As an old goat who came to town just in time to watch Council Wars erupt, I never, ever imagined the day would come when a candidate named Hynes would invoke—much less quote—the wisdom of the late, great Mayor Harold Washington.
But as we all know, state comptroller Dan Hynes did just that in the waning days of his primary campaign for governor against Pat Quinn. Hynes aired a clip from 1987 of Mayor Washington ripping on Quinn, who had just been canned as the city’s revenue director.
At this point I don’t really care about the ins and outs of an old fight in the Washington administration. What interests me is this: When the city’s Democratic leadership—including Dan Hynes’s father, Thomas—had a chance to take a stand for racial tolerance, diversity, justice, and all those other good things we supposedly hold sacred, they wussed out. Instead of defying the mob, they ran with it. If somebody’s going to invoke the past he should be held accountable for getting it right.
Let’s start in 1983, when Congressman Harold Washington, a lifelong member of the Democratic organization, stunned the city by defeating Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County state’s attorney Richard M. Daley (yes, youngsters, the guy who’s now your mayor) to win the Democratic mayoral primary.
Historically, winning the Democratic primary in Chicago was tantamount to winning the subsequent general election. But confronted with the prospect of a black mayor—particularly an outspoken one—white folks here lost their freaking minds. There’s really no other way to describe the six weeks of madness that followed the Democratic primary. Whites—including some of their elected officials—unleashed all the old stereotypes and assumptions about black people, often through crudely drawn, unsigned leaflets and flyers. If Washington were elected, they declared, businesses would flee, thugs would run the police department, and the streets would be unsafe for our wives and daughters. In the panic, thousands of white, lifelong Democrats voted for Bernie Epton, a quirky Republican state rep who campaigned under the slogan “Before It’s Too Late.”
Washington narrowly defeated Epton, but even then the fight wasn’t over. Alderman Edward Vrdolyak put together a coalition of 29 aldermen (28 white, one Puerto Rican) who battled Washington every step of the way for the first four years of his reign. If Washington said the sky was blue, Vrdolyak and his loyal sidekick, Alderman Ed Burke (yes, the same Ed Burke who represents the 14th Ward today), said it was gray. They blocked his appointments to top city posts, ignored legislation he introduced, and even accused him of prejudice when he had the nerve to provide black and Latino neighborhoods with their fair share of services and investment.
The whole point, as Alderman Richard Mell (yes, the same Richard Mell who represents the 33rd Ward today) told Reader writer Gary Rivlin in 1984 was to make Washington look incompetent and biased so he’d be easier to beat in 1987.
The only issue was who to run against Washington. Pretty much any white Democrat would do—they simply couldn’t allow two of them to run and split the white vote as Daley and Byrne had done in 1983. “There just aren’t enough white voters to go around,” as Tribune columnist Mike Royko put it. But the white faction of the Democratic Party was divided into three factions, behind Byrne, Daley, and Vrdolyak.
So more craziness ensued. Byrne ran in the Democratic primary and Vrdolyak, a fellow lifelong Democrat, said he was supporting her—he lent her roughly 2,000 patronage workers to help get out the vote. But he also announced he was running for mayor in the general election under the auspices of a third party, the Solidarity Party. (Running for city treasurer on the Solidarity ticket, by the way, was Al Sanchez—yes, the same Al Sanchez who became Mayor Daley’s Streets and San commissioner and was convicted last year of fraud for trading city jobs for campaign work. In December he was granted a new trial.)
Meanwhile, the Daley wing got behind Tom Hynes—Dan’s dad—another lifelong Dem who was then the Cook County assessor and committeeman of the powerful 19th Ward Democratic organization. He didn’t want to divide the white vote in the primary either, so he formed yet another party, the Chicago First Party, and put together his own slate of candidates. His would-be clerk and treasurer informed reporters they were only running “in order to fulfill election law requirements that a third party have a full slate of candidates,” as the Sun-Times put it.
After Washington defeated Byrne in the primary, the general election came down to a game of chicken between Hynes and Vrdolyak.
Neither would drop out—at least initially.
Hynes tried to pass himself off as a policy wonk too nerdy to instigate a fight. One of his own commercials had a supporter falling asleep while Hynes droned on and on about budget issues.
Vrdolyak mostly campaigned as the guy who deserved to win because he’d fought Washington the hardest, though he did make at least one appearance in a black church. According to the Sun Times, that appearance was arranged by a young Vrdolyak aide named Rod Blagojevich.
Officially, Alderman Burke endorsed Hynes. But he made it clear that he preferred any of the white candidates to Washington—Hynes, Byrne, Vrdolyak, or even Republican Don Haider. And he used his position as chairman of the City Council’s finance committee to steer damaging information about Washington to all the campaigns. “When Byrne held a press conference last week to savage the mayor’s record on hiring women, she based it on a personnel analysis from Burke’s think tank,” reported the Sun-Times. “Don Tomczak, a legislative analyst for the [finance] committee, was helpful on the personnel count.”
Yes, that would be the same Don Tomczak who went on to work in the water department for Mayor Daley and eventually pleaded guilty to federal fraud and bribery charges for his role in the Hired Truck scandal.
Hynes and Vrdolyak continued to pressure each other to quit the race. Finally Hynes blinked. On Sunday, April 5, just two days before the election, he dropped out, saying, “I love Chicago enough not to be mayor.”
He then urged Vrdolyak or Haider—one or the other, it didn’t really matter—to follow suit for the good of the city. “I now believe Harold Washington cannot be defeated if he faces more than one opponent,” he said in his resignation remarks. “I believe with every ounce of fervor in my soul that the people of Chicago deserve an opportunity for a real choice. . . . Mr. Vrdolyak and Mr. Haider must now confront the fact that Harold Washington will win if they both remain in this race. Their hour of decision is at hand.”
His supporters were devastated; most reporters just rolled their eyes. “What drove Hynes out was the frightening specter of Tuesday night, when the results would show him finishing a drab third in the voting,” Mike Royko wrote. “Then he would have been labeled with the dreaded word ‘spoiler,’ which in Chicago means a white candidate who causes a black man to become mayor.”
Both Vrdolyak and Haider stayed in the race, and Washington still got more than 50 percent of the vote—meaning he probably would have won even with only one white guy to run against.
And what was the future Mayor Daley doing while all this idiocy was going on? For the most part he was hiding. Officially he backed Hynes, and he lent his top staffer, Frank Kruesi (who’d go on to run the CTA for him later), to the Hynes campaign. But he only made one appearance. And unlike his brother John—the Democratic committeeman of the 11th Ward who’s now a Cook County Board commissioner—he didn’t hurriedly endorse Vrdolyak after Hynes dropped out.
Daley’s relative neutrality paid off after Washington died in office. In the mayoral election of 1989, he ran as a healer, above the racial fray. All the white guys in the Democratic Party rallied behind him, and he hasn’t had a serious white challenger since.
Back in 1987, in the midst of that zany election, I remember Ed Marciniak, the first Mayor Daley’s commissioner of human relations, telling me that things weren’t too bad—at least blacks and whites weren’t killing each other the way they had during the race riot of 1919.
He had a point. I wish Marciniak had been around to see the rise of Barack Obama. Just before Marciniak’s death in 2004, Obama beat three white candidates—including Dan Hynes—for the white vote on the northwest side. And guess what? Nobody accused Dan Hynes of being a spoiler. Four years later he beat a handful of white candidates to win the Democratic nomination for president. And no one panicked—or at least not like they did in Chicago back in the 80s.
Which brings us back to Tommy’s boy Dan and his campaign ad. The official rationale from the Hynes campaign is that it’s not hypocritical for Dan Hynes to use an interview with Harold Washington even though his father formed a third party to run against him because Dan was just an 18-year-old college kid at the time.
Well, he may have been a college kid, but he was around his dad’s campaign enough to know the dynamics. Young Dan was at his father’s side when he announced and then again when he withdrew from the 1987 election. He even he did a TV spot for his old man—he was the guy falling asleep in that commercial.
Even at 18, Dan Hynes would’ve had to be a complete boob not to know what was going on in Chicago politics. The whole city knew. It was out in the open. He may not want to confront the role his father or his family played in that drama. I don’t blame him—it’s pretty embarrassing. There was a political race war going on, and the Hynes family was on the wrong side.
All of this would be ancient history except for one thing: Chicago’s white voters embraced and then re-embraced Daley for the same basic reason they voted for kooky old Bernie Epton—they didn’t want a black mayor. Out of fear they returned the city to one-man rule. And in many, many ways—with higher taxes, waste, inefficiency, and corruption—we’ve been paying for it ever since.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.