By ANDREW HOLZMAN
Harold Washington, former mayor of Chicago and a potent political legacy, died of a heart attack just seven months after winning his second term 25 years ago Sunday, Nov. 25. Museum exhibits and newspaper editorials have called Harold Washington everything from a “movement” to a “gladiator.” Tributes to Washington have ranged from an animatronic likeness in one museum’s exhibit hall to an elaborate graffiti rendering of his name on a CTA train. Yet during his time in office, Washington was far removed from the aura of reverence his memory now enjoys. The former mayor and congressman’s story drips with the upsets, complex allegiances and heated rhetoric which have given the phrase “Chicago-style politics” its meaning, and is marked by a racial tension that reveals a city sharply divided.
Washington’s cautious path into city politics might belie the surprise of his ascent to the top. His start came when, in 1953, after serving as an Army engineer in World War II, he took over for his father as a precinct captain in the Third Ward. Washington then represented city and state agencies in court before climbing through the legislature with terms in the state House and Senate, respectively. Although he stepped outside of party lines on a few issues during his time in the legislature, his divide with Chicago’s mainline Democratic Party would not begin to form in earnest until he set his sights on the mayor’s office.
When Mayor Richard J. Daley died in office in 1976, Washington ran an underfunded bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination. Trounced, he offered a promise to the party machine. In an article published May 11, 1977, the Chicago Tribune quoted Washington saying, “I’m going to stay outside of that damned Democratic Party and give it hell.” Although he had won only 11 percent of the vote citywide, Washington had campaigned hardest in the South Side, where he successfully unseated freshman US Representative Bennett Stewart three years later, beginning his career in Congress.
While battling to ward off potential primary challenges in Chicago, Washington became an important national figure. He fought against the Reagan administration’s cuts to education, gaining important allies in the Capitol. Washington sailed through to a second term in Congress, but only served one year before entering the packed 1983 Democratic mayoral primary, a race which would establish him as a formidable powerhouse in city hall.
Few in the professional political class expected Washington to win his party’s mayoral nomination. Accounts written after his death have portrayed Washington as reluctant to enter the field, folding to pressure from friends in the national party or local organizers. Support in the city council was so high for then-Mayor Jane Byrne that neither Washington nor rival Richard Daley, then-state attorney, chose to show up to a meeting at which aldermen would indicate their favorite candidates, the Tribune reported. One unlikely source, though, did call the election correctly. Edward Vrdolyak, chair of the Cook County Democratic Committee, though he also supported Byrne, believed the Black vote would allow Washington to upset both her and Daley. Washington, Vrdolyak said in an interview with the Tribune published Nov. 20, 1982, would capture 70-80 percent of Chicago’s African American demographic, hurtling him to the over 400,000 votes he would need to be nominated. Vrdolyak would become one of Washington’s most bitter foes just a year later.
Washington stunned the city with his primary win, but still faced a steep road to the mayor’s office. He would need to pull together a party racked by factionalism in order to defeat Republican opponent Bernard Epton. For support, Washington turned to his D.C. connections, bringing national names like Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to Chicago to help heal the party. “I am confident that [Washington] will be one of the great leaders in the entire history of this city,” the Tribune quoted Kennedy saying March 24, 1983. Shortly after a luncheon for party leaders, Byrne scrapped her plans to run in the general election independently despite her primary loss.
Race remained at the forefront of the election, and pressure came from both sides. One columnist articulated the sentiment of some of Chicago’s Black voters in an article for the Chicago Metro News which ran April 7, 1983.
“Understanding where the villains are in our society,” he wrote, referring to corrupt white aldermen, “does it make sense for Black voters to continually support the white minority criminal segment of our city? While we have been so concerned about ‘crime in the street,’ we have completely ignored crime in our governmental office buildings.”
Latent as well as obvious appeals to race came from both candidates. Many accused Epton, whose campaign’s slogan was “Epton — Before It’s Too Late,” of playing to racism in white Chicagoans. Washington warned during a debate: “[if my supporters] get the feeling that this campaign is going to turn into a race war, then it might turn bitter, evil, angry.”
Washington defeated Epton by 3.7 percent, remarkable considering the wide margins Democratic mayoral candidates had typically enjoyed in Chicago, and became the city’s first Black mayor. Finally tasting the power of the office he had struggled to attain, Washington found that his task would not be easy. In his inaugural address, he said that his transition team had found the city “in far worse financial condition than we thought.” Crippled by a ballooning budget, Chicago would need to cut its workforce, he said. Politically, he faced an adverse city council, with 29 of 50 aldermen siding against his administration. Vrdolyak, who served on the council, had broken party lines to support Epton, and would now lead the faction opposing Washington at nearly every turn. Bitter fights over nominations and basic city business bogged down government during Washington’s first term, while concern for the city’s fiscal affairs only grew.
Some criticized Washington for his slow progress in getting policy passed, but his political movement was certainly effective. By the final year of his term, he had used special elections forced by court-ordered redistricting to bring the council closer to his control, ending his first term with a 25-25 balance. He also did manage to push through a much-needed property tax increase, though he had hoped to avoid it. This momentum did not stop his enemies from eyeing his seat, though, and he came up against Vrdolyak, Byrne and others in his first primary as mayor.
Washington had become known for his harsh rhetoric, and he didn’t hold back during primary season. Vrdolyak won the moniker “antediluvian dodo head,” among others. But things were easier the second time around, and Washington made it through primary and general election challenges with a solid lead. He was even able to improve on his support in the council, swinging two seats in his favor to give him a 27-25 majority. Washington’s real progress, it seems, was about to begin.
A heart attack ended the story there, while the tide was about to turn. Chicagoans mourned not only the death of a beloved public figure, but also the chance for real progress in Washington’s second term. In an article published the day after his death, the New York Times reported: “[Washington’s] mayoralty did not mean, sadly, [any] tangible improvement for Chicago’s vast black underclass.” Though staff reductions and a tax increase had begun to solve Chicago’s trauma, the outlook for many city agencies was still bleak.
The Washington legacy, though, quickly began to look brighter. President Reagan, whom Washington had called “crazy,” issued a statement praising him for years of service. At a hearing held to discuss giving city employees a day off in honor of Washington, the Tribune reported, racially-charged bickering amongst aldermen was interrupted by a child’s poem, raised in tribute to a mayor who had beaten the odds.