrightly devoted to the promotion of Italian American interests in politics. The group aimed to provide a «political voice for the Italian American community» and it emphasized that the Italian vote could be the balance of power in any close election. After considering all the foibles of such a venture such as the diversity of class, politics, and geography within the Italian community, the IAPC settled on a formula. They would strive to register every Italian American in the state, to publicize political issues and candidates through statewide mailings and, most importantly, to hold endorsement hearings to choose candidates most in tune with the Italian American agenda. And high on that agenda was the recruitment and support of Italian American candidates for as many offices as possible. The IAPC also appealed to the Italian American public to break their long honored stereotype and contribute money to political causes like IAPC and the campaigns of individual Italian American candidates. In short, the IAPC set up shop to become a credible player in the crowded arena of ethnic/interest group politics in Illinois.
The Devil, however, is in the details. The IAPC's first major test came in the 1996 election when the lion's share of attention was focused on conservative State Senator Al Salvi's underdog bid to become U.S. Senator. Here was the opportunity of a lifetime to shatter the stereotypes, to make the kind of breakthrough for Italians in Illinois that John Kennedy had made for Catholics in 1960. With some notable exceptions, the IAPC was able to mobilize the Italian American community behind Salvi with financial support and endorsement even from some lifelong liberal Democrats. The Fra Noi sang Salvi's praises and the IAPC did all the right things. The commitment to Salvi was greater than that given by the Italian American public to any co-national in the history of Illinois. Unfortunately, Salvi was defeated 60 per cent - 40 per cent, rejected by the voters because of his conservative stances on abortion, and gun control and his own inept campaign tactics. In picking up the pieces after the wrecked campaign, some observers felt that at least the IAPC had established its procedures that could be plugged in later to support a more viable candidate. Others more darkly suggested that the Salvi fiasco had proven once again how little the support of Italian Americans really matters. In any case, Salvi has managed to get on the Republican state ballot again in 1998, this time as a candidate for State Treasurer and the IAPC under the leadership of its president, Anthony Fornelli (himself an aldermanic candidate a few years ago), has gone about its recruitment and endorsement efforts in the 1998 election without overemphasizing Salvi.
Meanwhile, the IAPC can look to a number of younger Italian political leaders who show some prospect of appealing to a broad enough spectrum of voters to get elected to higher office. Anyone of the following could possibly be the messiah who delivers Illinois Italians «Cuomo-like» from the agony and disrespect of being left out of the game. The aforementioned mayors Genova and Serpico or some of the Italian politicos who have emerged in DuPage county like Aldo Botti or Chief Judge Michael Gallaso might be the ones. Alderman Charles Bernardini was originally appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to represent the upscale Lincoln Park area. Bernardini has an impressive resume as a top-level corporate attorney for Allstate Insurance, former Cook County Commissioner, and director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy. After suffering defeat in a 1996 State Senate race, Richard Della Croce (who changed his name back from «Kress») defeated an Irishman on St. Patrick's Day 1998 to become Democratic Township Committeeman in thriving (non-Italian) Orland Park. Angelo «Skip» Saviano went from a position of Supervisor of Leyden Township to Republican State Representative from the Melrose Park area. Mentored by Senator DeAngelis, Saviano is encouraged by the de facto Italian American caucus in the state legislature to preserve Columbus Day as a national holiday.32 Second generation State Representative Frank Mautino from the Spring Valley area has shown considerable interest in education issues. Another young personable leader is Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri of Elmwood Park who seems eminently capable of expanding his political base far beyond his West Suburban district. Freshman Democratic State Representative, Mike Giglio, might be the one or ones who create the breakthrough. And Debbie DeFrancesco Halvorson, who toppled DeAngelis in the South Suburbs, might very well be a viable candidate for the state ticket in 2002.33
After more than a century of venal efforts, false starts, missed opportunities, and small successes Italian American political leaders stand at the brink of an uncertain future. No one knows quite what the meaning and purpose of Italian or any other kind of ethnicity will be in the 21st century. But it is clear that those with higher ambitions need to broaden their base, become inter-ethnic diplomats perhaps to fashion a coalition of elements who share traditional cultural values and common economic interests. The presence of Italian Americans in the councils of both parties is an encouraging sign. The one certainty that reins is that the bad old days of gangster-ridden and machine dominated politics are gone.