Born in Kladno, Bohemia, Cermak began his political career as a precinct captain and in 1902 was elected to the Illinois state legislature. Seven years later, he would take his place as alderman for the 12th Ward (Bridgeport, the home base of Richard J. Daley. Once elected mayor of Chicago, in 1931, on the resentment Chicagoans had of prohibition, Cermak treated the city as if it were a personal business and tried to provide the best service possible. He was so popular that anyone who went up against him was achieving their own political death. While riding next to President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami, Florida on February 15, 1933, Cermak was shot when Giuseppe Zangara tried to assassinate Roosevelt and hit Cermak instead. Cermak died of his wounds on March 6. He was interred at Bohemian National Cemetery, Chicago.
Cermak is considered the father of Chicago's great Democratic machine. Before Cermak, new immigrants in the early 1900s such as Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Italians, Irish, and blacks were tradionally Republicans. Cermak, with help from FDR on the national level, was the one who gradually wooed blacks into the Democratic fold, and who turned new immigrants into loyal Democrats. The taunt of William Hale Thompson in the 1931 mayor's race, representative of the Irish who had led Chicago for years, only backfired on him.
Tony, Tony, where's your pushcart at? Can you picture a World's Fair mayor With a name like that?
Cermak's reply: "He don't like my name . . . It's true I didn't come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could" was something ethnic Chicagoans could relate to. (Making a New Deal, 256)
Cermak's son-in-law, Otto Kerner, Jr was governor of Illinois from 1961 to 1968 and later headed the Kerner Commission, which issued a report on race relations in the United States.
In Chicago, a long avenue is named after him. The branch of the Blue Line of the Chicago El is known as the "Cermak Branch"