Pride, Prejudice, and Politics in Chicago

Atlanta, Birmingham, Detroit, Gary, Newark, New Orleans, Oakland, Richmond and Washington, all large U.S. cities whose white residents are in the minority have elected a black as mayor. However, a smaller, select circle of big cities with absolute white majorities have also chosen a black as mayor: Cleveland, Hartford, Los Angeles and now Chicago. New York, the “first city” of the nation has yet to join that inner circle.

What happened in Chicago, the super bowl of municipal politics? Since the death of the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley who had governed the city from 1955 to 1977, its local politics have been turbulent and unpredictable. Chicago has endured three different mayors and two cataclysmic changes in the leadership of the Cook County Democratic Party. The party’s present chairman, Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak, now fights for political survival, his own and his party’s. In 1983, for the second time in four years, the Windy City’s citizenry ousted an incumbent Mayor endorsed by Democratic Party regulars and chose a maverick Democrat instead. In 1979, the voters picked a woman, Jane Byrne. Four years later they dumped her for a 61-year old black lawyer, Congressman Harold Washington who vowed during his campaign to dismantle the city’s Democratic organization.

What was the key to Washington’s ultimate victory? The city’s Democratic Party leadership had lost control of the February 22, 1983 primary. In a three-way race, fiercely fought, his two opponents (Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, the county prosecutor and eldest son of the late Mayor) together outpolled Washington with 63 per cent of the Democratic vote. No one got a majority. But since Washington’s vote was the highest of the three, he was able to snatch the Democratic nomination for mayor with 424,000 votes, only 37 per cent of the total Democratic vote of 1,200,000. To no one’s surprise, Bernard Epton, the Republican nominee, received only 12,000 votes, an average of three votes per precinct.

To triumph in the general election seven weeks later on April 12th, Washington had to attract an additional 240,000 voters, primarily from among those whites who had backed Byrne and Daley in the primary. It became a formidable task. Apart from the volatile issue of race, Washington was his own worst enemy. His private failings, tardiness in paying bills, failure to file income tax returns (for which he spent a month in the Cook County jail) and the suspension of his law license in the 1970s for taking clients’ fees without rendering legal services, almost ruined his chance to become mayor. Nor did Epton hesitate to make Washington’s personal integrity a prominent issue in what came to be a racially divisive and foul election — thanks to the media (including the Chicago Defender, the city’s black daily), the candidates themselves and some of their sleazy backers.

Two days before the election, an exasperated Mike Royko, a Washington sympathizer and the nationally syndicated columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times, sounded off: “So, whose fault will it be if Washington loses? It will be Washington’s fault. He and the collection of self-important bumblers and aspiring wheeler-dealers who pass for his campaign organization.” (Washington got lukewarm endorsements from the city’s two major newspapers, the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.)

What followed the February primary was a massive flight of white Democrats to the side of the Republican candidate who was white and Jewish. They were joined by eight of the city’s 50 Democratic ward committeemen who reacted to the racial fears, real or alleged, of their constituencies. Other Democrats hopped on the Republican bandwagon when Washington, a Democrat himself, repeatedly excoriated the local leadership of the Democratic Party.

On the night before the election, the political seers were cautiously silent. For the sake of their reputations, they dared not predict the outcome. Election day itself witnessed an unprecedented high turnout of registered voters, more than 80 per cent. Washington won by a slight majority, receiving 668,000 votes or 52 per cent, to 620,000 or 48 per cent for Epton, the Republican loser.

Washington’s election drew the curtain on a half century of Irish and Catholic dominance of the political stage in Chicago. Since 1933 all Mayors have been Catholic and Irish, with the exception of Mayor Bilandic, a Catholic of Croatian ancestry and a protégé of Mayor Daley. Many a Chicagoan recalled the 1960 presidential election in which John F. Kennedy finally overcame decades of anti-Catholic bigotry to take up residence in the White House. He would never have made it there had it not been for usually nonvoting Catholics and Catholic Republicans who for reasons of religious and ethnic pride came out to vote for Kennedy.

How did Washington do it? First and foremost, Washington tantalized the historically lackadaisical black voters with the sweet smell of victory. “It’s our turn now” became the rallying cry. He galvanized their ethnic pride so well that they voted as a bloc as they streamed into the polling places on election day. Shut out in the black communities, Epton did not make a single campaign appearance before a black audience.

White ethnic voters, stereotyped as racist by the national television networks, gave Washington a much larger vote than he — or his staff — had expected. Nearly twenty per cent of the white voters finally chose Washington, higher than the white percentage for a black winner in similar mayoral contests elsewhere. He reaped votes from white independents who lived along the lakefront and from residents of heavily Hispanic wards. But he also received, to the consternation of media pundits, a significant number of votes, estimated at 80,000, from the ethnic neighborhoods, especially those on the northwest side of the city. Without the modest ethnic backing, Washington would have run second and gone back to Congress a loser.

Loyalty to the Democratic Party did make a difference to many white voters. Thousands of such Democrats refused to go Republican and stayed with their party’s candidate. In the general election, a Chicago Democrat had four choices: to vote straight Republican, straight Democratic, or to select one of the two candidates individually by name. A Democratic precinct captain offered this explanation: “Washington won the Democratic nomination in a fair fight. In the past that has guaranteed victory in the general election. Now they were trying to steal the prize from him. That was unfair. You don’t change the rules in the middle of the game — just because the guy is black. I voted the ‘color blind’ way: straight Democratic.”

Union officials who had endorsed Daley or Byrne in the primary, quickly switched their support to Washington. For his liberal and pro-union voting record in Congress, the Americans for Democratic Action had earlier given him a score of 95 points of a possible 100.

The rising tide against Washington visibly subsided on St. Patrick’s Day, three weeks after he had won the primary. George W. Dunne, president of the Cook County board of commissioners, a white ward committeeman and the man who was evicted from his position as chairman of the County Democratic Party at the instigation of Mayor Byrne, made the symbolic gesture: Whereas Washington had been assigned a place toward the rear of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, Dunne took him by the arm and led him to the parade’s front lines where they marched together. The political significance of Dunne’s action rippled through the city.

Two weeks later, an announcement which was headlined on the first page of the business section of the newspapers did not go unnoticed. First Federal Savings and Loan Association, a $4.1 billion financial institution and the second largest in the state elected a prominent black attorney, Earl L. Neal, as its chairman. No other black in the country heads a business anywhere near as large as First Federal A white electrician told me: “If First Federal can trust Neal with four billion dollars, I don’t see why I can’t rely on Washington to run city hall.”

In view of Washington’s victory and his strategic effort to disassociate himself from the leadership of Chicago’s Democratic Party, does the party have a future? Editorializing on the “unity luncheon” held the day after the election with the new mayor-elect as host and attended by Mayor Byrne and Daley, the Chicago Tribune wrote: “These three candidates for mayor represent much of the fabric that makes up Chicago. Mr. Daley is a symbol of the traditional, comfortable, ethnic-dominated structure that shaped the city’s politics for generations. Mrs. Byrne does not exactly represent a faction (unless women can be called that). Rather she stands for the unpredictable element in politics: The voters who refuse to be taken for granted, who get mad at the status quo and demand change — even change from her. Mr. Washington carries the banner of a growing political force in Chicago and the nation: black and minority voters electrified by the discovery that politics works for them too.”

The staunchest allies of political independents who regard themselves as emancipated from, or superior to, the two-party system are the women and men who write or broadcast for the mass media. Once again, they have begun writing obituaries for the Democratic Party of Cook County, as they have done regularly for the past decade. Their political predilections may still be unfounded.

To be victorious, Washington had to challenge the political establishment. During his campaign Washington frequently acknowledged that his black voters were also an ethnic group, one of the newer ones on the block. When he spoke of a “multi-ethnic city,” he did not simply refer to Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Irish or others of European extraction but also included blacks of African ancestry. During the next decade, Washington’s ethnic blacks will find it easier to collaborate with the ethnic groups that Daley personified than with the anti-establishment voters for whom Jane Byrne had once been the patron saint. When the chips are down, Chicago voters will favor the coalition politics of the Democratic Party over the media-manipulated partisanship of independents who tend to be political atheists.

The jambalaya of Chicago politics keeps simmering. Political coalitions will be crucial as the growth of Chicago’s black population continues to taper off in the 1980s. The city’s two fastest growing ethnic groups, the various Hispanic nationalities (already large in number) and the diverse Asians (fewer in number) when counted together, may match the black population by 1990.

Chicago’s urban renewal is not confined to the political order. The first black to occupy the mayor’s chair in city hall began to sit there less than eight months after the Irish and German occupation of the city’s Catholic chancery office had finally come to an end. Breaking a 140-year tradition, an American of Italian origin for the first time heads the Catholic church of Chicago.

In the final days of the campaign, nearly 1,000 news reporters, camera crews, columnists, foreign correspondents, and pollsters flocked to Chicago, some from as far away as Japan and France, to cover the election — to view the racial carnage. Chicago disappointed them.


  • Ed Marciniak

    In 1983, Ed Marciniak was president of the Institute of Urban Life.

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