Harold Washington

Harold Lee Washington (April 15, 1922 – November 25, 1987) was an American lawyer and politician who became the first African American Mayor of Chicago, serving from 1983 until his death in 1987.

Mayor of Chicago (1983–1987)

In the February 22, 1983, Democratic mayoral primary, community organizers registered more than 100,000 new African American voters, while the white vote was split between the incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and the other challenger, Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Washington won with 37% of the vote, versus 33% for Byrne and 30% for Daley.

Although winning the Democratic primary is normally tantamount to election in heavily Democratic Chicago, after his primary victory Washington found that his Republican opponent, former state legislator Bernard Epton (earlier considered a nominal stand-in), was supported by many white Democrats and ward organizations, including the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Alderman Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak.[30] Epton’s campaign referred to, among other things, Washington’s conviction for failure to file income tax returns. (He had paid the taxes, but had not filed a return.) However, Washington appealed to his constituency in his mayoral political campaign, and stressed such things as reforming the Chicago patronage system and the need for a jobs program in a tight economy. In the April 12, 1983, mayoral general election, Washington defeated Epton by 3.7%, 51.7% to 48.0%, to become mayor of Chicago. Washington was sworn in as mayor on April 29, 1983, and resigned his Congressional seat the following day.

During his tenure as mayor, Washington lived at the Hampton House apartments in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Among the changes he made to the city’s government was creating its first environmental-affairs department under the management of longtime Great Lakes environmentalist Lee Botts.

Washington’s first term in office was characterized by ugly, racially polarized battles dubbed “Council Wars”, referring to the then-recent Star Wars films. A 29–21 City Council majority refused to enact Washington’s reform legislation and prevented him from appointing reform nominees to boards and commissions. Other first-term items include overall city population loss, increased crime, and a massive decrease in ridership on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). This helped earn the city the nickname “Beirut on the Lake”, and many people wondered if Chicago would ever recover or face the more permanent declines of other cities in the U.S. Midwest.

The twenty-nine, also known as the Vrdolyak Twenty-nine, was led by “the Eddies”: Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, Finance Chair Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly. The Eddies were supported by the younger Daley (now State’s Attorney), U.S. Congressmen Dan Rostenkowski and William Lipinski, and other powerful white Democrats.

During one of the first Council meetings, Harold Washington was unable to get his appointments approved. Harold Washington and the twenty-one ward representatives that supported him, walked out of the meeting after a quorum had been established. Vrdolyak and the other twenty-eight were able to appoint all of the boards and chairs. Later lawsuits submitted by Harold Washington and others were dismissed because it was determined that the appointments were legally made.

Washington ruled by veto. The twenty-nine could not get the thirtieth vote they needed to override Washington’s veto; African American, Latino and white liberal aldermen supported Washington despite pressure from the Eddies. Meanwhile, in the courts, Washington kept the pressure on to reverse the redistricting of City Council wards that white Democrats had pushed through during the Byrne years. Finally, when special elections were ordered in 1986, victorious Washington-backed candidates gave him the 25–25 split he needed. His vote as chairman of the City Council enabled him to break the deadlock and enact his programs.

Washington defeated former mayor Jane Byrne in the February 24, 1987, Democratic mayoral primary by 7.2%, 53.5% to 46.3%, and in the April 7, 1987, mayoral general election defeated Vrdolyak (Illinois Solidarity Party) by 11.8%, 53.8% to 42.8%, with Northwestern University business professor Donald Haider (Republican) getting 4.3%, to win reelection to a second term as mayor. Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes (Chicago First Party), a Daley ally, dropped out of the race 36 hours before the mayoral general election. During Washington’s short second term, the Eddies fell from power: Vrdolyak became a Republican, Kelly was removed from his powerful parks post, and Burke lost his power as finance chair.


Harold!: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years, Salim Muwakkil (Author), Ron Dorfman (Editor), Antonio Dickey (Photographer), Marc PoKempner (Photographer)

Harold, the Peoples Mayor: The Authorized Biography of Mayor Harold Washington, Dempsey J. Travis (Author)

Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, Gary Rivlin (Author)

Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor, Paul Kleppner (Author)

Harold Washington: The Mayor, the Man, Alton Miller (Author)

Bashing Chicago Traditions: Harold Washington’s Last Campaign, Chicago, 1987, Melvin G. Holli (Author), Paul M. Green (Author)

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