More than 30 years ago, I heard a relatively unknown west-side politician make a passionate declaration about dealmaking in Chicago that’s been ringing true for me ever since.
The politician was 24th Ward alderman William “Bill” Henry. His declaration came amid the chaos and cacophony of the special City Council meeting on December 2, 1987, when aldermen came together to elect an interim mayor in the aftermath of the death of Harold Washington just a few months into his second term.
My memories of Henry come back stronger than ever thanks to The City, USA Today’s entertaining and enlightening ten-part podcast created by Robin Amer, my old friend and editor from right here at the Reader.
I’ll get into The City in a little bit. Back to that fateful council meeting.
The choice for interim mayor came down to aldermen Eugene Sawyer and Tim Evans (now Timothy C. Evans, chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County). As usual, the decision was streaked with racial overtones. Harold Washington was, of course, the first and only black mayor elected in Chicago. As such, he embodied the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of black residents.
Conversely, he epitomized the worst fears of many white residents that somehow giving more political power to Washington meant taking power away from them, as though Washington would do to them what white pols had been doing to black residents for decades.
These were fears that never came close to being true. Chicago’s white power brokers in the council wanted to elect a white successor to Washington. But they couldn’t come up with enough votes to pull that off. So they came up with the next best thing—a black successor who would be more or less amenable to their white constituents. They settled on Sawyer. Meanwhile, most members of Washington’s coalition went with Evans, Washington’s floor leader. In retrospect, it’s hard to see much difference between Evans and Sawyer—both of them had come up through the ranks of the Democratic machine. But, in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s death, it was easy to be overwhelmed with grief and rage.
The meeting went on for hours, with protesters in and outside of City Hall chanting “Uncle Tom Sawyer” and accusing Sawyer and his black supporters of looking to return Chicago to the days of “plantation politics.” Near the end of the debate, Henry—who’d put together Sawyer’s coalition of black and white aldermen—rose to address the accusations of betrayal and deal cutting, declaring in his inimically bold and booming voice something along the lines of: “Deals? We was all making deals!”
Like thousands of other Chicagoans, I was watching the proceedings on TV in utter horror, fascination, and disbelief. Henry’s comments hit me like a sledgehammer. His voice was so strong, what he said about dealmaking so true. Of course, Evans and his supporters were making deals, just like Henry and Sawyer had been doing. All politicians make deals—especially in Chicago. It’s the essence of Chicago politics.
Over the years I took to quoting Henry’s lines to explain how Chicago politics works. In fact, I was quoting them not long ago when Robin Amer and her fellow reporters—Wilson Sayre and Jenny Casas—interviewed me about Henry’s role in the story their podcast tells. After that interview, I wondered. Did Henry really say exactly what I say he said? I mean, we’re talking about something that went down 30 years ago. I hadn’t taken notes—I was quoting from memory. Maybe I was misquoting him. Maybe he said something like it some other time and I just imagined he said it at the council hearing.
Well, my memory received some vindication when Amer recently aired episode three of The City, in which Henry’s introduced as a character. The podcast ran the recording of Henry’s council speech, which Jenny Casas tracked down in the Bob Crawford Archives at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Just hearing Henry’s voice—with all its righteous fury—brought me back in time to the council showdown in the wee hours of 1987.
“Let’s talk about the deal. Let’s talk about the deal,” Henry begins. “We all was trying to deal. Everybody had a hidden agenda. . . . Not a person in this City Council has the right to accuse another for cutting a deal. When they was busy cutting a deal.”
It’s a concise account of the transactional nature of Chicago politics. Nothing’s free. If you want something, you’ve got to give something to get it—everything’s quid pro quo. It’s a game everyone plays—even “the reformers” who claim they don’t.
His speech ends with catcalls and booing from pro-Evans spectators, as Alderman David Orr, who was running the meeting, slams down his gavel and calls for order.
Oh, Chicago, my adopted town.
“I share your love for that speech,” says Casas. “I love talking about Bill Henry. He’s so tragic to me.”
As Casas notes, Sawyer’s election was the pinnacle of Henry’s career. In 1991, he was voted out of office—largely because his constituents never forgave him for helping Sawyer defeat Evans. In 1992, at age 56, he died of cancer.
There are so many details about Henry’s life and The City podcast that I’d love to share. But I hesitate to give them away, because the podcast unfolds like a mystery, and I don’t want to ruin its dramatic surprises.
In a nutshell, it’s about a sleazy two-timing FBI mole and the dumping of six stories’ worth of concrete debris on a vacant lot in North Lawndale. Residents around the dump were left vulnerable because city officials took bribes to look the other way as the dumping continued. Or they looked the other way because—you know, they didn’t care about poor black people on the west side.
Ultimately, it’s a story about graft, greed, and racism, which, alas, are long-standing traits in Chicago. Right up there with cutting deals.