Martin Kennelly looked like a statesman. Tall, white-haired, and reserved, he gave off a vibe of quiet dignity. He might have been the movie version of a senator, or an ambassador, or perhaps even President of the United States.
Martin Kennelly was actually the Mayor of Chicago. During most of his two terms in office, he did seem more like an actor playing a role.
Mayor Martin Kennelly takes the oath of office from City Clerk Richard J. Daley, 1951
Like Ed Kelly before him and Daley Senior after him, Kennelly was an Irishman from Bridgeport. Born in 1887, he grew up poor. He opened a moving business, worked hard, got rich, and left the old neighborhood behind.
He dabbled in Democrat politics as a contributor. Though he accepted appointment to the Park District Board, Kennelly turned down offers to run for public office—until 1947.
Mayor Ed Kelly was finishing up 14 years on the job. There had been a series of scandals, and the Republicans looked like they had a shot at reclaiming the mayor’s chair. Remember, this was back in 1947.
The party mandarins told Kelly it was time to retire. Martin Kennelly was a popular civic leader with no political taint, and was the perfect “clean” candidate for mayor. He agreed to run. Though the Republicans did pick up 18 of the 50 city council seats, Kennelly was easily elected.
Chicago was enjoying a postwar boom. Kennelly’s tenure saw many major public works projects, including the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway, O’Hare Airport, and the extensions of both Lake Shore Drive and Wacker Drive. After two decades of depression and war, private construction was also rebounding.
Kennelly worked to clean up the public school system, and had some success. His efforts to reform civil service had less impact. His raids on open gambling generated a lot of newspaper ink—and brought him political trouble.
The Mayor’s gambling raids were nearly all in the South Side fief of Congressman William L. Dawson. Dawson and his constituents were African American, and he thought the raids were racist. Calls for party unity finally convinced Dawson to support Kennelly for re-election in 1951.
Kennelly won that 1951 election without much bother. Still, the party old guard had decided the mayor was a loose cannon, and had to be replaced the next time around.
City Clerk Richard J. Daley became Democrat county chairman in 1953. Two years later, when Kennelly appeared before the party slate-makers to ask for their endorsement, he was dumbfounded when they picked Daley instead. Refusing to go quietly, he ran against Daley in the mayoral primary.
Kennelly mounted a vigorous campaign. But he was learning to say “hello” when it was time to say “good-bye.” Daley won the primary, and then the general election.
Kennelly retired to his Sheridan Road apartment, and very little was heard from him after that. He died in 1961. Years later, one scholar began an essay on Kennelly’s political career with a simple sentence that might serve as his epitaph—“He was a nice man.”