Richard Barnett helped Harold Washington get elected mayor in 1983. Credit: courtesy barnett family

In the days after he died on December 28, 2019, Richard Barnett’s obituaries told stories of the roles he’d played in Chicago politics over the last 50 years—as an activist, strategist, and ally to several legends, Mayor Harold Washington included.

To that I’d like to add one more role—teacher, with a specialty in helping young and naive rookie reporters learn a thing or two about Chicago politics.

Oh, he was an excellent teacher for guys like that. I should know—I was one of his students.

We met soon after I moved to Chicago in 1981. I was writing a story about Black aldermen, and someone—I can’t remember who—recommended I call Barnett.

From then on, it seemed as though an election never passed without me taking a master course in Chicago politics from the legendary Mr. Barnett.

He seemed to know everyone and everything, about not just Black west- and south-side politics, but also independent politics on the north side and in Hyde Park.

We shared a love for talking—we’d talk for hours, usually by phone. He spoke in a soothing monotone—exceedingly exact and patient, with a remarkable attention to details and a habit of going on tangents. A habit, alas, that I share.

Over time, he told me his story. Born in 1931 on the south side. “One of 14 kids—we were poor as church mice.”

In 1953, he and his wife moved to North Lawndale on the west side. Back then, it was a mostly white community—he bought his home from a Jewish family that moved to the suburbs.

But you know what they say about integration in Chicago—it lasts about as long as the first Black family moves in and the last white family moves out. In the case of Barnett’s corner of North Lawndale, that was no more than a few years. 

Barnett worked as a clerk for the post office. In a roundabout way, organizing a youth baseball league got him involved in politics.

“We believed that if we could catch youngsters before they reached gang age and get them involved in something, we could keep them out of trouble,” he once told me. “I talked to a lot of people all over Lawndale, and soon we had [32] teams. They were there to play baseball, but I tried to teach them other things, too—like race pride, community pride, respect for education, respect for property, and mainly respect for self. If you teach a kid to respect himself, you’d eliminate a lot of your problems.”

He was hoping to convert a vacant lot behind a local factory into a North Lawndale version of Field of Dreams: “We could have had four baseball diamonds on that land, except there was a slight hill. So, we went to the politicians. All we wanted them to do was have the land graded—just have it leveled. They told us it would cost $5,000 to $6,000. And the city didn’t have the money.”

At the same time, the city was installing “all new curbs on sections of Michigan Avenue because the queen of England was coming to visit. That cost the city about $18,000. They didn’t have $5,000 for the kids, but they had $18,000 for the queen of England.”

It’s an old story in Chicago. There’s always money for something no one really needs. But try to help some kids on the west side play baseball? And, suddenly, we’re broke.

“That made me madder than a six-shooter. To me, the politicians had their priorities wrong. That’s when I became involved in politics.”

Looking to change the world—or at least his piece of it—Barnett joined the aldermanic campaign of Arthur Hamilton, a young lawyer running as an independent in the 24th ward special election of 1958. Hamilton was up against Ben Lewis, Mayor Richard J. Daley’s handpicked candidate.

It was a tough campaign. According to Barnett, the Lewis camp tore down signs, roughed up volunteers, harassed voters, intimidated election judges, and stole votes.

Ben Lewis won. But the story doesn’t end there.

Arthur Hamilton went on to have a distinguished career as a judge—he died in 2010.

As for Lewis? In 1963, police found him shot dead in his ward office on Roosevelt Road. He’d been handcuffed to his desk—cigarette burns on his arm—with three bullets to the back of his head.

Clearly, Lewis had done something to get someone very upset. Was it the mob, rival politicians— or both? Back then those two categories were hardly mutually exclusive on the west side. No one was ever arrested for his murder, and the killing of Alderman Ben Lewis remains one of Chicago’s most enduring mysteries.

Over the years Barnett played a role in many great political triumphs. He helped unseat Edward Hanrahan, the notorious state’s attorney who supervised the police raid that killed Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Barnett helped Congressman Ralph Metcalfe win reelection, overcoming opposition from the elder Mayor Daley, who had tried to punish Metcalfe for speaking out against police brutality.

And, of course, he helped Harold Washington win election in 1983 as Chicago’s first Black mayor.

But more often than not, Barnett was on the losing side of an election—as in the Hamilton/Lewis aldermanic campaign.

That’s how it goes when you’re running against the machine. You can’t cry too much over a loss—as soon as one fight’s over, another’s starting up. Another lesson I learned from Richard Barnett.

Over the years, I’ve ranted and railed against the political miscreants in Chicago—the bully mayors, the cowardly aldermen, the sheeplike voters.

But there are also a lot of good people in this city like Richard Barnett. He was tough enough to fight the machine but nice enough to teach a rookie reporter what’s really going on in Chicago.  v