The Fight Continues Against Chicago’s Old Guard

Revisiting Harold Washington’s initial challenges after Brandon Johnson’s win.

In These Times Editors

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in 1986. Paul Natkin/Getty Images

The Chicago mayoral runoff in April highlighted an ideological schism: Chicagoans chose Brandon Johnson, who promised progressive change, and rejected Paul Vallas, who championed centrist and right-wing policies. 

The referendum was reminiscent of Chicago’s 1983 election between Republican Bernie Epton and progressive firebrand Harold Washington, who was also promising a progressive platform to a city that felt let down by its previous mayor. After Washington won, David Moberg wrote about his calls for a striking and fresh look at Chicago with the greatest grassroots effort in the history of the city.” Johnson, a former middle school teacher, is calling for a similar approach.

In 1983, David Moberg wrote:

With his first words as mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington made it clear that he was not retreating from the reform program of his campaign. Within three days, the old guard of the City Council made it equally clear that they were going to fight without quarter for their own power and for business as usual.

Beneath whatever working compromise emerges, that struggle will undoubtedly continue during the next four years. Yet the old guard can hold onto its power only through obstructionism and confrontation that would deeply damage the city economically and continue racial polarization. They may be ready to pay that price, but Washington may also be able to convince enough skeptical white voters — and the necessary margin of their representatives — that urban suicide is too much to pay for defense of the prerogatives of the old machine.

In a short, tough speech at his April 30 inauguration in the auditorium at the end of Navy Pier, Washington depicted the city as in a crisis comparable to that after 1 the great fire of 1871. The school system may be $200 million in the red next year. The public transit system faces its own $200 million deficit. And Washington’s transition team estimated that the city’s general fund could run as much as $150 million short this year out of a $2 billion budget, roughly half of which is locked into payments for interest, pensions and similar unavoidable items.

Washington called for immediate austerity and cuts. While outgoing Mayor Jane Byrne sat nearby staring ahead icily, he announced that he was freezing city hiring and wages and dismissing the 541 employees that she had added to the payrolls in a last-minute hiring binge. (Byrne tried to add many more and also attempted to switch political appointees into protected civil service slots.) Washington said that he would cut both unnecessary programs and executive salaries; the next day he slashed his own salary by 20 percent.

Although the city’s severe financial problems, exacerbated by Byrne, will hamstring Washington as he attempts to improve city services and stimulate economic development, the austerity budget may give him greater flexibility in eliminating much of the waste built in by machine politics over the years. Court victories by liberal reformers have greatly circumscribed the mayor’s powers to fire people for political reasons, but many of the leftover political appointees may be axed for economic reasons or their salaries could be cut so deeply that they will resign. It may be necessary for Washington to exercise such administrative powers in order to create a working majority in the City Council.
The old guard can hold onto its power only through obstructionism and confrontation that would deeply damage the city economically and continue racial polarization.
The old evil cabal” of Democratic country chairman Ed Vrdolyak and Alderman Ed Burke — at first Byrne’s enemies, then her allies — had an anti-reform movement well underway even as Washington minced no words about replacing the ancient, decrepit machine with a new politics of neighborhood involvement and openness in city government. By the Monday after the inauguration, despite last-minute lobbying efforts by Washington and his allies, Vrdolyak had assembled a majority of the Council behind a package of rules changes that would greatly strengthen the Council’s powers to block legislation in committees — setting the stage for more direct Council control over hiring and personnel practices. He also drew up a plan to reorganize the Council: the 20 committees were expanded to 29 so that all of his allies, including freshmen members, were given chairs or top posts. Only three blacks were named committee heads, and Wilson Frost — chair of the finance committee and the leading black machine alderman — was stripped of his powerful position for playing the leading role behind the scenes in trying to organize the council to minimize Vrdolyak’s influence.

Sensing that Vrdolyak had the upper hand, the Washington forces played for delay. When the first Council session was convened on May 3, Washington immediately recognized the one white machine politician in his camp, who moved to adjourn. Washington ended the meeting. Then, in the midst of calls for a roll call vote, the Washington bloc walked out. Vrdolyak, the former president pro tern, seized the floor, was elected acting president by the rump session and presided over 29-0 votes in favor of his rules and reorganization. With the exception of the lone Hispanic, a machine appointee, the Vrdolyak bloc was all white. All 16 blacks, the four liberal white reformers and one other white alderman were with Washington.

Some whites on the Council — some newcomers who ousted old machine hacks, some who are loyal to Richard M. Daley or other figures who distrust Vrdolyak — were considered potential Washington allies. And, despite the vote with Vrdolyak, some of them continued to indicate a desire for compromise and a willingness to support Washington. I’m still not 100 percent in favor of it [the Vrdolyak plan for which he voted],” new member Joseph Kotlarz said later. I’m very much in favor of a compromise.“

Fear of reform motivated most of the Vrdolyak 29, but in the opinion of Council members, others came along out of fear of supporting a black mayor and out of a sense that Fast Eddie” had the votes and that Washington, if he was truly going to abolish patronage, had little to offer them.

Vrdolyak took the position some time last week [before the vote] that he was going to take control, and he wasn’t going to talk to anybody,” said liberal Alderman Martin Oberman. He took advantage of racial fears in some of these fellows’ wards. He took advantage of a new administration coming in and having a lot of things to worry about besides talking to every alderman. And he put together a majority.… These weighty decisions were not made because of a lack of phone calls. They were made because Vrdolyak and his cronies want to run the city.“

Washington could have cut the same deal Byrne did four years ago — but he is apparently determined to fight for reform. If it was a loss, it may be a loss on good grounds,” said reformer Alderman David Orr. Any mayor could get a victory by paying people’s price. But at some point if you’ve got principles, you have to go down with your ship rather than give up.“

Washington has neither given up nor has he gone down irrevocably. He immediately argued that the Council’s rump session” was illegal and its decisions are not binding, and afterward he continued to negotiate for a compromise. He also ordered his new acting comptroller not to issue checks for the new committees, which he estimated would add $500,000 in costs to the already beleaguered budget. Pushed early into a confrontation that he wanted to delay, Washington now must deal with a more highly polarized Council and a renewal of racial tensions that he hoped to diffuse. But if Vrdolyak has proven he has power, Washington can flex his muscles, too.

In his first day in office, Washington appointed a small core of officials — well balanced between blacks and whites — that include newcomers from outside and a few of the better Byrne administrators. Although the city’s bureaucracy is highly politicized — most workers owe loyalty to one or another political boss — Washington could not afford to get rid of many of them, even if he had a free hand. He needs their knowledge of how the city works, even though as his transition team carries on its massive research into the city’s past practices, it is reportedly discovering mind-boggling examples of waste, padding and outright corruption.

Even if he cannot and does not want to win Council support by offering jobs, he might be able to win support by agreeing not to dismiss certain friends and relatives of Council members. In the meantime, he is forced to work with a government apparatus that often cannot be trusted. While this infighting continues, part of the Washington campaign staff is beginning to work on a series of town meetings” to be held throughout the city that will permit Washington to listen to neighborhood desires, establish better direct relationships with each part of the city and begin to mobilize grassroots support for his program.

Other reform elements are also moving-to expand their efforts — including the Task Force for Black Political Empowerment, PRO-CAN (Progressive Chicago Area Network) and a new Unity Democratic Congress —put together by Slim Coleman, a long-time white organizer in the poor Uptown neighborhood — that will support Washington and challenge the machine (for example, run delegates for the 1984 Democratic convention).

The struggles for power that marked the primary and general election continue unabated. In order to generate the spirit of renewal” that Washington called for in his inaugural speech, the new mayor will have to rely on and strengthen what he saw as the key to his recent election — the greatest grassroots effort in the history of the city.”
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