Remembering Mayor Washington this Thanksgiving
Mayor Harold Washington was one of the more affable of Chicago’s mayors. He had a great sense of humor and was driven by a desire to balance the imbalance in Chicago’s society, bringing all of the city’s races and ethnic groups together, treating them equally. It’s something we no longer see in Chicago these days
By Ray Hanania
A Thanksgiving doesn’t go by that I don’t remember Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
I was one of a few reporters assigned to Chicago’s City Hall who covered him on a daily basis.
Although he was a reluctant mayor, not expecting to win, the personality battle between Richie Daley and Mayor Jane M. Byrne opened the door to becoming Chicago’s first African American mayor. He defeated Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first woman mayor.
The Washington administration pulled the wool off racism that plagued not only the White community, but the Black community, too.
Yet Washington also pulled back the curtain on Chicago’s insider politics. After Washington became mayor, he allowed his Rules Committee Chairman, Ald. Danny K. Davis, now a Chicago Congressman, to open the Committee’s files to my scrutiny.
After spending weeks plowing through once secret files, I discovered that major ordinances benefiting big businesses were wrapped in large financial “donations” made to the aldermen where the businesses were located.
At the time, individual aldermen, rather than the entire City Council, decided which ordinances impacting their wards would be approved or rejected.
A business would give the alderman of a ward where his business was located a donation of between $1,000 and $3,000 before the ordinance favoring his business was introduced to the Rules Committee.
After the ordinances were approved, the business would then give the alderman another campaign donation of between $1,000 and $20,000.
We never would have been given a peek into the secret dealings of the City Council Rules Committee had Washington not been elected. Byrne promised that transparency when she was elected, but she quickly came under the influence of Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, the Mob dominated First Ward, and the slick real estate developer, Charlie Swibel.
Washington also had his issues. He ignored Chicago’s White neighborhoods on the Southwest and Northwest Side and never addressed their concerns.
Despite his gregarious personality – Washington had a great sense of humor – Washington was a product of what he referred to as “the hood.” And he was determined to force journalists, mostly White men, to come to his neighborhood to see the economic devastation and impact of racism firsthand.
Of course, instead of sending White reporters to “the Hood,” most of the biased, racist mainstream Chicago news media, which I worked for much to my own chagrin, assigned Black reporters as assistants to the City Hall regulars. The Sun-Times, where I worked, was satisified with me, a non-White, non-Black “Arab.”
Washington fought the racism of the Vrdolyak-led opposition for four years, until he won re-election in April 1987. Vrdolyak was rebuffed and chased into the “Republican” Party where he vanished into obscurity eventually ended up in jail.
Washington was preparing to implement radical change, now that he had broken the “Vrdolyak 29” coalition and had the power. Things were finally going his way.
But on the eve of Thanksgiving that year, Washington died. I was at home that Wednesday, 30 years ago this week, on Nov. 25, 1987 when the News Desk called. I rushed back to City Hall.
Officially, Washington died of a heart attack. But several of his bodyguards told me they feared he had been poisoned. “It was the only way that Washington’s haters could get him after he beat them at the polls,” one confided.
Within weeks, White alderman installed one of their own as his successor in the face of a divided Black community. Machine stalwart Ald. Eugene Sawyer was named acting mayor over Ald. Tim Evans following a tumultuous all-night City Council meeting as thousands of protestors surrounded City Hall. Sawyer was a nice guy but lacked the charisma to hold on to the office, which was taken from him 18 months later by Daley.
Here’s a toast to your memory this Thanksgiving, Mayor Washington. You were far better than the guy we have today. At least you took time to answer my questions.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist, author and former Chicago City Hall reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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