He was known as Johnny De Pow by his constituents. Along with Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna, Powers was considered one of the leaders of the "Gray Wolves" of Chicago politics. Powers arrived in Chicago in 1872 and began working as an apprentice to a grocer.
After opening his own grocery store, he added a tavern next to it and used his exposure there to begin a political career as a ward captain.
Powers introduced the practice of distributing free turkeys, ducks, and geese to voters at Christmas, but his inability to keep his ward clean of garbage or maintain the schools led Jane Addams to target him. Addams also focused on Powers" corruption, citing instances of cronyism and bribery.
Powers, in turn, used Addams"s attacks on him to brand her as anti-Catholic, but he also hired her to be the ward"s garbage inspector, the only paying job she ever held. In 1903, Powers ran against incumbent Peter F. Galligan for the state senate.
During the campaign, Galligan showed up at Powers"s home and attacked him with a brickbat.
By the 1910s, the ethnic makeup of his ward had begun to change. Instead of being 90 percent Irish, it was only about 50 percent Irish, with the remainder being made up of Italian and Jewish immigrants. On September 28, 1920, a bomb exploded at Powers" home at 1284 Macalister shortly after he arrived, this proved to be the opening salvo in the 1921 aldermanic election.
In 1921, Anthony Doctorate"Andrea, who Powers had supported for ward committeeman in 1919, but pulled his support after the Supreme Court negated Doctorate"Andrea"s initial victory, challenged Powers for his seat as alderman.
Shortly after the election, Doctorate"Andrea was assassinated. This election was the culmination of the Aldermen"s Wars.
Powers died as his home at 6038 Sheridan Road, on May 19, 1930, suffering from pulmonary edema and anemia, although he had been suffering throat tumors since 1929.