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Washington’s legacy depends on us

Wed, Apr 17, 2013

Harold Washington Photo Credit: Marc PoKempner

Harold Washington
Photo Credit: Marc PoKempner

When Harold Washington was voted into office on April 12, 1983, Chicagoans didn’t know what his election would mean. Thirty years later, we still don’t have the answer. It may take some years for history books to introduce an entirely objective interpretation of the city’s first African-American mayor. But when that edition is printed, when we are finally capable of reflecting without excitement or opinion, we’ve lost the essence of the Washington era. Whether for or against, Washington’s meaning lies in the emotion he stirred: the swinging on rails at the Robert Taylor Homes with campaign posters, or the slamming of fists at city hall. So, before the heat of his “fire on the prairie” cools, let’s take a look back at the life and legacy of Harold Washington.

How Washington was lured into, what his campaign organizer Jacky Grimshaw calls, “the quagmire of Chicago,” we can’t know for sure. That said, whatever it was that coaxed his return – perhaps pressure from black community leaders eager for a candidate, a compelling vision for Chicago, or both—it took the 1983 mayoral race by surprise. Supported by the majority of blacks, white progressives, and Latinos, Washington’s coalition formed more than a campaign. Together, the three constituencies comprised a popular “movement.” Laura Washington, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, said that “it was really a people’s campaign and a people’s mayoral.” With two slim victories in the Democratic primary and the general election, the “people’s campaign” had made it to the polls, and “the people’s mayor” had made it to City Hall.

Prior to Washington, City Hall had been the site of Machine-based politics – a factory of patronage hiring, managed by a firm city “Boss.” Introduced within months of his inauguration, Washington put new emphasis on honesty and transparency within city government. The common criticism of Washington and his good-government reform was, Washington’s press secretary Alton Miller said, that “people think you’re a dreamer and not a doer. If you were a doer you’d be the Boss. But you’re not a dreamer, you’re fantasizing that democracy actually works.” Now that the Machine had ceased, the “manual labor of democracy,” as Miller called it, was going to be a difficult transition.

Just as George Washington and his fellow revolutionaries’ declaration of democracy was met with war, so too was Harold Washington’s. The Council Wars began Washington’s first day in office and continued for the next four years. The strategy of the opposition was to use the City Council to form a municipal gridlock against Washington’s agenda. The conflict was racially polarized; 28 of the 29 opposition aldermen were white, though politically driven. With many of Washington’s stalled initiatives and appointments among the casualties of the “Council Wars,” power had shifted. Don Rose, political strategist for Washington, said, “The only positive thing about Council Wars was that it in fact demonstrated that we had a strong council, weak mayor system, which not many people understood that we had because of the mayors before.” Nevertheless, for a city so accustomed to being an extension of its mayor, a crippled Washington meant a crippled Chicago.

Saying that all of Chicago was crippled, however, is an overstatement. In fact, some neighborhoods and constituencies were for the first time being lifted off their feet. “His style was inclusiveness, rather than exclusiveness,” said Timuel Black, civil rights leader and Washington friend. The mayor diversified city government through affirmative action and embraced voices in City Hall regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

Some of his strongest cries for fairness, however, came from outside City Hall. Washington’s response was in delivering more money and resources to community development groups, neighborhood organizations, and grassroots agencies; Washington knew with power on the local level, local problems could be handled more effectively. Because the projects were financed through a redistribution of funds – taking money intended for city-wide use, which had been siphoned off to wealthier wards– the city’s budget was balanced four years in a row. Matters like balanced budgets are significant political accomplishments and, as former alderman Dick Simpson says, so was Washington’s ability to “permanently raise the floor of city government.”

Even after interviewing all these people who worked closely with Washington, I can’t end with a complete overview of how Harold Washington impacted the city of Chicago. His supporters might say that his philosophy on equality and neighborhood development was important then, as it is now. His critics might argue that, because of “Council Wars” and his untimely death in 1987, Washington’s philosophy could only be modestly translated into legislation, and that better examples of Chicago government can be found elsewhere. That said, I don’t think Washington wanted to be “unparalleled” or “unsurpassed;” he wanted his efforts to be continued. That’s what makes his impact so impossible to grasp; his legacy depends on our willingness to move it forward.

Franni O’Toole
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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