One year ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, Mayor Harold Washington slumped to the floor of his City Hall office. At the peak of his political power, he was dead.
His death created a huge, still unfilled political vacuum, like the fall in office 11 years earlier of another towering Chicago political figure, Richard J. Daley. But Daley reigned for 21 years; Washington was mayor only four and a half years. During the first three, the City Council majority fought him relentlessly. He often said he ran the city with a veto, forcing stalemates and negotiated compromises with his opponents on major legislation. Many of his appointments were delayed, and he relied on a small crew of green administrators to manage a sprawling bureaucracy that was often unsympathetic, sometimes even disloyal.
There’s no question Washington left his mark on the city as a political personage. But did he really accomplish anything? Is there a “Washington legacy” that will continue?
After watching politics unfold over this past year, many friends and critics alike have revised their estimates of Washington. “I didn’t realize how good a politician he was, didn’t sense the degree of support he had in the black community, and didn’t appreciate the pressure he was under in the black community until after his death,” said Donald Haider, his 1987 Republican mayoral opponent. “I think you’ll get that sermon from many whites.”
But others are unyielding. “I can’t point to any kind of lasting successful initiative,” said alderman and now mayoral candidate Ed Burke, Washington’s still implacable foe. “I think it was just another chapter in Chicago’s history that opened and closed with a great deal of media attention but had little or no lasting impact on Chicago.”
And one man who helped push Washington to run for mayor, radio commentator Lu Palmer, says bluntly, “I would ask, ‘Are the masses of black people better off after 1983 because of the election of the first black mayor?’ The answer I get from many is no. In many cases, they’re worse off. We’re not worse off because we had a black mayor. It’s just a reality that black people in 1988 are worse off.”
Hard though it may be to separate the issues, let us first consider what Washington did, then which of his accomplishments might last.
Like any proud politician, Washington liked to tote up his deeds, claiming in his state-of-the-city speeches, for example, that he had paved more streets, hired more minority and women city executives, and even killed more rats than his predecessors. But all those lists–what he described as “promises made, promises kept” in his 1987 electoral campaign–ultimately add up to some more fundamental achievements. Washington decisively shifted several fundamental relationships among the people and powers in this city. In some cases, he simply brought to a head changes that had been developing for a long time, but in other instances he initiated change as well.
First, he forged new political relationships. Second, he created new relationships within city government itself and a new relationship of that government to the neighborhoods and to the public at large. Third, he sketched the outlines of a new relationship with business. Finally, and most problematically, he changed race relationships in Chicago.
Washington’s election in 1983 over Mayor Jane Byrne and State’s Attorney Richard Daley in the primary, then over born-again Republican Bernard Epton in the general election, was his first accomplishment and maybe his most important. By creating new political relationships, he set the stage for all the other changes.
Whites surprised by the overwhelming black support for Washington in the 1983 primary dismissed his victory as a mere racial vote. It’s true, racial pride and black resentment at the last-minute definition of the contest as “a racial thing” by Byrne partisan Ed Vrdolyak swelled the ranks of Washington supporters. But Washington had to patch together a coalition within the black community, which is more diverse than whites often imagine–black nationalists, civil rightists, Baptist preachers, middle-class professionals, Muslims, black businessmen, machine hacks, trade union members in their tidy bungalow neighborhoods, welfare poor in CHA concentration camps, and the vast army of ill-paid workers barely scraping along as parking attendants, janitors, clerks, secretaries, and hamburger flippers.
Washington had to overcome west-side versus south-side tensions, class tensions, machine versus independent tensions, and above all competition among a roster of strong personalities, none of them trickier to handle than Jesse Jackson.
For example, Washington deliberately chose a rally called by journalist/activist Lu Palmer’s Chicago Black United Communities (CBUC) to kick off his campaign, in order not to rely on Jackson’s Operation PUSH as a launching pad. Then he grew furious when Palmer so botched the interminably long meeting that the television cameras left before Washington delivered his speech. After that, Washington employed Palmer’s forces but never again relied heavily on Palmer. Jackson proved harder to manage. Having kept him inside the campaign but at a comfortable distance, Washington, throughout his tumultuous primary-night victory, had to watch Jackson dominate television–and create new problems for Washington with whites as he ambiguously proclaimed “We want it all.”
Washington first had to consolidate his “base,” as he called it, in the black community. He didn’t do this by attacking whites (although there certainly are blacks who don’t like whites) or by running on race pure and simple. But he had to break down black beliefs that a black candidate could not win or could not govern. Look at all the problems this city has, and we blacks have in particular, Washington argued. After years of voting for white politicians, isn’t it our turn to try to fix things? Can we do any worse?
Washington’s greatest inroad against black self-doubt was probably achieved with his knockout performance in the first televised debate. Confident, knowledgeable, aggressive, and articulate, Washington looked and sounded like a mayor as he handily won that face-off.
Kennedy-King professor Vincent Bakeman, a confidant since 1975, insists that “Washington was a reform mayor first, and that’s how he saw it.” His reform message inspired blacks who felt a glimmer of hope that Washington offered a new way of running the city. Washington talked about the issues that concerned most black voters–jobs, housing, education, and the unfair distribution of city resources.
Nevertheless, to most blacks Washington primarily represented “power, respect, competence,” says Alderman Danny Davis, probably the council member ideologically most like Washington. “A lot of people in the black community don’t have a feel for progressive versus nonprogressive government or patronage versus nonpatronage or fiscal conservatism versus free spending. But Washington gave them hope.”
If the fine points of reform meant less to most blacks than the general hope for a new day, these issues were important to Washington. Over the years in the state legislature and in Congress, Washington had developed ties with reformers, unions, Hispanic groups, and a variety of liberal and left movements. His heroes encompassed radical lawyer Clarence Darrow, whose speeches he studied, as well as Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the black founder of Chicago whose statue was in his apartment.
Far more than most black politicians who came up through the machine, Washington was both an intellectual and a man of generally left, or “progressive,” political sentiments, even while a street-smart politician rather than an ideologue. As candidate and mayor in 1983 he gave reform a new meaning. By putting blacks at the heart of a new reform movement, he changed the meaning of reform.
The politics of race, reform, and machine control have never been straightforward in Chicago. Depression-era mayor Ed Kelly indulged rampant corruption, allied with organized crime, and let city operations go to pot. Reformers, mainly middle-class white Protestants, loathed the corruption, inefficiency, and patronage. But New Dealer Kelly also brought traditionally Republican blacks into the Democratic fold.
His so-called reform successor, Martin Kennelly, was elected to clean up Kelly’s swamp, but a machine-dominated council stymied most of Kennelly’s few reform initiatives. Then in fighting the machine, Kennelly–the “reformer”–played on the white racist reaction to Kelly’s inclusiveness. He ran race-baiting campaigns and destroyed a well-run, integrated Chicago Housing Authority. His actions set the CHA on its disastrous course of concentrating poor blacks in new ghettos.
The last emperor of the machine, Richard J. Daley, relied on overwhelming black voter loyalty (despite a declining black turnout) to stay in power. He rewarded blacks with a few low-level jobs and new federal antipoverty money (which he channeled through his patronage machine, undercutting the congressional intent of directly aiding poor communities and encouraging “maximum feasible participation of the poor”). Meanwhile, he maintained a solidly segregated city, shortchanged black neighborhoods on most important services, and attempted to stifle independent black voices.
The machine was mainly concerned with political power. It didn’t have a grand public philosophy or social class perspective. It won by appealing to narrow, private interests. It doled out jobs, services, and garbage cans. Machine power brokers made private deals with businessmen, lawyers, ministers, and unions. Machine kingpins, and many lesser agents such as policemen and building inspectors on the take, rewarded themselves at public expense.
For decades, traditional reformers had called for efficiency and honesty in government. Late 60s reformers, typically found along the lakefront, wanted to open up City Hall and make it respond better to neighborhood interests. Black reform efforts sprouted up as the civil rights movement grew in Chicago. The focus was on racial discrimination and the machine’s abuse of power. In 1972 many blacks broke with the machine in an epochal electoral revolt against State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan, whose police had shot to death two Black Panther leaders. But the machine was able to buy off, intimidate, and discourage most poorer blacks. And even many middle-class blacks believed the best they could do was get a piece of the machine action, not change its behavior.
In 1977, mayoral candidate Harold Washington won only a few middle-class black wards. Two years later blacks played a decisive role in Jane Byrne’s upset victory against the machine. And when Byrne repeatedly rebuffed blacks, for example increasing the number of whites on the school board when blacks already felt underrepresented, the stage was set for a black revolt.
The candidate of fed-up blacks, Washington increasingly assumed the identity of reformer as the campaign progressed. Springing from the black church as well as from the civil rights movement, black reform politics called for redistribution of the community’s wealth, not just efficiency or honesty. It equated reform with fairness.
Fairness may seem like a self-evident goal of government. But in making the argument for fairness, Washington spelled out the ways the machine had been unfair for so many years. And he cut off competing black political tendencies, embodied in machine hacks such as Alderman Bill Henry who were simply interested in a bigger piece of the machine pie for themselves. He also rejected the extreme claims of the black nationalists, even though they worked hard for his election. Lu Palmer, for example, scoffs at Washington’s claims that he was “fairer than fair.” “Why do black people have to be fairer than fair?” Palmer asks. “My principle is problack. I don’t believe in coalitions.”
But Washington did believe in coalitions. He saw a multiracial “rainbow” as politically necessary if he were to win and desirable in its own right. “Fairness works,” he argued. It’s pragmatically good for the city.
Ultimately Washington’s reform ideas worked where they had to, at the ballot box. Enough Hispanics resisted their historic tendency to advance through the machine and through alliances with white ethnics and instead threw in with insurgent blacks and reformers. And enough whites, mainly along the lake, accepted Washington as a likely reformer. Washington squeaked to victory, shifting the center of gravity of the reform movement toward the black community and shifting the balance of power in the city toward blacks as a constituency and reform as a goal.
“Where Jane Byrne’s efforts [in her 1979 upset victory over Michael Bilandic] seriously cracked the machine,” Danny Davis argues, “Harold Washington seriously cracked the policies and practices of government.”
Washington had more talent and zest for campaigning, and for legislating, than for managing. But he drastically altered relationships within government–between the mayor and the council, between the administration and its employees, and between the city bureaucracy and the public.
It may be a dubious achievement, but the City Council stopped being a rubber stamp and started debating. Though the results were at best mixed, the principle was good. The big question has always been whether the “council wars” against the faction led by the two Eddies–Vrdolyak and Burke–could have been avoided. Burke now says Washington “didn’t realize how cheap many members of City Council come, nickels and dimes in the overall picture. . . . He could have coopted me easily.” Others maintain Vrdolyak was ready to deal and even surrender all his posts. By this account, Vrdolyak got angry when Alderman Wilson Frost, the senior black alderman charged by Washington with organizing the council, began cutting out old buddies Burke, Fred Roti, and other fellow members of the council’s old machine elite.
Washington privately attributed the revolt to Frost’s impolitic maneuvering. But he viewed confrontation as not necessarily a bad thing. He remembered what happened to Kennelly and Byrne when those would-be reformers cut deals. Maybe the racial hostility of the 1983 election doomed cooperation.
The power of patronage was already in decline when Washington took office, and the new mayor gladly bade it farewell. Yet surreptitiously his administration could and did make some patronage appointments in the so-called “exempt” positions, where a department head chooses an appointment from a qualified list of candidates. “If you’re from Seattle, you look at Chicago, and it still seems patronage-laden,” observes veteran reform political strategist Don Rose, “unless you understand the history.” In all its forms, patronage declined dramatically but didn’t disappear with Washington.
Overall, Washington made government run more rationally and slightly more efficiently. Finally, after years of broken promises, city employees were able to unionize and negotiate contracts. Union officials weren’t always happy with how the Washington administration dealt with their grievances, but they won moderate wage increases and more equitable pay and promotion possibilities for women. City departments used more computers, bid for contracts more competitively, and cut the work force by about 10 percent while maintaining services.
There’s an apocryphal story that Mayor Daley once told a consultant who suggested streamlining city government that he was interested in hiring more city workers, not fewer. Washington resisted pressure to do the same, though he could have cut more deeply. But he tackled what had been the symbol of flabby Chicago government, cutting the garbage truck crews from four persons to three, while introducing supercarts to speed and ease the work.
“Internally, standards and expectations were raised about what would and would not be tolerated,” concludes former alderman Martin Oberman, a tireless critic of government corruption. “Over the four and a half years the ethical level of behavior in government improved.” Washington responded reasonably promptly to his administration’s only significant scandal, influence peddling by an FBI “mole” in the Revenue Department.
And he fought the majority of his own council bloc, as well as the opposition, to push through an ethics ordinance that prohibited some typical past practices such as accepting gifts, and required aldermen, lobbyists, and other officials to disclose their financial interests. The law’s sponsor, Alderman David Orr, recalled one meeting in which Washington allies insisted the mayor really didn’t care about the ethics ordinance. Washington arrived and calmly, but firmly, told the unhappy aldermen he expected them to vote for it.
Finally, Washington made government more open to the public. He made records available, presented the budget early for extensive hearings and public debate, and invited community groups to make proposals that he subsequently took seriously, especially in disbursing federal Community Development Block Grants (which Byrne had abused to serve her own political ends). Washington might not have had to raise taxes by so much if he had pushed more aggressively for efficiency in government and if he had succeeded–as he certainly did not–in collecting revenues that were owed to the city. But Toni Hartrich of the tax watchdog Civic Federation says that Washington deserved kudos for making the budget process more rational, aboveboard, and informative and for showing a long-term commitment to fiscal stability (which the Wall Street bond agencies acknowledged by raising the city’s badly deteriorated bond ratings).
Chicago’s city government won’t win any prizes for sensitivity, efficiency, or competence, but Washington at least turned the bureaucracy’s attention toward those virtues.
Business, Big and Small
Most business associations and executives probably viewed Washington suspiciously when he took office. When he died, many had become converts or at least reluctant allies on several fronts. By experience and disposition, Washington was more at home with workers and unions than with titans of industry and commerce, but he struck a distinctive new course in the relationship of government to business.
First, he shifted government support from big business and downtown office and hotel construction, which continued to boom in any case, toward small businesses in the city’s neighborhoods, including long-neglected manufacturers. He began exacting fees from downtown developments to subsidize needs elsewhere in the city, such as low-income housing. And his Planning Department increasingly pressured new office builders to provide better streetscaping, pedestrian ways, and other amenities. He proposed protecting important manufacturing districts from encroaching condos and shopping malls.
The results of this “balanced growth” strategy aren’t dramatic, since national policies and international trends swamp the effects of local government on manufacturing. Yet the shift seems well justified; manufacturing seems poised for a modest revival, or at least survival, in the city. But as with so many of Washington’s innovations, he did not pursue his new economic strategy with enough effort, money, or speed.
Washington negotiated a tricky path, confronting some businesses, encouraging greater cooperation with others. For example, he fought the closing of the Playskool plant with an innovative legal challenge, but worked closely with Ekco Housewares and other companies to keep them in Chicago. The city and Peoples Gas cooperatively set up an Energy Savers Fund, which has drastically reduced energy bills for thousands of low- to moderate-income Chicagoans by replacing furnaces, weatherizing homes and apartments, and making other investments in conservation. But Washington fought the other major private utility, Commonwealth Edison, probably the most politically powerful business in the city. Where Byrne tacitly supported rate increases as a way to take in more from utility taxes, Washington fought rate hikes (although even Washington reneged on his campaign pledge to eliminate the regressive utility tax).
Most dramatically, Washington took a tough line as the city prepared for the 1990 renegotiation of Com Ed’s franchise to sell electricity in Chicago. He recognized that high electricity bills were draining everyone’s pocketbooks, undermining the financial viability of many low-income rental buildings, and driving thousands of jobs out of the area. So he commissioned studies on alternatives. In one scenario the city could take ownership of part of the utility; in another it could simply operate the distribution system for electricity and force Com Ed to bid against other, cheaper utilities.
In the past, Chicago governments had given tax breaks and other advantages to businesses to help them do what they wanted, hoping there might be some public payoff (and usually assuring there would be private payoffs to the machine). Washington had some success in turning this relationship around, getting private investors, banks, and corporations to put their money into projects that served a clear public good. Byrne’s subsidies to Presidential Towers luxury apartments represent the old way; by contrast, Washington worked with the nonprofit Bethel New Life organization to raise public and private investment to rehabilitate the Guyon Tower on the west side for low-income housing.
In another major victory for good sense, Washington set strict standards for the city’s financial participation in the proposed world’s fair, thus precipitating the collapse of an outdated idea that was likely to be a huge financial drain with few tangible long-range benefits.
Increasingly, the city tried to make each of its hands know what the other was doing. For example, Washington wanted to guarantee the city’s job trainees a crack at city-subsidized jobs. He linked capital spending to local economic development needs. The city preferred small, local businesses whenever possible for its purchases, and it urged private big businesses to “buy Chicago” as well.
Businessmen still fought him on many fronts, especially against local tax increases. But many began to see the need for a concerted strategy to prevent economic decline. George Kalidonis, a former corporate executive, now directs the Chicagoland Enterprise Center, a project of the Commercial Club of Chicago’s Civic Committee established to assist small manufacturers. Fifty years from now, Kalidonis predicts, people will look back and see 1983 as the start of a golden age of economic revival in Chicago with the election of Washington and the Civic Committee’s realization that cooperation between government and business was essential.
“I’ll tell you what I think changed [with Washington as mayor], and it changed for the better,” said Robert Wislow, chairman of U.S. Equities Realty Inc., a major downtown developer who is normally politically uninvolved. “Washington made it necessary for commercial developers to think about the effects of what they’re doing on the city, its people, on its neighborhoods, and its interaction with the various ethnic groups.” If that were truly a widespread change of business thinking, it would rank as one of Washington’s major achievements.
Everybody talks about Chicago as a city of neighborhoods, but Washington’s talk was more than the usual rhetoric. First, capital spending and economic development aid shifted sharply toward the neighborhoods. Washington was proud of the city’s streets, sidewalks, and sewers. He felt this homely infrastructure was an important symbol of his ideas about fairness and the importance of neighborhoods. Fairness, or reform, “wasn’t just for blacks,” argues political scientist William Grimshaw of the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Harold had a real commitment to redistribution on a class basis as best he could.”
Second, Washington tried to make sure that city services were fairly distributed, ending the neglect of black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Southwest-side Congressman William Lipinski, who tried to befriend Washington but also fought him, says that “Harold Washington did manage to evenly distribute routine city services. They weren’t before. There’s no question about that.” Washington’s ouster of Ed Kelly as parks director was a monumental step toward eliminating the gross racial discrimination in park facilities.
Third, Washington saw hope for the bootstrap revival of aging parts of Chicago where others saw only decline. He channeled public and private funds into housing rehabilitation and energy conservation. His administration supported myriad neighborhood economic development groups. And Washington showed special sensitivity to neighborhood efforts to clean up their environments; for example, he ruled out the creation of new landfills and the expansion of existing ones. (Although he committed the city in principle to maximum recycling, he dawdled inexcusably in starting a city program and in helping nonprofit recyclers.)
Washington identified with the community groups that had emerged over the previous decades. Some groups had fought City Hall and the business and banking establishment. Some groups had acted where the machine had failed, on their own revitalizing their local economies, or rehabilitating affordable housing. They offered alternatives to ward politics that addressed collective neighborhood needs, not private deals.
While Washington was mayor, those community and nonprofit groups helped both set and implement city policy and often made the new public-private ventures happen. In years past, the machine had feared and opposed community groups as a threat to its dominion. Now, as the ward organizations continue to decline, these neighborhood organizations are rushing to fill the void. And Washington also admitted to the inner circles, says developer Robert Wislow, many nonestablishment, previously excluded businesspeople.
Much as he wanted the last word, Washington believed in participatory democracy, a phrase from the 60s political ferment that he still took seriously. He pushed grass-roots involvement in school reform, in the management of public housing by tenants at LeClaire Courts, and in the Park District. Already the new Park District management has decentralized park control, says the executive director of Friends of the Parks, Erma Tranter; it has involved more park users in decision making, responded more promptly to suggestions and complaints, and set up a wide range of professionally run park programs.
Ironically, Washington did not push his grass-roots, participatory democracy where it counted most, in the creation of a new political movement. He counted too much on having 20 more years in office in which to cultivate new leaders. For now, he calculated that he would have to make do with whatever allies were at hand (even if he didn’t trust them). He probably made the strongest impression on Chicago’s Hispanic politicians, since many of them were coming of political age as Washington gained power.
Alderman Luis Gutierrez, for example, first registered to vote in order to vote for Washington. Then he thought, “Why not elect ourselves?” Washington not only fought for the redistricting that gave Hispanics new council seats but also helped reformers win them (although supporters of Gloria Chevere, the 1987 city clerk candidate on Washington’s ticket, complained that Washington’s political operation shortchanged her). Alderman Jesus Garcia believes that “the most solid gain Latinos made under Washington was to elect our own. That established us as a permanent force.” Washington’s neighborhood focus made Garcia’s Little Villagers “feel like the city cares,” and they began caring more for their neighborhood: the number of block clubs in the area grew from 15 to 75 from 1983 to 1987.
The Crucible of Race
Many blacks seem to think race relations have improved since 1983; white ethnics seem to think the opposite. At least the Washington years proved to Chicagoans that blacks could run the city as well (and sometimes as badly) as whites. And Washington’s victory ensured that black interests would be taken seriously, if not always sympathetically, by all politicians. Wily machine Democrats like George Dunne learned how to survive the emergence of a strong black presence; some of the party’s more stridently confrontational figures have gone into Republicanism or oblivion or, like Vrdolyak, both.
Washington’s administration firmly implanted affirmative action as a principle of city government. There remained, as there will be in the future, fights over whether Hispanics, women, and other groups got their fair share, but the idea has taken root. If it did little for poor blacks, it at least helped black middle-class professionals and businesses. At least as important, affirmative action means that all levels of the city bureaucracy and services, such as the police and fire departments, better reflect the makeup of the city. It’s easier to forget blacks, Hispanics, and women if they’re never in the conference room.
With no apparent loss of effectiveness in fighting crime, police relations with the black community improved under two black superintendents. At Washington’s urging, Fred Rice ended the old indiscriminate street sweeps of young men, curbed police brutality, and set up new programs to prevent gang violence and to intervene against domestic violence. Within the department, says former first deputy superintendent John Jemilo, now executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission, “it was obvious you’d better have a greater sensitivity to the civil and social rights of individuals that you as a police officer come in contact with. Or otherwise you’re going to have a problem.” For the Chicago Police Department–and Chicago blacks–that was a big change.
Given Washington’s commitment to fairness and to coalition and neighborhood interests, it’s tragic that so few whites appreciated what he was doing.
Machine stalwart Lipinski, who maintained cordial relations with Washington during the mayor’s first two years, still feels Washington should have expanded his visits to white ethnic communities. Marty Oberman agrees that Washington could have won converts with more of a presence in white neighborhoods–and was indeed about to pursue that strategy at his death. But Washington felt he never got credit for the overtures he did make. His civil, often warm response in white ethnic neighborhoods gave him immense satisfaction, recalls William Grimshaw; but his continued low voter support in those neighborhoods perplexed and deeply hurt him.
In 1983, Washington was also confused and pained that so many lakeshore liberal whites who had railed against the Daley machine would now vote for Richard M. Daley. After all, Washington had long been a star legislator in the eyes of the Independent Voters of Illinois. The strong showing for Vrdolyak on the lakefront in the 1987 general election was at least as disturbing to him.
Maybe even more effort on Washington’s part would have extended to rank-and-file voters the sympathy for his administration that developed among many leaders of local community and economic development groups in white neighborhoods. Or maybe old racism, stoked anew by Ed Vrdolyak and company, would have triumphed anyway. Washington was primarily concerned with maintaining the unity of his black power base, even though many observers felt it would remain secure without much effort. But he continued to reach out to whites, and never more than in his last year.
By the time he clearly established his power after the 1987 elections, he was ready to deal. As he’d promised in his campaign, he was ready to support some form of home equity insurance to placate white fears and stabilize communities, so long as the plan carried no racial overtones. But typically, he expected interested black and white groups to work out an agreement and come back to him. He was prepared to back Aurelia Pucinski on the county slate, not because Pucinski shared many of his political values but because the move promised some degree of Democratic party unity. He was in a much different position to deal than he’d been in in 1983; he did not act from weakness. He led, to use a Danny Davis phrase, a “right-side-up coalition” with blacks as full partners.
There are, of course, many things Washington did not do. The core of the Chicago Housing Authority remained as rotten as ever, even if Washington at least rid the CHA of the grand master mismanager, Charles Swibel. He waited until late in his first term to begin addressing the overwhelming problems of Chicago’s schools, though the notion of school reform has at least been launched. He did far less than he could and should have on health and medical care.
Often even his good ideas were barely implemented, partly for lack of initiative, mainly for lack of money. He at least tried to organize downstate Illinois mayors to lobby the state with him for more aid, and he led mayors across the country in demanding that the federal government stop neglecting the cities. But Chicago received little more money as a result.
And apart from things not done, one year after his death some of the changes he made already seem threatened. The Washington coalition has split apart, and the black community itself is politically divided. The practitioners of clout and patronage are again active and influential. How much of what Washington tried to initiate can survive? Will there be a Washington legacy, for good or ill?
“Of all Washington’s accomplishments,” argues former 44th Ward reform alderman Dick Simpson, “the one that may have the longest-term impact is that Washington combined all the reform movements in the black, Hispanic, and white communities, picking up all the reform elements and reform history of the city.” Eventually even some community groups from white ethnic areas hostile to Washington realized that Washington’s reform agenda could include them, too. These reform strands are not united behind a possible successor to Washington, but they share basic goals.
To veteran independent strategist Don Rose, “The greatest accomplishment above and beyond any of the governmental things was his upgrading the entire political process and almost singlehandedly trebling the independent political movement. One thing important today, which would not be noteworthy except for the regressions, he did have a true rainbow coalition in his administration.” Nevertheless, Dick Simpson argues, Washington’s political legacy is especially vulnerable because it lacks an institutional home, either a revamped Democratic party or a separate multiethnic organization.
A movement of some sort persists. Rose and some other reformers saw black voters’ actions in last year’s committeeman races after Washington’s death as a sign that reform ideas may be stronger among black voters than among black officials: four aldermen who joined with their former white, machine opponents to elect acting mayor Eugene Sawyer lost their committeeman posts.
Also, the network of community and nonprofit, issue-oriented groups such as the decade-old Center for Neighborhood Technology do provide a base for Washington’s neighborhood-oriented politics. Some businesses will continue their own initiatives, with projects such as housing loans, seed capital for new business, and assistance to small manufacturers, although without government direction these won’t be as productive as they could be.
But it is undeniable that the political coalition and black-white relations Washington left behind have frayed. Nothing did more damage than last spring’s ugly blowups. First there was the revelation of mayoral aide Steve Cokely’s rambling, often anti-Semitic, paranoid conspiracy lectures and Mayor Sawyer’s vacillating reaction. Then there was the charge of the aldermanic light brigade on the Art Institute, where the guardians of virtue seized a silly painting of Washington in women’s underwear.
During those catastrophic weeks many Chicagoans reflected that Washington would have swiftly fired a Cokely and would have defused the Art Institute furor with some of his inimitable humor. He certainly wouldn’t have tolerated the seizure of the painting: he gave his last major public address before the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights, which was honoring him. More to the point, Washington studiously kept Cokely and people like him out of his administration. Indeed, in one of his infamous tapes, Cokely denounced Washington for having too many Jewish advisers and for going to a north-side Jewish community to protest an attack on a synagogue.
The Cokely and Art Institute affairs didn’t just strain black-Jewish relations. They also hurt black-Hispanic ties, as many Hispanics wondered just how seriously blacks regarded them as partners. The events even crippled PRO-CAN, a little-known, but influential multiracial reform group that was a precursor of the Washington coalition.
Some of Washington’s governmental reforms, like unionization and the shrinking of garbage crews, are irreversible. Other changes, such as greater access to governmental information and more competitive bidding, could be reversed in part. What’s most important, argues University of Chicago urban sociologist Terry Clark, is that Washington “changed the rules of the game.” The game of politics became “reform,” and even Washington’s opponents tried to stake a claim.
In the coming mayoral election, every candidate probably will either support reform or argue that reform no longer means anything. That could open up the debate on some substantive issues. What should the city do with Commonwealth Edison and its debilitating electricity rates? How can affordable housing be preserved and created? What will make CHA projects more livable? What do students really need?
Divisions among blacks, which many Washington followers abhor for practical reasons, could ironically open up some new alliances. Maybe, political differences will grow more important and racial divisions less so in determining voter loyalties. It would be naive to think that racial bloc voting will decline quickly. But there ought to be many whites, blacks, and Hispanics who believe in fair, open, and efficient government, neighborhood economic vitality, more democratic citizen action, and helping–or making–business serve the needs of the city.
Black unity may ultimately prove no more beneficial to poor blacks than white unity has been to poor whites. Black school superintendents have done as badly as white superintendents, and a black-run health department has been a flop. Black and white reformers will certainly have to muster the courage to tackle officials of either race who can’t do the job if they hope to make Washington’s legacy meaningful.
Washington began the task of defining a future Chicago. “But the real reform on a substantive level would be the kind of future planning that we still haven’t done,” argues Alderman Larry Bloom, a Washington ally and now a mayoral candidate. “We should ask what are the industries that will employ Chicagoans in 15 to 20 years, and what will bring those industries here. As a result of that, we’d be helping people who need jobs, giving schools a mission, helping students and making sense of our revenue policy.
The biggest political challenge for those who would preserve Washington’s legacy is to expand his coalition to include more whites from all parts of the city. Having a black mayor was necessary to bring reform, Don Rose concludes. Politically it may be desirable–even practically necessary–to have a black mayor again to keep the ball rolling. But simply having any black as mayor clearly isn’t enough. And it is at least arguable that a white mayor deeply committed to Washington’s principles could best defuse some white racist reaction and yet serve black needs.
In his short but turbulent tenure Washington not only initiated many long-delayed reforms and substantially altered relationships among major elements of the city. He also set the framework for future political debate. Yet measured against the city’s giant needs, his years in office might best be summed up with the mixed metaphor of a struggling community organizer in Woodlawn; commenting on Washington’s housing-abandonment-prevention program, Mattie Butler said, “It’s a drop in the bucket, but even that drop is a ray of hope.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.