There were times, Harold Washington admitted to friends, when he wished he had remained a congressman. He had put his 60-year-old body through a grueling around-the-clock campaign for a job no sane human being would want. The Council Wars didn’t surprise him, as they did many of his supporters. What else would you expect, he asked, “when you grab the tiger by the tail?” It was the 40,000-employee bureaucracy that seemed overwhelming. “We were like the Sandinistas, rolling into town one day and running the government the next,” said one top Washington aide.
The day of his inauguration, riding a limousine to Navy Pier, Washington had reminded his friend Mary Ella Smith of the old joke about the first black pilot. Hired after months of protests and enraged speeches, he sat himself in the cockpit on his first day of work and asked over the plane’s loudspeaker system, “Does anybody know how to get this mother off the ground?”
The dead weight of City Hall was oppressive. The departments that suffered the worst neglect seemed those that black Chicago relied upon disproportionately–the Chicago Housing Authority, a public school system whose student body was 80 percent nonwhite, and the Department of Public Health. The city’s web of health clinics had been devised not through the rational planning of public policy professionals but through the importunings of ward committeemen who leaned on City Hall for clinics to placate protesters in their neighborhoods. The high-rise public-housing monstrosities should never have been built, but they were and now housed nearly 5 percent of the city.
Middle management posed a great challenge. City Hall was a collection of administrators promoted for their political performance in the wards rather than their accomplishments in the workplace. A HUD report on the CHA said that the “vast majority of staff show no professional quality and are incapable of implementing the changes needed to turn the CHA around.” HUD deemed only “four or five of the CHA’s 19 project managers” competent. Washington would place top policy people above them, but middle management was not easily fired, especially given the Shakman decree (a court order forbidding the city to fire anyone for political or policy reasons, except for those on the top rungs of government).
Milt Rakove, in his book Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers, told of a man whom Democratic committeeman Bernard Neistein had sponsored for a city job. A department head phoned Neistein to complain that the man could barely read or write. “Put him to work, I need him,” Neistein supposely answered. Yet the department head told Rakove that Neistein wasn’t so bad. “Bernie Neistein is reasonable. If he sends you five guys to put to work, only two are illiterate. But Matt Bieszczat sends you five illiterates and wants you to take them all!”
Exiting mayor Jane Byrne was little help. Washington anticipated hours sifting through extensive files that would unlock secrets to the labyrinth that was City Hall. His first day on the job, he told one writer, he searched through Byrne’s desk and looked into filing cabinets, yet just about all he found was a single paper clip. “I sat there and laughed for ten minutes,” Washington said. “There was nothing there, no personnel files, nothing.”
Most of Byrne’s aides proved equally useless. Many ignored the Washington transition team’s requests for a bit of their time. Of those willing to grant an interview, most offered clipped, minimal answers that sounded like testimony from a hostile witness. There were printed reports–unsubstantiated–of massive shredding parties in the last days of the Byrne administration.
Other hindrances were nonmalicious but no less confounding. When Rob Mier, whom Washington appointed to take over the Department of Economic Development, reviewed the personnel file on each employee in his department, he didn’t find out much. Employees with 20 or 30 years’ experience had next to nothing in their files, Mier said. There were no progress reports or evaluations, usually nothing more than a single letter–a recommendation from the political sponsor who had secured the job in the first place.
From the start, Washington took great pains to project himself as the mayor of all Chicago. Though whites constituted barely 10 percent of his winning coalition, the majority of those Washington named to his transition team were white. His inauguration aimed at projecting a multiracial appeal. One reporter overheard this caution about the band playing at that night’s party: “I don’t want Latinos who look white, Morris. Understand?” Grayson Mitchell, Washington’s press secretary, tallied the mayor’s appearances in the white community to guard against charges that he would slight white Chicago because of resentments over the election.
Washington took care to assemble an administration that more closely mirrored the city’s racial makeup. After his first year in office, the races of those named to top policy positions and to the various boards and commissions reflected the city nearly exactly: 43 percent of Washington’s appointees were black and 37 percent white. Sixteen percent of Washington’s appointees were Latino in a city estimated to be 14 to 18 percent Latino. He would be fairer than fair, Washington liked to say: “No one, but no one, in this city will be safe from my fairness.”
Some whites, even those who were part of his government, were uncomfortable with Washington’s preoccupation with race. He insisted that certain positions, such as police chief, should be filled by someone black. Years of police brutality against blacks and court rulings declaring the force guilty of racial discrimination had convinced him of that. There were many more white department heads under Washington than black department heads under previous mayors (they included the city’s budget director, its chief lobbyist, and the mayor’s chief economic adviser). Yet Washington by design named someone black to serve as those departments’ second in command, as a check on the potential for a white appointee’s racial blind spots. He was not color-blind as white liberals would have it, he would say, because the world itself was not color-blind.
Washington could get petty in his treatment of white constituents, such as the time he held up the money for a soccer field in Ed Vrdolyak’s Tenth Ward for no reason except leverage against a foe. Yet five of the six wards receiving over $1.5 million in the administration’s first community development spending plan were represented by aldermen aligned with Vrdolyak against him. The state suggested that Calumet, a depressed community in Vrdolyak’s ward, be designated an enterprise zone. And rather than put his clout behind Lawndale, a black community that several community activists were pushing as an alternative site, Washington stuck by Calumet, which he believed better prepared for the potential investments.
Grayson Mitchell was always tinkering to improve the image Washington projected to white Chicago. One time at home watching the television news he noticed that Washington was always surrounded by burly black bodyguards; the next day he ordered more white bodyguards added to Washington’s security detail. When Mitchell’s polling revealed that whites perceived Washington as hostile and threatening–largely because of the harsh, scolding look on Washington’s face whenever the subject was Council Wars, Mitchell thought–he pestered Washington about smiling more often.
Washington also muted parts of his persona. A year into Washington’s tenure, Joe Gardner, the head of his political operations, noticed Washington “talking less in a folksy vernacular and more in a more formal style.” Increasingly he spoke in a style he had in the past reserved for talks before downtown civic groups. “A single misplaced ‘right on,'” Gardner said, “and he would lose the 55-year-old white lady living in West Rogers Park.” The Washington who mixed street and soul with the intellectual was gone, or at least restrained.
Yet it would never be enough, not even for many whites who were part of his own coalition. In the early days of Washington’s tenure, several advisers, frustrated that they were getting nowhere with the mayor, leaked to the press that they were lobbying Washington to name someone white as police chief so as to quell white fears. It struck Washington as something between funny and sad. Wasn’t it always that way–that blacks are expected to shoulder the blame for white fears? Never mind the police brutality and the federal rulings: it was up to him to assuage the city’s whites, as if he were somehow responsible for the hate mobs and vile comments that marred the 1983 election.
Harold Washington, Mike Royko wrote, understands white people far better than whites understand black people if for no other reason than his being a black man operating within a predominantly white world. Yet, for all Washington was intent on an administration that reflected the racial makeup of Chicago, he had much work to do tending to his own personal feelings about race.
The bitter 1983 election had a lingering impact on Washington, especially early on. The phone calls he made after his win were one example. Washington was more likely, one top aide said, to return personally the calls of black politicians offering their congratulations than those of whites. “Harold was quick to think back then that all Polish people were against him because of the election,” this aide said. He brought Polish people into his administration–former legislator Mike Holewinski ranked among the top half-dozen people in the bureaucracy–yet he was not unlike the white person who looks on certain blacks as exceptions rather than the rule.
Just as white Chicago’s comfort level with Washington had to be tended to, so, too, did Washington’s own comfort level with whites. Among those to whom he turned to sort out his feelings was Kit Duffy, a chubby-faced Irish woman with strawberry blond hair whom he had known since the 1960s. He pumped her for information as basic as it was silly. How could one tell if someone was Irish? he asked her. If the name doesn’t provide a clue, what then does one look for? What do you mean that someone looks Irish? “It was like,” Duffy said, “‘Explain Irish people to me.'”
Jean Mayer, a white woman who lived on the southwest side, was singularly unimpressed with Washington. The picture of Washington she held in her head was of him standing before a black audience thundering about the injustices of white Chicago. “We black people,” Washington would say–and Mayer would cringe. This mayor for all Chicago, Mayer thought, seemed to believe it was only the black community that had suffered over the years.
Mayer grew up on the south side, in Auburn Park, a neighborhood she later in life spoke of with something between bitterness and outrage. As a little girl she spent afternoons at one of the two movie palaces at the corner of 79th Street and Halsted. She remembered one theater had a pond with swans in the lobby; in the marble bathroom she pretended she was a queen in her castle. One is now boarded up, an empty hulk; the other also closed its doors as a theater long ago. It is with a “terrible sense of outrage” that she visits her old neighborhood. Where once it was an ideal place to grow up, it is now an all-black slum that is no one’s idea of a dream world.
Mayer never intended to become a political crusader, but in the mid-1970s she was asked to help fight the blockbusting she saw destroy communities like her own. She signed up with an antisolicitation drive based in the local church. Going door-to-door she heard the horror stories: of mothers who would not let their children walk home from school without an escort, of elderly white women who felt like prisoners in homes they could not afford to sell. She never stopped organizing, and by the late 1970s she was director of the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation. We have our own hurts, Mayer tried to impress on journalists coming to her as a representative of the city’s white ethnic voter.
Mayer considers herself far more liberal on racial issues than many of her neighbors. She recognizes that blame for the decline of a neighborhood that quickly changes from white to black rests as much with unscrupulous real estate agents and ill-conceived government policies as with the black neighbors moving in. Yet that knowledge does not lessen her compassion for fearful neighbors who have lived through such changes. She understood the panicky feeling of her neighbors when the city was on the verge of electing its first black mayor. To Mayer’s mind there was cause for worry. “I remember the night of the [general] election,” Mayer said. “There was a group of real estate agents down at a bar on 63rd Street handing out their cards. ‘Here, you’ll need this,’ they told people.”
Washington spoke before her community group during the campaign. Mayer respected his courage but walked away outraged by his message. He dismissed the scattered-site housing issue even as he mentioned it. A judge had already ruled that public housing must be built in white neighborhoods, Washington said, and as mayor he was bound to follow the court’s wishes. His next comment left Mayer cold. What was the big deal anyway, he lectured them, about the 15 units the CHA had slated for the southwest side? The city is rife with crime and drugs and poverty, he said, and your big issue is two modest-sized apartment buildings. Mayer just about lost it.
The day of Washington’s inauguration, representatives of Mayer’s organization and others like it stood outside the gate to Navy Pier, where Washington gave his speech that day. They had asked his aides to have him stop there to light their “candle of understanding,” but the limousine carrying Washington just sped by them.
To Mayer that was symbolic of Washington’s indifference to her concerns and her neighbors’. Washington was “playing racial politics with the police department,” Mayer’s group charged, and later, in a fund-raising letter, she wrote, “Mayor Washington is running City Hall with a vengeance. Either we build a more powerful organization with which to confront this administration or we decide it’s not worth it and leave the city.”
A new organization was born six months into Washington’s tenure, linking Mayer’s group with its northwest-side counterpart. Save Our Neighborhoods, Save Our City Coalition (SON-SOCC), the group called itself. “Blacks and Latinos have set their agendas,” Mayer said at its inaugural press conference. “It’s time white ethnics did the same.” The organization’s new name seemed in poor taste, echoing Vrdolyak’s “it’s a racial thing” cry of the primary election. “Save your city . . . save your precinct,” Vrdolyak had asked the assembled precinct captains.
At around the time SON-SOCC presented itself to Chicago, the Chicago Reporter ran an article exploring white ethnic Chicago’s view of Washington. The monthly found that the hostility toward Washington was still palpable; the mere mention of Washington’s name still drew boos among white ethnic audiences. Yet in interviews with dozens of northwest and southwest siders, the Reporter found that most could not cite any specific instances of neglect. Aside from Washington’s failure to light the candle of understanding, the Reporter couldn’t offer much in the way of criticism. Still, a poll taken just prior to SON-SOCC’s formation revealed that three of every four people living on the southwest or northwest side agreed with the statement that Washington was “out to get them.” Three-quarters were also convinced Washington would sock them with high tax increases to pay for public housing, the public schools, public transportation, and other services they didn’t necessarily even use.
“These are extraordinarily trying and dangerous times for Chicago,” began SON-SOCC’s “Declaration of Neighborhood Independence.” “A distressing politics of needless conflict and mindless vengeance has become the order of the day. Responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs rests with the current Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington.”
SON-SOCC would learn to live with the mayor, just as he learned to live with them. Jean Mayer observed that Washington treated her community group, the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation, with greater respect than previous mayors, especially Jane Byrne. Certainly under Washington her group had greater access than ever before. The issue dearest to SON-SOCC leaders was their home equity proposal. Every property owner would pay a small annual fee to provide insurance against property loss should a neighborhood change racially. When Washington announced his support of home equity, SON-SOCC leaders were thrilled.
Not that Mayer would campaign for Washington in 1987. Nor would many SON-SOCC members actually vote for him. He would get only one in 20 votes from these once-loyal Democrats of the southwest and northwest sides. SON-SOCC could move only so far from the perspective expressed in its ‘declaration’ of 1983:
“Behind the well-crafted public veneer of the Mayor as Charmer, Healer, and Reformer, there thrives a cynical political opportunist, ready to exploit every racial fear and antagonism without regard to their dire consequences.”
Lu Palmer, a key organizer behind Washington’s election, couldn’t say he was any happier with his racial balancing act than Jean Mayer. Why is it, Palmer asked ruefully, that the city’s first black mayor went around town claiming to be “fairer than fair.” What had white Chicago done to merit fair treatment?
Palmer dreamed of what Washington’s election might mean for organizations like his own, Chicago Black United Communities: some community development funds for a staff person or two, or maybe funding from Washington’s political funds. If nothing else, Palmer was counting on City Hall’s lending his group credibility. Yet a few weeks after the campaign Washington sent a letter urging his supporters to join the Independent Voters of Illinois–a predominantly white group scorned by the black grass roots. It was as if impressing the white liberals was more important than fostering the growth of a black independent political movement.
Palmer confessed some of his ill will toward Washington was borne of his bad feelings after Washington endorsed someone else in the special congressional race held to fill the seat he had just vacated. Palmer declared himself a candidate after thinking about all he could do for black Chicago with a staff and something like a half-million-dollar budget. He had made extraordinary sacrifices on Washington’s behalf, spending his own money though he was perpetually poor, logging hours a man his age should no longer work, yet he would have been happy if Washington had endorsed no one in the race. Washington endorsed longtime labor organizer Charles Hayes. A poll appearing in the Metro News showed Palmer with a big lead until Washington’s endorsement.
The congressional race influenced his feelings, Palmer said, but did not precipitate them. Palmer claimed he was braced for disappointment even before Washington won the general election. The transition team, which better represented the north lakefront than the black grass roots, provided one epiphany, while Washington’s failure to offer so much as a word of thanks, either publicly or privately, for his efforts in electing him provided another. Washington invited more than a hundred people to watch the returns with him in a VIP suite the night of the general election, yet neither Palmer nor his wife Jorja, who had worked on and off with Washington since the 1960s, was invited. It wasn’t just him and his wife, either, he said. Others who helped Washington get elected now could not get him to return a phone call.
The first months of Washington’s tenure only confirmed Palmer’s worst fears. He and his associates spoke of the “Hyde Park Jewish contingency” Washington brought into government. To him, “the Hyde Park Jews had Harold wrapped up when it should’ve been the black community that had him wrapped up.”
About six months into Washington’s tenure Palmer finally won an audience with the man. Palmer immediately started in: “Why did you go to such great lengths to defeat me for Congress?” The way Palmer told the story, Washington exploded. Palmer had seen glimpses of Washington’s temper but never like he did on that day. “I mean, he got nasty,” Palmer said. There was lots of cursing both ways. “Politics is a cold, hard, dirty game, and if you don’t want to play it, get the fuck out,” Palmer quoted Washington as saying. He was inclined to believe the psychiatrist friend who suggested that Washington treated him coldly because humans tend to resent those to whom they feel beholden.
Yet for all Palmer’s complaints the administration Washington put together was unlike any Chicago had known. The infusion of black talent into City Hall was one overt difference. Suddenly blacks held positions of power. The city’s top lawyer was black, and so was Washington’s chief of staff and his press secretary.
One glaring oversight was a paucity of Latinos, but the presence of even a few in positions of power put Washington above previous mayors. It was also a slight that Washington would address with time. Another quick-glance difference was the increased presence of women in management positions. Women inside the mayor’s office complained of the sexism of a 60-year-old man who was constantly flirting with his female aides, telling them they looked sexy in a particular dress, or commenting on their backside after they left the office. But by 1987, when Washington would run for reelection, just under 40 percent of the city’s commissioners and deputy commissioners were women. The city’s two top financial officers were black women.
The changes embraced more than the race or sex of his appointees. Washington hired people who were never before welcome on the premises, let alone offered positions at City Hall. These were people excluded from power not only in Chicago but in just about any government in the country. The corporation counsel was James Montgomery, a civil rights lawyer renowned for his role as the lead trial attorney in the $1.9 million judgment against Chicago and Cook County for the 1969 raid that left Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead. A legal aid attorney, Marilyn Johnson, headed the corporation counsel’s housing prosecution division; another top lawyer, Matt Piers, was active in the National Lawyers Guild. This lawyer’s most celebrated case was a suit against the police department’s so-called red squad, which monitored community groups that the machine identified as “subversive.” Now, among his other duties, he would defend the police department he had previously sued. In an interview, Quentin Young, Washington’s choice for president of the Board of Health, referred to a favorite political cartoon from the Daily Worker to make a point.
At best the machine had ignored community groups that didn’t play by its rules; as the red squad suit showed, it often employed Chicago’s police department to disrupt or destroy them. In contrast, Joe Gardner, the director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, was a community organizer who’d worked for one of the groups the red squad infiltrated. Jane Byrne broke with Chicago tradition, at least for a blink of the eye, when she appointed ex-cop Renault Robinson, who’d successfully sued the police department, to the board that monitors the CHA. Washington named Robinson to head the agency.
One former girlfriend said her most vivid memory of Washington was the two of them out at a restaurant, Washington’s eyes afire as he excitedly told of some parliamentary trick he had used to outsmart a foe in the General Assembly. It was his love of the game that struck her. Back when the two were dating, he woke up each day to WBBM, the all-news radio station; in the car he listened only to the news. There were always political meetings to attend and never time for a vacation. “That was his life,” she said. “Politics.”
There was the Washington who didn’t bother balancing his checkbook and never had time to do his laundry, yet there was another Washington who, engaged by a political contest, found no detail of the battle too small. He could consider a political decision from 20 different angles. He was always that way, said those who knew him back in his Springfield days, when he studied his fellow legislators with the discipline of Ted Williams sizing up a rival pitcher. Several times his friend Charles Freeman noticed elaborate charts on Washington’s desk–Freeman called them “personality charts”–that Washington used to plot ways of gaining a recalcitrant legislator’s support on a bill he was championing.
Those who saw the hours Washington kept were furious with media characterizations of him as a mayor only half-committed to his job. He routinely called aides after midnight or received calls from them at that hour; aides were confident they could call Washington as early as 7 AM without fear of waking him. Usually he didn’t arrive home until after 11 PM, after jamming several events into a single evening. Grayson Mitchell remembers in his first year on the job his boss phoning him on Christmas Eve. “Can you stop by my place for a while?” Washington asked. When Mitchell said he was busy assembling new toys for his children, Washington seemed embarrassed. Mitchell hung up thinking Washington hadn’t even realized what day it was. “For Harold, politics was his universe,” Mitchell said, “and things that occurred outside that universe didn’t seem to concern him much.”
Yet in press accounts, Washington complained, it was “the mayor’s five minutes late” or “the mayor didn’t show up at some hot dog fest.” Washington complained to his second press secretary, Al Miller, of a media double standard. Where Mayor Daley had made it a point to get home each night so he could eat with his family, rarely did Washington treat himself to a sit-down dinner. The evening meal for him was usually some food gobbled down because he was running late for an appointment. Yet somehow the prevailing impression was that Washington was lazy and remiss in his duties.
“Though not publicly confirmed by either Vrdolyak or Washington,” one Tribune reporter wrote, “the story is reliably told about a meeting Washington requested with his archfoe in the mayor’s Hyde Park apartment at 9 A.M. one Sunday morning. Vrdolyak appeared on time, but despite persistent knocking on the door could rouse no one inside. Finally, just as Vrdolyak was about to leave, Washington appeared at the door sleepy-eyed and dressed in a bathrobe. He had forgotten about the meeting he had asked for.”
There could be no doubt about the source of the story, and no doubting its inaccuracy. Upon the arrival of Ed Vrdolyak or any other guest at Washington’s apartment building, the desk monitor on duty in the foyer or the police guard sitting in a squad car out front would have called the “command post” in the apartment across from Washington’s. If Washington was in fact still asleep, one of his bodyguards would have been there to meet Vrdolyak long before he arrived at Washington’s door. Even if Vrdolyak had somehow managed to slip in undetected, one of the bodyguards would have heard Vrdolyak’s “persistent knocking.” Still, one was always hearing about the shiftless and lazy Washington not up to the task of being mayor.
Washington worked from the early morning until well past midnight for weeks on end. Yet abruptly he would ditch his entire schedule.
A great deal of planning went into the city-sponsored black-tie dinner in 1984 honoring Ray Meyer after 42 years as basketball coach at DePaul. “An excellent opportunity to have a nice lovefest with the city’s Roman Catholic population,” Grayson Mitchell said. “An opportunity to get in touch with the city’s Irish.” The engraved invitations proclaimed Washington the evening’s host.
An hour before the dinner, Mitchell phoned the mayor at home. Mitchell and Bill Ware, Washington’s chief of staff, had gotten into the habit of doing so, especially on weekends. “We’d wrestle with him to make sure he got there on time,” Mitchell said. When on this evening Washington fumbled around about being ready, Mitchell grew worried. He called one of Washington’s bodyguards, and this made him even more concerned; despite the Meyer dinner, Washington had said he wasn’t going anywhere that night.
Mitchell called Washington right back, but Washington didn’t answer the phone. He phoned about ten more times before Washington finally picked up. “Fuck it, I’m not going,” Washington said. Mitchell reminded him that there would be hell to pay. He didn’t need to explain for Washington that they were constantly fighting the perception that he was a good-for-nothing and forever late. “Fuck it,” Washington repeated. “Who’s mayor, anyway?”
Mitchell rushed over to Washington’s apartment thinking he’d personally escort Washington to the dinner, but Washington was already gone. The dignitaries there that night included the governor, Cardinal Bernardin, and several congressmen. But not Washington, who left no word where he was going.
For the next two days neither Mitchell nor Ware had any idea how to reach Washington. When Washington finally called, Ware asked him, “Where the fuck are you?”
“I’m riding around, looking over my city.” That’s what Ware told Mitchell that Washington said. Ware was livid. He was like the parent who is worried sick–until the child finally arrives, and then is utterly furious.
Mitchell fretted over the potential press fallout. What if a reporter learns Washington checked out for a couple of days? Mitchell remembered hearing once that when Daley was off in Michigan at his summer home, his limousine would drive to City Hall anyway, park in its usual spot, and then feign driving the mayor back home sometime in the evening. In the future, whenever Washington disappeared, Mitchell would automatically instruct Washington’s driver to do as Daley’s had done.
Washington’s first acts in office were aimed at the wary lakefront voter. He signed an executive order creating a freedom of information act and cut his salary by 20 percent. He mothballed the city’s limousine, choosing instead to use an Oldsmobile 98. He laid off 700 employees in his first year alone–the first mayor in memory to do so–and refused to cut a deal with Vrdolyak, though it would buy him peace. Washington might as well have been reading from a lakefront independent’s manifesto when he promised to professionalize government, computerize city departments now using paper accounting methods, and open up the budget process by holding hearings around the city. His predecessors raised tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from individual city contractors, yet Washington announced a self-imposed $1,500 cap on campaign contributions from companies doing business with the city.
Washington made good on another promise to the lakefront when he signed the Shakman decree, which, on paper at least, outlawed patronage hiring and firing. Given black unemployment, this was no small act by the city’s first black mayor. Reporters had scoffed during the 1983 election whenever Washington promised to sign Shakman. “Quite candidly,” federal judge Nicholas Bua said, “I never expected a settlement in this case.” “Historic,” Bua said.
Alderman Marty Oberman had been pushing these issues since he was first elected to the council in 1975, with virtually no success. It could be said that Washington accomplished more in his first three months in office than Oberman did over his entire career as an alderman. Oberman, however, did not embrace Washington; instead, Oberman, who represented the lakefront’s 43rd Ward, claimed the council split was not 29-21, as everyone believed, but “29-20-and-1.” In his stock speech back then, Oberman said he was part of no one’s camp.
The hangup for Oberman was Wilson Frost. When Washington told Oberman that Frost would be his floor leader, Oberman’s jaw about dropped. When Washington called Oberman into his office shortly after his victory, Oberman had half-expected Washington to ask him to be his floor leader. He was the dean of the council independents; Frost was someone the lakefront independents and black reformers alike dismissed as a machine hack.
For Oberman it was like an instant insight into Washington. He could conceive of no reason other than race behind Washington’s choice of Frost. What about merit and competency? Several months into Council Wars, Oberman appeared before Washington partisans in his ward. Confronted by their hostile questions, Oberman grew indignant. He had been a part of the antimachine movement long before Washington, Oberman said. “Who is Harold Washington to define what is reform and what isn’t?” he asked them.
Still, Oberman was among the more intrepid liberals. Despite his 29-20-1 claim, he voted with the Washington bloc on virtually every issue. In contrast, state senator Dawn Clark Netsch was noncommittal. Like Oberman, she’d supported Richie Daley in the ’83 primary. Now she openly sided with neither City Council faction, instead choosing to dismiss the entire affair as disturbingly untidy and rancorous.
Washington knew even before he won the 1983 general election that he wanted Bill Ware, his chief of staff as congressman, to head up the bureaucracy. Yet convincing Ware was no easy task. Disgusted by Chicago’s brand of politics, Ware had moved to Washington, D.C., years earlier. He had no intention of coming back. But Washington challenged that side of Ware that would embrace, like a missionary sent to Sodom, the ultimate challenge of reforming Chicago’s City Hall.
Washington saw Ware as the perfect candidate for getting hold of government. Ware was obsessed with details and autocratic in pursuit of his aims. He was incredulous, Ware said in one interview, that the city didn’t know the number of light posts within its borders. So someone was hired to count the light posts. He was straitlaced and humorless, a man steeped in corporate culture and well versed in memo-speak: where everyone around him referred to Washington as “Harold” (at least when the mayor was out of earshot), Ware alone called him “H.W.”
Washington would be responsible for politics, and Ware was entrusted to handle government. Yet while the division of labor made some sense on paper, government and politics were a married pair. Ware often made policy decisions with profound political ramifications without thinking of clearing them with Washington. Ware may have been the perfect chief of staff for a U.S. congressman, but he was out of his element in City Hall. He was the type for getting caught up in the rhapsody of a good idea, missing entirely its impracticality. He did not believe in shortcuts, only proper channels. This man in a highly political job in the most political of cities found politics dirty, the antithesis of reform.
It was an oversimplification, but inside City Hall the word on Ware was that he was not apolitical but antipolitics. To him, politics intruded on the serious task of professionalizing government.
Ware embodied all that was good and noble about the lakefront reformer but his shortcomings were also characteristic of the breed. On no issue was this any clearer than the yearly fight over the city budget.
By most measures, Washington’s first two budgets should have won him converts around the city. He proposed 2,000 layoffs in his first two years. Where in the past the city budget wasn’t released until the last moment allowed by state law, and then passed with barely any debate, the Washington administration released its budgets at least a month early and organized hearings around the city. The rigorous timetables of Ware’s long-range planning forecasts and his proposed efficiency measures mostly met with complimentary editorials. Yet incredibly, Washington ended up losing his first two budgets where it counted most–in the court of public opinion. His second budget, hammered out in the fall of 1984, must have proven particularly frustrating.
The trouble began when Ware discovered that Chicago’s police-to-citizen ratio was about the highest in the U.S., at least among big cities. Where in Chicago there were 4.0 cops for every 1,000 people, New York City provided 3.4 per thousand and Los Angeles 2.3. According to a second study, 911 calls had dropped 15 percent in the previous five years. Candidate Washington had promised to beef up the police force, but Ware saw a department ripe for cutting. Washington learned only after it was too late that the new budget included a proposal to allow 500 officers to retire without replacements.
A trial balloon floated through a leak could have saved Washington the hail of criticism that followed–except that Ware did not believe public opinion was a legitimate criterion for judging the merits of a policy decision.
Others inside the administration were amazed. Hadn’t Ware seen the hate literature in 1983, declaring Washington unconcerned about crime? Police protection has always been a matter of public perception, and tops on people’s minds, at least among whites, was the fear that Washington would be soft on crime. Not long after the budget hearings ended, a petition drive was started to recall Washington. Dips in the police force were not entirely novel; for instance, the number of officers fell by 900 in Byrne’s first two years. Byrne, however, was never accused of “jeopardizing the safety of many neighborhoods,” as the petition accused Washington of doing.
Later that same year, Ware compounded Washington’s PR problems a couple of weeks before Christmas when he ordered the creche removed from the City Hall lobby. Ware cited complaints from religious groups and spoke of a recent Supreme Court ruling barring cities from underwriting the cost of overtly religious scenes. Ware was on the right side legally, and maybe morally, but the decision placed the administration on the wrong side politically.
Maybe Washington made a bad call, but Ware, ever the loyal soldier, took the bullet. Yet the point was moot, for Washington took the media blows that followed. “The grinch who stole Christmas,” Ed Burke said of Washington.
“Bottleneck Bill,” Ware was dubbed–in part because his boss believed all parties should be heard from on politically sensitive issues, but also because Ware was cautious and controlling. A routine matter could remain on his desk for weeks as he pondered again and again its every facet. The consummate bureaucrat, Ware ran the bureaucracy scared. One associate, hardly more than an acquaintance, recalls Ware calling her out of the blue to bare his soul after firing a holdover from the Byrne administration. He was unsure, insecure. Did he do the right thing? he wanted to know.
In 1984, Washington told Ware and Jim Montgomery to develop an affirmative action plan for minority and women contractors. Washington placed Ware in charge of the project, yet Montgomery made sure it didn’t die a slow death in a file on Ware’s desk. “Every time we went to Bill to talk about it,” Montgomery said, “he put us off.”
A city audit had revealed that in 1982, Byrne’s last full year as mayor, 94 percent of the dollars let through city contracts were in the hands of white male businessmen. The numbers in Washington’s first year were hardly better. An aggressive affirmative action policy, Montgomery argued, was both justified and a valuable offering to the black businessmen who would underwrite the 1987 election. Don’t be afraid to help your allies, Montgomery would say: “Be fair and play favorites.” Government, he argued, should be an engine of change: in a country where 11 percent of the population was black, only 3 percent of the businesses were black-owned. Montgomery sought specific goals for both minority-owned enterprises (MBEs in the bureaucracy’s shorthand) and those owned by women (WBEs).
Yet Ware was worried. The legal ramifications were one concern; the impact on Washington’s reputation another. How would it look if this self-proclaimed reform administration was sued for reverse discrimination? What about charges of impropriety? Ware preached caution. We should encourage department heads to seek out qualified MBEs and WBEs, but not commit to any numbers–just what a white liberal administration might offer.
Top aides met after hours to plot around Ware. They wrote a speech for Washington, leaving blanks where they intended to insert specific goals. Montgomery and a few others approached Washington and suggested 25 percent for minority contractors and 5 percent for women. Washington said that sounded fine.
Ware was sitting in the audience on the night in spring of 1984 when Washington delivered the speech before a group of white businessmen. Ware, it was said, just about fell out of his seat. Montgomery, for one, learned a lesson about how things are accomplished in the bureaucracy.
Few areas in city government were as lucrative as bond counsel work. A bond lawyer’s fees were calculated as a percentage of the total amount of the deal; a $100 million bond transaction, for instance, gained a firm between $50,000 and $300,000 in legal fees for relatively routine work. The bond world had been closed to black lawyers in Chicago. For Jim Montgomery, control of City Hall meant rectifying that.
A lawyer who worked with him has described Montgomery as “the lawyer you want if you’re guilty.” He was sharp, quick, and savvy, a formidable foe in any setting. He was an accomplished defense lawyer who could use a velvet touch or scrap in the mud. The day after the creche was removed from City Hall, Montgomery approached Ware: Why not tell reporters a work order had gone out by mistake? “But Bill says, ‘No, I am on civil libertarian grounds, this is a matter of principle,'” Montgomery said, speaking Ware’s part in a loud and noble voice meant to mock his associate’s moral stance. When the press was all over him for hiring a messenger convicted several times for armed robbery, Montgomery fibbed. In private meetings, Montgomery readily confessed he knew the man had a criminal background; before reporters, he denied knowledge of the man’s past.
Montgomery notified the city’s established bond lawyers: if you want future work with the city, you’ll choose a new counsel from a short list of black attorneys I’ve established. The city would not pick up the extra cost of taking on a black partner. Instead, the bidding firm would absorb the extra cost itself as a kind of affirmative action tax. “I informed them,” Montgomery said, “that should they not like these conditions, they could feel free not to bid on any new work with the city.”
Montgomery proved no more patient about integrating the city’s court reporting duties, for decades an Irish bastion. In early 1984, Montgomery switched the bulk of the city’s court reporting business to a “new” firm operated by Joseph Bertrand, a black bank executive and also a former city treasurer under Daley. Bertrand had no experience in the court reporting field; he had merely joined forces with the white-run operation that had handled the city’s court reporting for years, starting a new company for the express purpose of landing a contract with the corporation counsel. Washington’s lakefront allies were furious, though none more than Bill Ware.
Marty Oberman was out of town when he learned of the Bertrand deal but he phoned Washington. He called more concerned, he said, than angry. No other company was invited to submit a bid; the deal was just announced one day, with no pretense that the process was heeded. Oberman laid out a solution for Washington over the phone. Cancel the contract. Don’t necessarily rebuke Montgomery publicly, but at least leak word of your displeasure to the gossip columnists. He reminded Washington that the bidding process was sacrosanct to those pushing for reform.
Washington was unhappy with the Bertrand deal–a couple of people remembered him angry over it–but Washington didn’t get into it with Oberman. He mumbled his thanks, suggested he talk with Montgomery, and hung up. Oberman called Montgomery to express his disappointment but all he got was a lecture about how the Irish ran everything in Chicago. Why, Montgomery asked, did he have to apologize for giving the court-reporting business to a black man when an Irishman had profited all these years?
Oberman worried that a reporter would press him for a comment on the Bertrand contract. What would he say? What could he say? He didn’t want to aid Vrdolyak by ripping Washington publicly. He could envision it: “Dean of Council Independents Blasts Washington Administration.” But he had his integrity to maintain.
Affirmative action was something he could live with, but Oberman felt the process was above all else. Fairness was the administration’s watchword–Washington loyalists literally wore the word pinned to their clothes. Yet Oberman looked on the Bertrand deal as anything but fair. If confronted by a reporter, he could explain that the Washington administration was something like 10 or 20 percent the old way and 80 percent a break with the past. But that would get swallowed up in the coverage. One bad deal, Oberman said, could wipe out a year’s worth of good deeds. “The problem with Harold,” Oberman later confided, “is that he gave us too much to apologize for.”
It wasn’t just the Bertrand deal, either. Montgomery’s dealings with the established bond counsels also troubled Oberman. There were the hardball tactics Montgomery employed, and the fact that the corporation counsel authorized only four black lawyers to serve as potential co-counsels. Richard Newhouse and Carol Moseley Braun, state legislators firmly allied with Washington, were two of the names on Montgomery’s list of four. Another was an attorney who in the past shared office space with Montgomery. “I was appalled,” Oberman said. “Jim Montgomery is a civil rights leader. What did he think the civil rights movement was about all these years?”
Montgomery was valued inside the administration as a pragmatist, a man of action in an administration weighed down by procrastination, cautiousness, and fear. He fought to win–which is unworthy of note, perhaps, except so many inside the administration fought the good fight even when certain to lose. Montgomery also proved one of the more effective progressive forces inside the administration. His political counsel, by most accounts, was about the best advice Washington was hearing. Yet Oberman was not impressed. To him, Ware, not Montgomery, represented all that should be respected and emulated in the Washington administration.
Oberman was also upset with Montgomery’s boss. Why didn’t Washington fire him? It wasn’t just Montgomery, either, nor the actions of other Washington appointees. There was the deal Washington worked out with Vrdolyak late in 1983 to buy himself some peace. Washington proposed increasing the council committees from 29 to 37. Twenty-nine committees was itself ridiculously high; eight new committees only meant further waste. There was already a Committee on Housing, but this new plan added a Committee on Buildings; there would be a Committee on Streets and Alleys and one on Traffic Control and Safety. Each new committee meant a staff and a budget–precisely the sort of profligate spending a self-proclaimed reform mayor should oppose. Oberman lodged his complaint but was ignored.
Oberman could only imagine how other lakefront whites viewed deals like these. It may not be fair, he said to Washington more than once, but you carry an extra burden. Most whites expect the worst. He advised a safe and cautious approach to affirmative action, especially. “You have to be like Caesar’s wife,” he explained for Washington. “You have to be above reproach.”
Yet Washington ignored this man who so much wanted to play more of a role in his administration. People who knew Washington well couldn’t imagine for a moment his entrusting political leadership to the querulous and demanding Oberman, a man the mayor saw as well-meaning but sanctimonious and righteous. “There was so much more Washington could’ve done to make his a broader-based coalition,” Oberman said. Instead, “it was like we were just there as adjuncts. Like whites were just a necessary evil.”
In 1984, Washington dumped Wilson Frost as his floor leader and replaced him with Alderman Tim Evans. To Oberman, Evans was an improvement over Frost but hardly the ideal choice. “Tim was chosen because he was the best choice in the black caucus,” Oberman said. “I was the senior member of the reform caucus.”
To Montgomery, the priority was opening City Hall to those historically locked out. Perhaps he displeased the genteel sensibilities of the reformers living along the lakefront, but wasn’t fairness as important (if not more so) than the process? The south side’s Seaway National Bank was the nation’s largest black-owned bank, yet only the 2,003rd largest overall and not even among the top hundred in Illinois. Should the city pass up its historic chance to help banks like Seaway because a few lakefront liberals worried that it would reflect poorly on Washington?
Montgomery thought he had shown restraint integrating the city’s bond business. He could have given the business directly to any one of dozens of talented black attorneys who he felt were deserving. But instead of relying on inexperienced lawyers, which might place a deal at risk, he built into the system an apprenticeship. That same philosophy was at work in the entire MBE/WBE program: established contractors were told their chances of a city contract improved if they linked themselves with minority or women subcontractors. What Oberman saw as foolishly aggressive Montgomery saw as prudent and judicial counsel. He brought about an important reform without jeopardizing city operations.
It was as if there were two distinct reform traditions in Chicago, one white and one black. “White” reform was about process and efficiency; open and honest government was its hallmark. This type of reformer was typically liberal and white but not necessarily so; a government based on a corporate model of efficiency was something conservatives could get behind, and black Chicagoans like Bill Ware were also behind this brand of reform.
“Black” reform was more expansive. This tradition equated reform with fairness; it was also more political in content. Black reformers weren’t in favor of inefficiency and corruption, of course; but their priorities were different. Government was not merely something to be run efficiently, as the Bill Wares and Marty Obermans would have it, but an engine of change. Redistributing government benefits was just as important as rooting out petty corruption. Where white reform was based in corporate culture, black reform sprang from two traditions, the civil rights movement and the black church.
There was always enough overlap between the two reform movements to link them in political battle. The city’s handling of its community development was one example. For the liberal reformer, the integrity of the process mattered most; the black reformer sought change in a program in which money earmarked for depressed communities ended up underwriting the patronage army at City Hall.
Yet the points of contradiction between the two traditions were equally significant. Cutting the city payroll was a fine idea for those living in comfort on the lakefront, but it was another matter entirely in the black community. History bore out the contradictions. Ed Kelly was a Depression-era mayor who allied himself with organized crime and ruled a political system rife with corruption; the good government reformers loathed him. But he was also a New Deal Democrat who cut blacks in for a share of the action. Martin Kennelly was the “reform” mayor who succeeded Kelly. Kennelly’s vision of government was purer than Kelly’s, certainly, but this “reformer,” one historian wrote, “ran race-baiting campaigns and destroyed a well-run, integrated CHA. His actions set the CHA on its disastrous course of concentrating poor blacks in new ghettos.”
If there was one overriding resentment among Washington partisans toward these lakefront reformers, it was that they believed theirs was the only legitimate brand of reform. The press followed them, adopting white reform as their yardstick for measuring Washington against his reform claims. When money was placed in a black-owned bank, this was viewed not as a kind of reform but as a continuation of the old politics; reform was not redistributing city business but ridding government of political influences. The Sun-Times in particular was inclined to report on Washington’s affirmative action policy as if it were scandal. Every time Alderman Ed Burke’s Finance Committee discovered the Washington administration bypassing a low bidder to award a contract to a black-owned company, an article appeared in the first few pages of the Sun-Times written in the tone the newspaper reserved for dirty deals it had unearthed.
Who’s to say which kind of reform was more important? The Department of Economic Development was shifting the city’s priorities from downtown to the neighborhoods. Was this shift in policy any less worthy a reform than those put forth by the lakefronters? These sorts of philosophical differences were rarely debated, yet they wracked the diverse and unusual coalition allied behind Washington.
The good-government liberals were never comfortable with the activists and black nationalists inside the administration–“unprofessional” was among the kinder terms by which they referred to these people who dressed in hush puppies, cheap sport coats, and polyester pants. The technocrats were inclined to agree. They were troubled by the lack of management experience among some Washington appointees. Was this the professional administration that Washington the candidate had promised? The liberals were not pleased with a development policy they perceived as hostile to business; the technocrats didn’t care, except they wondered why Washington risked alienating the business community.
Too many liberals–that’s what the activists and the nationalists said. Too many bureaucrats. Washington brought into government scores of people to the left of liberal, whose bookshelves at home were filled with works like the Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. He was bold in the face of potential red-baiting, yet that did not seem enough. Black businessmen like Al Johnson, owner of Al Johnson Cadillac-Saab, were among his top advisers: the left intellectual consequently spoke of the incursion of the black bourgeoisie in Washington’s administration.
Some, too, were angry with the presence of so many whites. When whites ran the city, they hogged the best jobs, stole community development funds, and treated their constituents to extra ward services at black Chicago’s expense. Yet Washington boasted he had “danced on the grave of patronage.” What kind of black man gets up before a black audience and boasts, Lu Palmer asked incredulously–boasts, as if his administration has cured sickle-cell anemia–that he’s cut the city payroll? Due to cutbacks, the percentage of blacks working at City Hall actually fell from 1983 to 1984. “Fuck fairness,” Palmer said: blacks deserved to be “lavished” with services after years of neglect.
The nationalists proved a tricky issue for Washington. If Washington too closely aligned himself with the black nationalists–if he brought them into his administration and named them to seats on the city’s various boards and commissions–that would hurt him among constituencies both inside and outside the black community. Yet shunning the black nationalists meant turning his back on his own 1983 victory, and perhaps alienating a critical portion of the black community that he would need in 1987. It was a no-win situation yet one he could not afford to lose: precisely the kind of racial balancing act any big-city mayor must perform.
Washington, the press reported, had in his impasse with Ed Vrdolyak the political fight of his life. But it was the balancing act to keep this diverse group together–to ensure that each element in the coalition shared, if not a stake in each other’s issues, then a stake in him–that was the true test of his political acumen.
There were also deep strains within Washington’s City Council caucus. A stranger sitting in on their sessions might think he was among bitter foes. You’re an opportunist. You’re a liar. You’re a know-nothing fool. Anything proved fair game: an embarrassing item in the papers, any piece of bad news. Alderman Marian Humes was supposedly the worst, the loudest mouth and also the nastiest.
Humes’s favorite targets were the white reformers. The white aldermen aligned with Washington looked on themselves as bold and principled, supporters of Washington despite constituents generally hostile to the mayor–and despite snide remarks by commentators such as Mike Sneed, who dismissed Oberman in one column as a “barking lap dog.” Yet they felt scorned, not appreciated, by many of their black colleagues. It was as if those black machine aldermen hostile to Washington’s reform stances blamed his posture entirely on the white lakefront aldermen. If we take this course of action, one of the white aldermen might say, it will prove unpopular on the lakefront. That would prompt Humes or any of a half-dozen other black machinists to launch into a diatribe about how little difference it made when Washington reached out to whites.
Oberman was a favorite target. So, too, were Larry Bloom and David Orr. Alderman Danny Davis, who was black, put forward arguments similar to those of the white reformers, but did not receive similar treatment. After a time, Marion Volini and Burt Natarus, the two other white aldermen in the Washington 21, stopped attending the sessions regularly. Who needed this aggravation?
At the root of these tensions were profound disagreements over what Washington’s election meant. The progressives would see it as a leftist challenge to mainstream politics; the liberals glommed onto those pieces of Washington’s message that favored government reforms; the black nationalists saw Washington’s election as a matter of the blacks usurping the Irish. The “beauty” of 1983, Bob Starks offered, was that “the very expression of being part of the Washington camp was an expression of nationalism.” Oberman considered such opinions with a plaintive sigh.
Racial tensions weighed on the administration. Personality conflicts between a black and a white were often viewed in racial terms. Blacks mocked white officials who, walking into a meeting where there were, say, five blacks sitting around a table, seemed ill at ease. It was the kind of scene a black professional deals with daily in the work world, yet the same scene in reverse seemed to give many whites the jitters. Blacks high in the administration worked out for themselves which whites were comfortable with race and which were not. Top appointees of all races were fed up with the white liberals. Washington could do 20 things for the liberal community yet it would never be enough.
At Economic Development, Rob Mier wondered if the MBE program was much more than a more equitable version of the conservatives’ trickle-down solution. At one meeting he offered as much: the city, he said, should go beyond MBE; the city should place greater emphasis on job training. Mier believed he was arguing for a more progressive solution to the problems of poverty, but it struck him, the only white in the room, that others felt he was arguing that true economic power should remain in white hands, with blacks only as the hired help. In Mier’s department, a black deputy fought with a female colleague who advocated a separate affirmative action category for women. To the deputy, white women were a privileged group no more in need of special breaks than were white men.
Under past mayors, several black contractors built prosperous businesses handling employment training for the city. When one of Ware’s internal audits found that these businesses were not producing much in the way of tangible results, the decision was made to rely more heavily on community-based organizations operating in low-income communities. The black contractors raised hell. At cocktail parties they took to calling Washington antiblack. Washington’s director of employment training was a Latina, fueling ugly rumors. “Our contracts are going to the Latinos,” it was said.
Countless similar conflicts strained the wider coalition outside City Hall. Washington named the city’s first gay and lesbian liaison, supported a controversial gay rights ordinance, and was the city’s first mayor to speak at a gay pride rally. Yet in a community where the church fuels much of the activism, more than one Washington supporter was rankled by the mayor’s outspoken support of gay rights. Issues such as gay rights and feminism exposed the deep cultural divisions between black and white activists. Gus Savage was one of the few reliable progressive votes in Congress, but his use of the term “faggots” underscored that Washington’s coalition was improbably broad.
Washington appointed a man named Paul Igasaki to serve as the city’s Asian-American liaison and give his community more of a presence in Chicago politics. Soon thereafter a local organization calling itself the Black Solidarity Movement made a point of condemning the congressional committee named to consider financial reparations for those Japanese Americans placed wholesale into internment camps during World War II. Why the Japanese, a leaflet asked, when blacks were never compensated for all they lost at the hands of slavery and Jim Crow?
It was standard fare at nationalist gatherings to criticize Washington for hiring too many Jews. There was also talk he gave Latinos more than their due. At the same time there were Latinos who believed Washington was doing less for them than for blacks, though both communities were equally in need. The journalist Nate Clay, who had played a critical role in the voter registration drive prior to Washington’s election, was a part of the multiracial coalition that met to discuss voter registration strategies for several upcoming local elections. Clay continuously used the term “illegal aliens.” At least one participant cringed every time Clay said it; in a group that included several Latino participants, the politic thing to do, if not simply the right thing, was to say “undocumented.”
Another key organizer the voter registration group had to put up with was the Reverend Al Sampson. Sometimes he would pretend not to hear anything said by someone white. A white reporter called Sampson to ask his comments on a particular issue. Sampson asked the reporter to hold and set the phone down, allowing the reporter to hear that he was chatting with a friend about nothing in particular. A couple of minutes later, he picked up the phone and stated that the white press was a racist press and that he had nothing to say. “Al’s always playing games with white folks’ heads,” said one black ally. Washington nominated Sampson to sit on the City Colleges Board of Trustees.
Too many Jews.
At first it was just talk. Operating within the milieu of City Hall, one alderman heard second-hand references to the displeasure in some quarters with the number of Jews Washington had brought into government. This alderman faithfully attended the 21’s caucus sessions, so he had heard his share of garbage about how the “Mexicans” were getting too much from Washington and how the gays had something on the mayor. Still, the first time he heard Alderman Allan Streeter talk about “Harold’s Jews” this alderman was, he admitted, stunned “in a naive sort of way.” Streeter just raised the subject out of the blue, starting in about how the Jews placed pressure on Washington and how Washington, afraid, had caved in. Streeter went on to list the Jews in top positions in the administration. I’m on their hit list, you know, Streeter confided to the alderman.
“He’d be telling me this thinking it was all cool,” the alderman said. “And I’m thinking to myself, like, ‘Where the fuck did he get that from?’ This guy’s an alderman and he’s talking the most ignorant bullshit.”
There were times during the Washington years that this alderman believed himself blessed. To live in Chicago and share a certain political bent was to glow with pride about Washington. Around the country there were those looking to Chicago as the hope for everyone who believed in the potential for a multiracial coalition formed around shared interests and concerns. Yet there were also those times he endured comments about Harold’s Jews, or about the gays, or the Latinos, or the Asians, and at moments like these he’d wonder whether this idea of a rainbow coalition was anything but impossible. Chicago demonstrated the power of this multiracial progressive alliance, but it provided a clear look at its inherent limits as well.
Excerpted from Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, published this month by Henry Holt. Copyright 1992 by Gary Rivlin.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Kathy Richland, Bill Stamets.