Thirty years ago this week, on April 12, 1983, Harold Washington won election as the first African-American mayor of Chicago, having beaten Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley in the February 22 primary. On the next few pages, StreetWise explores his legacy.
Peter Nolan, who had been a political reporter in Chicago since 1968, at both NBC5 Chicago and WBBM TV, wrote the book, Campaign! The 1983 Election that Rocked Chicago. He spoke with StreetWise in a telephone interview.
StreetWise: Please describe Chicago’s ethnic makeup in the 1983 election and when that began to change.
Peter Nolan: In the ’80s you had what you called the ‘ethnic wards’ on the southwest side and the white ethnic wards on the northwest side [as well as] the “Black Belt” on the South Side and the West Side. Basically you had two white Irish candidates [incumbent Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley] vying against each other for that white vote but there was a black vote that was roughly 40 percent of the city’s population and 40 percent of the electorate. Harold Washington got the full measure of the African American vote but also the “lakefront liberals,” about 12 percent.
During the primary election, it was kind of changing week by week as to who was ahead. Byrne over the holidays in 1982 ran a lot of commercials. She had been losing to Daley. Byrne’s people at least had a big phone bank thing telling people that a vote for Daley was a vote for Washington. It seesawed back and forth. In the last week, Byrne’s people realized Harold was their opponent.
SW: Bernie Epton stunned you by approaching you during a news event and asking you to become his press secretary. Even though he ran after the primary as a Republican in the general election against Washington, and his campaign came up with the slogan, ‘Epton: Before It’s Too Late,’ did you feel that that was not his true sentiment? [The book describes Epton’s history of debilitating headaches dating to his service in World War II and how the mayoral campaign broke his health.]
Nolan: I do. This was near the end of campaign. He asked me to be his press secretary because he thought he was going to be elected. I was kind of taken aback because it was an oddball thing, right on the street. [Nolan says in the book he told Epton that his request made during the campaign was a conflict of interest.]
He was never a racist guy. That slogan was horrible, just a bomb that exploded. He should have taken it out in beginning but campaigns take a life of their own. His handlers said, ‘this is what you have to do.’ They wanted to call attention to Harold, that he wasn’t good at taking care of his own finances. Epton claimed that was what it was about, but it sounded awfully like it was racist.
He lived on the South Side and grew up on the South Side, albeit in South Shore, which was a white neighborhood. He settled with his family in Hyde Park, the only integrated community I knew of at that time, and his kids went to public schools.
SW: What was the secret of Washington’s charisma and why were no other black candidates able to hold onto the political powerbase he built?
Nolan: He just had a wonderful personality, a great voice, if you had seen him on television. He could charm anybody. He was quick with wit, he had a tremendous vocabulary. He was very well read and of course had been in politics all his life. He started out as a kid in politics with his father, who was a precinct captain in the 3rd ward. His father was a lawyer, started out in the corporation counsel’s office. I am looking at a picture of me, my wife and Harold Washington in the 23rd ward, which was all Polish. We went to this dance out there in some hall and Harold was doing the polka with these Polish ladies. That’s the type of personality you don’t see too often in politics. He had that magnetism. It overcame these problems in his past – that he didn’t file taxes — that would hurt a lot of politicians.
SW: And after his death?
Nolan: The question is about why no other black candidate emerged who could get elected mayor. I just think a lot of it is timing, circumstances. [Richard M.] Daley, I do believe, really reached out to the minority community, both black and Hispanic. They learned a lot from that election of ‘83 and a lot of black politicians got in with Daley and got a lot out of it. They got jobs and figured in the absence of somebody as charismatic as Washington….What’s changed for the black community is that a lot more people are getting an education and good jobs. What happens is they leave those neighborhoods. Years ago when I was starting out as a reporter, it was a totally segregated society. That’s changed.
Harold Washington Timeline
Dec. 20, 1976 Richard J. Daley dies suddenly after 21 years as Mayor of Chicago.
Dec. 28, 1975 Chicago City Council elects Michael Bilandic as acting Mayor.
June 7, 1977 Bilandic easily wins general election for Mayor.
Nov. 21, 1977 Bilandic fires Jane Byrne, his Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, after she accuses him of improperly awarding fare increases to taxi companies.
March 1978 Byrne announces she will run as Democratic candidate for mayor.
Dec. 31, 1978 One of worst winter storms in Chicago history, after which Bilandic is criticized for CTA services on the South Side as well as snow removal there.
Feb. 22, 1979 In biggest upset in Illinois history, Byrne wins Democratic primary for Mayor and later the general election.
Feb. 22, 1983 Congressman Harold Washington wins Democratic primary for Mayor with 36 percent of the vote, defeating both incumbent Byrne and Richard M. Daley,
son of the late Mayor.
April 12, 1983 Washington narrowly defeats Republican Bernard Epton for Mayor of Chicago after bitter and divisive campaign.
Feb-April 1987 Washington wins re-election as Mayor, having defeated Jane Byrne in the primary and Aldermen Edward Vrdolyak and Donald Haider in the general election.
Nov. 25, 1987 Mayor Washington dies of a heart attack at age 65.
April 4, 1987 Richard M. Daley wins special election to fill Washington’s unexpired term, defeating Aldermen Edward Vrdolyak and Timothy Evans. He had earlier defeated Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer in the primary. Daley goes on to serve 22 years, breaking his father’s record for time in that office.
Campaign! The 1983 Election That Rocked Chicago by Peter Nolan
By Suzanne Hanney,
Nolan began working on his acclaimed book Campaign! in 1983. But it kept getting pushed to the back burner until around 2004, when he embarked in earnest. Interviewing scores of people, watching countless hours of videotape, and reading dozens of books, he joined it all together with his many memories of the historic election that gave Chicago its first African-American mayor, Harold Washington.
The father of six and grandfather of 15, Nolan, 72, lives in Glenview.