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Harold Washington: Interview with Alton Miller

Wed, Apr 17, 2013

Alton Miller was Harold Washington’s press secretary and is the author of Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man. He met with StreetWise and spoke about Harold Washington’s approach to politics and some of the obstacles he encountered in office.

The City Before Washington
We were a world-class city, but we were slipping financially, our bond rating was slipping, and we were also slipping in terms of spirit. Washington came along with a great sense of a new spirit of Chicago that really caught fire.

Washington’s Political Philosophy
He fundamentally understood that there is no ‘one best way,’ even in theory… with most things in life, and especially in politics, the wishes of the people that are affected shape the ‘one best way.’ To suggest that there’s only one best way is to suggest that only one kind of constituency has a voice… You must systematically engage with all these different constituencies, and have what you’re going to be doing be the sum of the agendas of the most people.

Washington’s Political Savvy
What he was interested in was how you bridge that gap between what you can see needs to be done and…translate that to the action steps, to actually make meaningful change happen… Being able to harness all of that energy – which is all going in different directions, like it should be – to tap into all that without squashing it, without trying to be a “boss,” requires being able to articulate and deal with a certain level of granularity. And then on top of that, and what saves a politician like Harold Washington, is that he has a sense of humor and a genuine enjoyment of what he’s doing and working with people.

Chicago’s Political and Racial Atmosphere
Chicago must never go the way of Detroit and other cities that were hollowed out by white flight, so that you end up with kind of an internal ghetto. Washington was as mindful of that as his critics. At the same time he was dead serious about affirmative action. He said early on that he wanted a city in which the workforce – meaning those on the government payroll, but also the city’s employment picture generally – should be more reflective of the actual proportions of African-Americans to whites.

Criticism
They [the “29” in City Council] were willing to obstruct the performance of city management and basically penalize citizens – who would have to wade through ankle-deep water when it rained – to prove a point. Why were they trying to do this? When Harold was talking about refinancing and using the gap for city improvements, it wasn’t just about dollars, it was about who gets the dollars. And who would stop getting these cushy deals. One incentive for keeping the city hostage was that kind of greed, but the other was a sense that if the media would continue to cover this as if it were ‘Beirut on the Lake,’ it could probably get the perception that both sides were contributing to the chaotic environment. Then it would be possible to defeat Harold Washington for re-election, just because people would be so frustrated with the way things were going. That was the stated strategy… Of course it’s a good thing for the legislature to be analytical about what the executive is doing, and keeping them honest and forcing them to be transparent and so on. But [Washington] didn’t need to be forced to be transparent, that’s what he was all about. He was also a lifelong legislator, and therefore he knew all about compromise. He was perfectly willing to compromise where it didn’t mean abandoning your principles. Jane Byrne compromised, but she basically gave away the store. The mayor would not do that, even though it would have been a lot easier.

The Progressive Agenda
With Harold Washington’s definition of ‘progressive,’ decisions are really allowed to germinate within neighborhood organizations, within lower level organizations. It’s a city government that’s structured to take those into account, to genuinely listen to them, and to develop mechanisms for feeding information. Don’t build it around a hierarchy of aldermen, but really structure it so that it’s reaching popular initiative and response.

Washington’s Interpretation of Race
Much is said about what a wonderful melting pot America is, and how we’re blended in this big wonderful stew. He said he never personally got that metaphor. He would say ‘I don’t think it’s necessary for us to have all of our sharp edges and all of our distinctions blurred. I prefer to think of us as a mosaic, of pieces that are individually remarkable and that work together.’

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