By Ben Joravsky
A dozen years have passed since Council Wars ended. Mayor Washington is dead, and Alderman Eddie Vrdolyak has drifted to the fringes of mainstream politics.
Yet should LeRoy Martin win his long-shot campaign for Cook County sheriff, it will be because when it comes to Council Wars many black voters can never forget.
For them the equation’s straight-forward: Martin, who’s 69 and now a Republican, was Harold Washington’s police chief. His opponent, Sheriff Mike Sheahan, was then an alderman and a soldier in Vrdolyak’s anti-Washington City Council brigade. If 40 to 50 percent of the city’s black voters cross party lines to retaliate against Sheahan for his Vrdolyak past, Martin could win, even though his campaign has less money and fewer precinct workers.
“For Mike Sheahan to come and ask the African-American community for its support is kind of hypocritical, given his role in Council Wars,” says Martin. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if a lot of people haven’t forgotten.”
What’s just as surprising is the fact that Martin, a lifelong Democrat, finds himself running on the Republican ticket, alongside such anti-affirmative-action conservatives as state senator Peter Fitzgerald and Cook County circuit court clerk Aurelia Pucinski. As Martin tells the story, he was recruited to the GOP by Sam Panayatovich, a southeast-side state representative and, coincidentally, a Vrdolyak protege.
“I think that I’ll be a voice in the Republican Party for African-Americans,” says Martin. “I think we really need someone to talk to the Pate Philips and Newt Gingriches. We really should have a voice in the Republican Party–otherwise it becomes them against us.”
His conversion was a major coup for the Republicans, who rarely mention blacks in their campaigns unless it’s to whip up a backlash against liberal Democrats. As Republicans see it, Martin’s rise to the top of the Police Department is the sort of bootstrap success story they can sell, even to white suburbanites.
Martin’s parents were Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to the west side in 1928; his father became a sleeping car porter. After Martin graduated from Crane High School, he went to work for the CTA as a streetcar driver, leaving in 1955 to join the police department.
Over the years he steadily moved up the ranks, from patrolman to sergeant to lieutenant to commander of narcotics and then to commander of detectives. “In my early days the department was as segregated as the rest of the city–even as detectives we only worked in narcotics because you needed black officers to work undercover,” says Martin. “Guys like Renault Robinson and the other members of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League came around and filed their suits and challenged the system and they sort of opened the doors for blacks. I was watching it from the side. I know Renault and some of the other guys, but I didn’t join the league. I was never asked. But I respect what they did. There was real division in the system, and they paid a price for standing up to the system.”
That great division was never as clear as in the 1983 mayoral campaign, after Washington had defeated Jane Byrne and Richard Daley in the Democratic primary. Until then most mayoral elections had been formalities for the Democratic candidate, as Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic, and Jane Byrne won by huge margins. But in 1983 the vast majority of the city’s white voters (including many Democrats) couldn’t bring themselves to support a black man; instead they voted for a moderate Republican named Bernard Epton. Washington eked out a victory after a nasty campaign in which Epton’s supporters depicted Washington as a sexual deviant who would let black criminals run rampant.
“I loved Harold Washington and what he represented. When he won the buttons on my shirt popped off, that’s how proud I was,” says Martin. “But it was also a time of tremendous tension in the police department. It was a very polarizing election. We had one fight at 51st and Wentworth between black and white detectives over that campaign. We had police officers checking out voter registration sheets in the projects to get voters off the rolls.
“I think it was just that old fear that if Washington became mayor a lot of people would lose the perks they had and blacks would be taking over everything. I remember former police chief Richard Brzeczek said that there were no blacks in the police department capable of being superintendent. At the time I was deputy chief of patrol. Brzeczek later called a meeting of all his senior black officers to apologize. We sat and listened and didn’t say a word. He was the boss. We held the jobs and were appointed at his discretion. But it hurt.”
Even after Washington beat Epton the fight wasn’t over, as 28 white aldermen lined up behind Vrdolyak to battle the new mayor. In retrospect, it was an embarrassing spectacle that still haunts many ambitious Democrats (such as aldermen Patrick O’Connor and Edward Burke). To the rest of the country, Vrdolyak and his cohorts looked like a bunch of bubble-headed bigots, mocking and taunting the mayor, blocking his appointees in committee, and generally doing what they could to sabotage his regime in the ill-fated hope of defeating him in 1987.
Some aldermen have since tried to defend their roles in Council Wars, arguing that they were doing what their constituents wanted. But Sheahan doesn’t have this defense. He represented the Beverly-based 19th Ward, an integrated community. It’s unlikely that he could have been defeated had he occasionally supported Washington, so long as he had the support of his committeeman, Tom Hynes. Hynes oversaw–and still oversees–one of the city’s largest and most powerful precinct organizations.
Martin’s been aggressively wooing black voters, campaigning in west- and south-side neighborhoods Republicans rarely visit. He’s become a regular on black talk radio–where callers routinely denounce Sheahan as a Vrdolyak stooge–and has won the support of Richard Barnett, Eugene Pincham, and other west- and south-side politicians. He hopes to pick up at least 50 percent of the black vote.
“We’re strong in the African-American wards,” says David Donahue, Martin’s campaign manager. “Many black Democratic committeemen are quietly supporting LeRoy. They know him from when he was police chief and they like him. Plus, they remember where Sheahan stood in Council Wars.”
Sheahan says it’s unfair to hold Council Wars against him since his party is generally much more progressive on matters of race (after all, three top Democratic candidates in this year’s election are black: Carol Moseley-Braun, Jesse White, and John Stroger). Still, Sheahan’s distancing himself from Vrdolyak, who by the way flipped to the Republicans in 1987.
“It isn’t true that Sheriff Sheahan voted against Harold Washington all the time–ironically, he voted for LeRoy Martin in his police chief confirmation,” says Bill Cunningham, a Sheahan spokesman. “Talk to his black supporters–they will tell you that Sheahan was in no way an obstructionist. He wasn’t one of the aldermen who threw himself in front of the train. He disagreed with Washington on some issues and agreed with him on other issues and voted the way of his constituents.”
Cunningham says Council Wars is ancient history to most residents, particularly voters under the age of 30. “Mike Sheahan has a tremendous record of accomplishment as sheriff, and he’s not interested in debating a vote that might have taken place in 1983,” says Cunningham. “It’s totally irrelevant to what’s happening today in the sheriff’s office. Furthermore, for LeRoy Martin to bring it up is hypocritical. Mr. Martin’s campaign manager is David Donahue, who is a top assistant to Vrdolyak. So if LeRoy Martin has problems with people who opposed Mayor Washington in the 1980s he should fire his campaign manager.”
Donahue says he hardly knows Vrdolyak, who’s a political ally of Betty Loren-Maltese, president of Cicero, where Donahue’s a freelance public relations consultant.
In any event, all this talk of Vrdolyak as a pariah is comic relief for old Washingtonians, who have to chuckle at the speed with which Sheahan, Donahue, and other politicos (such as Hynes, whose son Dan is running for state comptroller, and Joe Novak, campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard) run from their old ally.
“Somewhere Harold Washington must be enjoying this,” says Martin. “I’m proud of my role during Council Wars. I don’t think my opponent can say the same.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Leroy Martin photo by Robert Drea.