The Washington Legacy: Council Wars in the Windy City

Against the Current, No. 12-13, January-April 1988

Alan Jacobson

AS SOMETIMES happens, a phenomenon occurs that Marxists term “a change in the objective circumstances.” Last November Chicago politics took a turn which absolutely no one was expecting or was prepared to deal with. Mayor Harold Washington, just six months into his second term, died of a massive heart attack.

Neither his newly constructed political bloc in the City Council, nor the white ethnic opposition nor Washington’s personal apparatus was in a position to work out a solution to this crisis in the traditional “public” manner of electoral politics. Instead, the citizens witnessed the internal powerbrokering inherent in urban bourgeois politics. Along with the history of the reform movement, the role of the Chicago left and the deification of the late mayor, there are important lessons embedded just beneath the story.

Even before the official announcement of Washington’s death, groups of aldermen were caucusing to find a successor. Under state law a special election for mayor will be held in April 1989. An acting mayor, elected from the City Council (that is, a sitting alderman) by a majority of the aldermen, would serve out Washington’s term.

Several aldermen became frontrunners. Tim Evans, Finance Committee chair and the mayor’s floor leader, and Eugene Sawyer, long-term machine supporter and Washington’s pro-tern of the Council were early contenders. As for the whites, the media quickly proclaimed Terry Gabinski, a protege of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, and Dick Mell, old-guard alderman who supported Washington following the 1987 election. In reality, most white altermen did not expect to gather the twenty-six votes necessary to elect the acting mayor. During this period, the media was showing continual coverage of the many memorials and tributes, tearful public officials and highly sanitized synopses of Washington’s record. The outpouring of public feeling seemed to be equivalent to the “nation mourned” reaction to Kennedy’s assassination.

Groups of aldermen met with Jesse Jackson both at Operation PUSH and in a small bungalow on the northwest side to work out their blocs. Because of the media concentration, there were many photo opportunities showing the “smoke-filled room” nature of the selection process. White aldermen accused Jackson of “king­making,” while being careful themselves not to have over twelve aldermen meeting in a room (so as not to violate the Illinois Open Meeting Act).

Friday night through Sunday morning, the mayor’s body lay in state at City Hall. Thousands of mourners visited the body. On Monday a massive funeral drew over 3,500 dignitaries, including a number of presidential candidates — Jesse Jackson, Paul Simon and Albert Gore.

Later that evening a mass memorial rally held at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion drew over 10,000 Washington mourners. It quickly became a campaign rally for Tim Evans. Alderman Luis Gutierrez, known as one of Washington’s more radical supporters, exhorted the crowd to surround City Hall in the event of Sawyer’s calling a meeting to vote. The next day, after determining he . had the necessary votes, Sawyer called a City Council meeting.

Windy City Politics

That Tuesday, Dec. 1, was probably the most tumultuous day in Chicago politics since the Democratic National Convention of 1968. A crowd of pro-Evans supporters was growing around City Hall, and by 5 p.m. the police closed the surrounding streets. At 5:30 the City Council meeting convened.

Fifteen minutes later the Council recessed for caucusing of four separate groups of aldermen-white ethnics, Latinos, pro-Evans, pro-Sawyer. At 8 p.m. Evans and Sawyer met to discuss a Sawyer plan to join forces. But Evans didn’t bite.

Meanwhile over 3,000 pro-Evans people rallied outside City Hall. The media, numbering over ninety, shuttled between the four caucuses and the demonstration.
At 9:15 p.m. Sawyer wavered, deciding to postpone the vote. Angry white allies demanded an explanation. Other aldermen accosted and polemicized with each other.

In seeking a divine powerbroker, the pro-Sawyer forces held a revival-style prayer session led by two Black ministers — he idea, however, came from one of the white ethnic aldermen. At 9:35 Mell rushed into the chambers to declare that Sawyer had the votes and would call for the vote. But as Sawyer entered the Council meeting, he encountered the late mayor’s financee, an Evans supporter and good friend of Sawyer. Getting cold feet, Sawyer seemed to collapse, saying “I can’t do it! I can’t do itl It’s dividing my community!”

At that point the white ethnics stomped out to make one last effort to pull together behind a white candidate. And to their amazement they found that Alderman Terry Gabinski had twenty-five votes. (Caucus leaders never revealed who joined their bandwagon.)

Over 1,000 pro-Evans demonstrators gathered in the lobby of the City Hall, with another 4,000 outside in the 30- degree weather. Sawyer’s people knew they had the votes, but the tremendous show of community support for Evans forced them to back off. On the 10 o’clock news a confident Evans declared that Sawyer did not have the votes or the stomach for the fight. This enraged Sawyer, who called Evans’ bluff.

The City Council was called to order at 11:58 p.m. For the next four hours the aldermen screamed, speechified, pleaded, cried. Alderman Dick Mell jumped on his desk to get the attention of the chair. Alderman William Henry, a Sawyer lieutenant, inflamed the crowd by entered the chambers wearing a bulletproof vest. The crowd in the council gallery protested by chanting “NO DEALS!” and waving dollar bills in the air. Some threw coins at the aldermen, provoking a few arrests. Alderman Bernard Stone, a bitter enemy of the Washington people, called the demonstrators “anarchists,” and denounced the “mob rule.”

The vote was finally taken at 3:45 a.m. Wednesday morning. At 3:58 the vote was announced: 29-19 for Sawyer. Sawyer, sworn in, declared that he would follow the reform path of Washington. An hour later Evans met with several hundred people still in the lobby of City Hall. Referring to the special election set for 1989, he told them, “You’ll be mine in ’89.”

The explosion of mass sentiment was a striking contrast to the backroom deals in the aldermanic chambers. As Jackson remarked later, Washington’s coalition had “split between the populist support of Evans and the Council support of Sawyer.” The media responded in standard form, slandering the demonstration as “mob rule,” expressing the fear of the bourgeoisie of any kind of independent action by masses of people. However the masses were not successful in reaching their goal. Evans did not get elected. In the end, Sawyer received the votes of six Black aldermen and twenty-three whites. It may be crude to express the vote in those terms, but that reflects the reality of Chicago politics.

Reform and Integration

Under Major Richard Daley, Chicago politics was like a one-party state. This franchise from the city financial bourgeoisie fulfilled the goals of the ruling class: stability, racial peace through the co­optation of Blacks into the machine, and yet continual racial polarization of the working class.

Washington’s reform program called for an integration of Black and Latino elites into the city bureaucracy, a recognition of the Black bouregoisie and petty-bourgeoisie through the city’s lucrative purchasing mechanisms, and access to the influx of finance capital through taxation of downtown development.

Both the bourgeoisie and Washington recognized their commonly held goals. Continued racial unrest would damage the business environment, and instability in the Black community would challenge the control of Black petty-bourgeois elites.

Historically, petty-bourgeois elites played an important role in maintaining the hegemony of the white ethnic political machine, from Republican Bill Thompson in the 1920s, to Democrats Kelly and Daley after the New Deal. The massive level of residential segregation, political patronage from the machine and police repression was utilized by Black politicians like William L. Dawson to create “submachines” in the Black community. Relying on a political franchise from the main machine, these structures resulted in an extreme level of apathy and alienation from the Black masses.

The extent of the power held by these Black elites was keenly shown by the inability of Martin Luther King Jr. to generate a mass civil-rights movement in Chicago’s Black community. Despite organizing a cadre of activists and individuals who would become prominent for years to come, King was compelled to recognize failure by signing an agreement known as the “Summit Agreement.” This vaguely worded pledge called for improvements in public housing and a reduction in mortgage discrimination.

As Manning Marable notes, by utilizing a paternal face and allowing racist white ethnics to confront King and grassroots activists, the Daley machine was able to escape the blame for many of the problems raised by the King defeat.

Marable described Washington’s election in 1983 as “the culmination of a series of Black social reform movements for socio-economic and political equality which had finally assumed a bourgeois electoral form.” The roots of this restructuring began in the early to mid ’70s, following the defeat of Black militancy on a national scale. (Black American Politics [London: Verso, 1985] 192, 208).

In response to the massacre of Black Panther leaders and the wave of oppression that occurred in its wake, Blacks rebelled from ward bosses and caused the defeat of a major Democratic candidate supported by the machine. More significantly, several key Black machine politicians utilized the mass discontent to take a more independent stance, most notably Ralph Metcalfe and his protege, Harold Washington.

Richard Daley’s unexpected death in 1976 exposed the internal fractures within the machine. Harold Washington ran a low-key campaign for acting mayor in 1977. He did not win much of the vote (11%) but made key connections with influential Black politicians.

In 1979 little-known city official Jane Byrne was able to defeat the incumbent Michael Bilandic largely through the support of Black voters. Her rhetoric was strongly reformist, decrying poor city services and pledging a new era in Chicago politics.

However once in office, Byrne tried to fill the void left by Daley. Trying to “jumpstart” the faltering machine apparatus by allying with Cook County Democratic Party chairman Eddie Vrdolyak, Byrne alienated the Black politicos who stumped for her in the wards.

In addition, Byrne did not understand the role of accommodation in the machines’ hold on the Black community in the past. She made a series of appointments, firings and budget decisions that greatly reduced the power of Black elites in government and enraged the Black community.

New Blocs

During the later part of Byrne’s term, Black community leaders weighed the risks of a risky anti-machine mayoral campaign with a Black candidate. The question was raised, mostly by the press, whether the Black community would vote as a bloc in repudiation of accommodationist Black leaders who stayed with the machine.

A mayoral search committee yielded few choices. Finally, the name of Harold Washington was suggested. He declined, referring to his prior campaign as evidence that there was no force strong enough in the Black community to support a Black mayoral candidate in the face of white reaction.

The elites set about to construct that force, Drawing upon divergent groups in the community, Washington was finally satisfied that he could put forth a credible effort.

Indeed, the composition of Washington’s activists pointed out possible divisions. As Marable outlines, on one hand were the Black nationalist and white leftwing elements who saw the Washington campaign as a struggle for Black empowerment. This small group of people made up most of the street campaigning leadership. On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie and white-collar professionals represented Black establishment funding. Washington gave these forces ascendancy by placing them in charge of the official campaign committee.

It is important to note that the radical forces were given the role of mobilizing the masses while the bourgeois forces were responsible for constructing the future administration. (Marable 224)

As the campaign evolved into a referendum on racism, Washington was able to form a popular-front alliance. In the face of disunity in the ethnic camp, Washington won the Democratic primary. Usually an imprimatur of victory, the primary was just a taste of the racist frenzy that occurred during the general election.

White ethnics and machine bosses blocked behind the Republican candidate, Bernie Epton. Epton, a businessman, was not in control of his campaign. The siege mentality fostered by the media kept polarization very high and reinforced the mobilization around antiracism and Black self-defense organized by the militants in the Washington campaign.

Washington won 50.1% of the vote in the 1983 general election. The clear factor in Washington’s victory was support from the Latino community. Ignored by the machine, the Latino community was not considered a voting bloc by the media.

Byrne had been supported by Latinos, but with the choice between Washington and outright white reaction, 75% voted for Washington. The Latino vote gave Washington his margin of victory. In 1986, ward gerrymandering initiated by Byrne was overturned and a special election for aldermen was held. Four Latino aldermen were elected, three of whom were strongly pro-Washington.


It was not until that court-ordered election that Washington was able to consolidate his administration. Following the general election, Washington forces controlled twenty-one of the fifty aldermanic seats. His coalition of Blacks and liberal whites faced the remnants of the machine apparatus held by county Democratic Party chair Vrdolyak.

The ethnic bloc of twenty-nine prevented Washington from installing his own people in key committee chairs and generally disrupted city business. This disruption disturbed the Chicago big financial and real estate bourgeoisie, who were afraid that the continuing crises would damage the city bond rating and stall development plans.

Washington’s transition team was made up primarily of business officials. In the Black community, Washington’s business supporters sought to displace old-line accommodationist vendors. Once he had effective control of the city apparatus and key finance and budget committees, Washington pushed a strongly pro-development program. In addition, through reform of the city’s purchasing arm, more contracts have gone to minority-owned firms.

Under Washington’s administration, more Blacks and Latinos were integrated into the city apparatus. However, he was not able to effect changes throughout the entire bureaucracy. Indeed, in the chronically troubled areas of public housing and public health, the situation deteriorated in the face of austerity budgets and federal cutbacks.

In 1987, Washington’s re-election victory over Jane Byrne in the primary in a one-on-one race convinced many political operatives that Washington’s campaign organization was too strong in the Black and Latino communities even for a “great white hope” candidate like Byrne. The general election saw the humorous proliferation of third-party tickets in a four-way race.

Washington won handily over his opponents. The white candidates were trying to establish fiefdoms of political power. Following the election, several white aldermen decided to deal with the mayor in exchange for consideration on committee appointments. The old Daley machine had given way to a new political structure. Vrdolyak was deposed as County Democratic Party boss, switching to the Republican Party to continue his crusade against Washington.

The nature of the re-election campaign was different than the one of 1983. The “crusade” feeling was absent, although it was resurrected for key media events. The white left reprised their role as campaign foot soldiers, but with an important distinction.

Two perspectives existed in the pro-Washington left. The first held that the Black and Latino struggle for self-determination had taken an electoral turn through the Washington “movement.” Most of the white left held this view. The second viewpoint saw more pragmatic reasons for supporting Washington.

While recognizing the drawbacks of reformist politics, the lack of power for Washington to effect fundamental changes in the economic situation and the over-extension of movement activists, pragmatic leftists cited the opportunity to make connections with key Black and Latino activists for future coalition building. While some initiatives were made to develop organizational links, most of these contacts were on the individual level.

In the months prior to Washington’s death, two events signaled possible developments in the future. The 1987 teachers’ strike raised serious questions about Washington’s commitment to trade unionists who played an important role in both election campaigns, especially the second.

Washington’s ambivalence about the strike followed by his call for opening the schools (in support of the school board position), plus the activities of key Washington supporters in opposition to the strike have been cited by teachers union activists as negative factors in the dispute. The Chicago teachers union is primarily Black and Latino. (See George Schmidt, ‘Washington people in the forefront of ‘movement’ against striking union,” Substance, September 1987.)

Washington was portrayed by his supporters as highly pro-union and praised for unionizing City Hall workers. His actual track record was questionable. While not a unionbuster, his record was much more mixed than usually admitted to by the left.

The second development was Washington’s role in pulling together a countywide Democratic slate for the 1988 elections. Washington played powerbroker in putting forth a balanced slate (read, Black and white ethnic with one Latino). The media also remarked on Washington’s effect on state-wide races.

The entire episode was reminiscent of past machine practice. How would the community respond to Washington the powerbroker as opposed to Washington the reformer? How would the nationalists and the leftists react-would they opt out or stay in the campaign apparatus? The question became moot on Nov. 25, 1987.

New Conflicts

Sawyer’s election shows that Washington’s political coalition of accommodationist old-guard aldermen, those seeking a new integration of Blacks and Latinos, and populist forces was not monolithic in interests. Accommodationists, knowing they were not in ascendancy, took the opportunity to block with the white ethnics to re-establish the lost status quo.

However this bloc has released the populist forces from the constraints of a governmental coalition. Will they be brought into line? In time, perhaps. However, they have shown that they can and will go to the people. This is a situation neither the ascendant bloc nor the bourgeoisie can tolerate.

In the first weeks of his administration Sawyer was compelled to deal with what could be the central political and economic issue for Chicago’s future. The question concerned gentrification and access to housing. Alderwoman Helen Shiller, a white pro-Washington community organizer with radical credentials from the ’60s, sought to prevent a massive privately funded redevelopment project in her largely poor 46th Ward.

She argued that the project would create moderate- to high-rent units that would force out the current low-income residents. As an alternative, she called for the city to purchase the units and rehab them without dispossessing the residents. This plan was publically supported by Washington prior to his death.

Alderwoman Kathy Osterman of the neighboring 48th Ward — also the site of many new redevelopment projects — strongly supported the privately funded redevelopment project. Following several rancorous public hearings, where both alderwomen mobilized their constituencies, the City Council voted down the Shiller plan. In the process, Shiller was red-baited and vigorously denounced as antibusiness and pandering to her “poor” (read: minority) constituency.

Most importantly, Sawyer made no attempt to mobilize in support of the Shiller plan. This was seen as a concrete rejection of the Washington program for reform that Sawyer had pledged to support just days before.

The housing question has always been a highly charged political subject. Attempts by Blacks to enter white neighborhoods are commonly met with bricks and firebombs. A recent study by the University of Chicago Population Research Center shows that the likelihood of a Black living in a white community in 1980 was 12 % (the same level as in 1970) while it was 50% for Latinos and 74% for Asians. (Chicago Sun-Times 31 Dec. 1987)

The few integrated neighborhoods are mostly on the North Side. Redevelopment in these working-class, poor, lakefront North Side wards signifies attempts to gentrify and resegregate the small integrated housing market. Continuation of these plans represents a rollback of fair-housing attempts and portend the elimination of affordable housing, similar to New York City.

The direction of the various tendencies in the Chicago leadership will depend on their reaction to the question of housing. The accommodationist Blacks allied with the white ethnics stand to benefit from the development. Marable observes, ” … the rigid racial segregation perpetuated by the city’s political machine has had the effect, in part, of creating a more favorable climate for Black capital accumulation, and consequently, for the development of a small but relatively secure Black entreprenurial elite.”(Marable 212)

The return to “plantation” politics will differ from previous machine practice in that it is likely that the white ethnics will operate through a Black puppet leadership maintaining the symbolism of Black “self- determination.”

The integrationists will talk “unity,” to continue the Washington reform program and to align their forces to challenge the accommodationists. Most likely, this challenge will occur behind closed doors in an attempt to prove that it is they who maintain the electoral muscle to continue Black leadership of the city. Would they run a candidate such as Tim Evans against an incumbent Sawyer in a primary race? It is unlikely if they can strike a deal with the current leadership to maintain high hiring levels for Blacks and Latinos. In addition, Sawyer and Co. realize they need the Evans forces to quell popular discontent with Sawyer’s pro-machine image.

This popular discontent gives the populist forces great potential in the coming period. They have proven that they can mobilize the community. The financial bourgeoisie will exert great pressure on the Sawyer/Evans forces to reintegrate the populists into the coalition.

The appearance of an independent left in the Black community could derail the development plans of the bourgeoisie by organizing resistance to displacement and rent inflation. For several weeks following Sawyer’s election, rumors were circulating that Lu Palmer, key Black nationalist leader of the Chicago Black United Communities organization, and Les “Slim” Coleman, leader of the Heart of Uptown community organization, were contemplating independent runs against the Democratic county slate in the next general election.

Coleman filed papers to challenge Alderman Terry Gabinski (Rep. Rostenkowski’s lieutenant) for the 8th Congressional District Democratic Party committeeman post. This suggests that the radical leaders who could develop an independent force against the “plantation” politicians will not; instead they will be concentrating on internal power brokering within the Democratic Party.

Symbolism or Struggle?

Harold Washington did not develop a leadership team during his tenure in office. For this reason, politics in Chicago will be in upheaval for several years. This provides an opportunity for the Chicago left to determine its role in the development of Chicago.

Will the populist forces recognize their pivotal position? In order to do so, an alternative vision for Chicago must be expressed, A program that speaks to the needs of Chicagoans, especially its most disenfranchised citizens, is a prerequisite to any organized resistance to the continued rollbacks in housing and other important sectors such as public health, education and employment.

These events have shown the intensity and emotion that Harold Washington generated as a symbol in the Black and Latino community. We must ask ourselves whether we are going to settle only for symbolism. In our capitalist society sym­bolism serves to obscure the very real declining standard of living for the inner city masses.

Symbolism cannot be allowed to substi­tute for substance. A concrete anti­-aapitalist program of action that speaks to the painfully real problems faced by peo­ ple in the inner city can serve to articulate the desire for political participation in the Black and Latino communities.

January-April 1988, ATC 12-13

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