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Harold Washington: Interview with Dick Simpson

Wed, Apr 17, 2013

simpsonDick Simpson is a former 44th ward alderman and was an aide on Washington’s transition team. He met with StreetWise and discussed Chicago’s background pre-Harold Washington, Washington’s impact on the city, and his vision applied to today.

If Daley or Byrne Had Won Election
If Byrne was elected, she would have governed just like she had in her term. If Daley had been elected in that election – before he had more experience with attorneys and connections that made his administration what it was in ’89 – he would not have been in a position to lead like he actually did. Harold is remembered for changing the direction of Chicago: a progressive regime, affirmative action, these kinds of things. Richard M. Daley is remembered for guiding Chicago into the global city era. He wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think, back in ’83. He didn’t have the vision, the connections, his campaign was run by his brother, it was an 11th ward operation, and just much more parochial. It would’ve been all different if one of them had won.

Reform Promises
Reform meant three different things. It meant, to the League of Women Voters and the lakefront people, honesty and transparency and ethics in government. To the black community, it meant Jesse Jackson’s “it’s our turn now;” it meant affirmative action, and getting power, contracts, and jobs in a way that they had been locked out of under white dominant regimes with Daley and Bilandic and Byrne. The third understanding of reform was from neighborhood organizers, and more radicals out of the 60’s; it was power to the people, but really power to the neighborhoods, and more power going back to the communities. And so, when people supported Washington, and he said ‘reform’ they heard three different things depending on who they were. That was the nature of what elected him, that was the nature of the coalition, and that was the nature of the policies.

Council Wars
The division was not as simple as a racial division. It was really about power. [Edward] Vrdolyak, [Edward] Burke, and the white aldermen that allied with them wanted to keep power in the city council and in Chicago. The progressives and the African-Americans and the Washington coalition were going to create a new power base and then change policies in new ways that fit their agenda. And so, while it broke on racial lines often, it was actually a power struggle… Most people talk about Council Wars as being negative, because it had this racial tone to it, and it was very confrontational. Nonetheless, the result for the city, actually was positive. I’ll use the example of the Community Development Bloc Grant money. What they did was create the largest infrastructure improvement program in the history of Chicago, between the CDBG money and the bond program. So Council Wars, even though it wasn’t pretty, it ended up in many cases producing better public policy.

The Coalition Fracture
Once Harold died that coalition split. The African-American community split into two parts, which might be called the more progressive, or “reform” part, and the “plantation politics” or machine part… The coalition split apart, so there was enough tension both within the black community and within the larger Washington coalition, that it took someone like Washington to make it all work and keep it together.

Washington’s Legacy
Well, Washington was a critical turning point in Chicago political history. We were talking about changing the fact that blacks could be elected. The political scientists often talk about regimes; his was what’s called a progressive regime, which there are very few examples of in American cities… Harold believed in the Democratic party, New Deal-kinds of redistribution. But he was “left of liberal” in the sense of wanting to go further. He wanted to provide gay rights. He wanted to give power to the neighborhoods.

The Modern Application of Washington’s Vision
The problem with being a global city is that the split between the rich and the poor gets greater, not less. So the question is: can we be livable, or a just global city? Harold’s vision would have more to do about that. He would say ‘ya, it’s fine, to be doing international deals and Millennium Park looks pretty. But are we providing for everybody…? Does everybody have a piece of the pie, or is it just a few rich people and some giant corporations that are getting the pie?’… Certainly Harold would be appalled by the murders and crimes in the black community, for instance… There are ways in which we’ve progressed since Harold Washington, but there’s still the necessary task of asking ‘is this livable, just, and good for everyone?’

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