Laura Washington covered his campaign as a reporter and was deputy press secretary to Mayor Washington. She spoke to StreetWise over the phone about Washington’s efforts for fairness, the resistance he encountered, and where his vision is today.
I covered his campaign as a reporter. It was very disorganized and non-traditional; it didn’t have a lot of the things you would expect to see of a high-profile election campaign. When I asked about it, they would tell me that, ‘this is not a campaign, this is a movement. This is not policy-orientated or about the mainstream Democratic Party. This is a people’s movement, the people are moving this campaign.’ He made sure that he always had the voters behind him. He reached out to regular folks on the street, through community forums, etc. He was always going back to the people.
Harold Washington very strategically and aggressively campaigned for various ethnic and racial groups — people who had never had a voice before… He felt that the city was richer and stronger when all of its citizens participated. He was particularly interested in engaging the people in the neighborhoods. He was interested in bringing city services to the neighborhoods and bringing them into the decision-making process… One thing I remember is that the complexion of the people that walked through the corridors of city hall changed dramatically. There became a diverse rainbow of people who participated in city government.
The Council Wars
As soon as the mayor was elected, that moment was perceived as a declaration of war to the Democratic Party establishments…change does not happen easily or quietly. It wouldn’t have mattered when, there would have been fierce resistance… Particularly the white ethnic democrats saw Harold Washington’s election and his appeal to fairness and equity as a threat to their power. They decided from day one that they would not cooperate, and that they would fight him at every turn. They will say it wasn’t about race, but, it certainly was about power.
Both Policy-based and Racially Infused Criticism
He was very quick to call a spade a spade if he felt that his administration was being attacked on a racial basis. He was not particularly eager to embrace criticism – like most people – but I think he made adjustments when he needed to.
He made an effort to rebuild the city’s infrastructure…the sewers, the streets, the sidewalks were crumbling, particularly in the more neglected neighborhoods. He had a plan to fix it, to raise the money to fix it. But he couldn’t get the plans through city council, like everything else he initiated. So what he had to do was go around city council and with sort of like a traveling caravan go neighborhood by neighborhood. He built the political and public support to get the job done. The City Council had to end up approving the bond issue…it was going to impact the city, every single ward was going to get the same amount of money, their fair share. He was a mayor about fairness, and that was one of many examples.
But I think a lasting legacy [of Harold Washington] is that City Hall is more reflective of Chicago’s demographic. Harold Washington came into office seeing very little access to power in city hall. There were very few minority contractors, very few women and people of color in leadership positions. Programs were run by white people, and were primarily benefitting white people. He changed that forever. His successors have all used his blueprint for providing equity. Maybe they haven’t advanced it much further, but that blueprint for equity has been maintained since his death. If you look at the city, especially in the South and West Sides, you can still see disparity. With whatever major measure, people of color and the poor, they’re still lower on the equity scale. So there’s still a lot to be done.