Remembering Harold Washington
It was twenty years ago today that Mayor Harold Washington collapsed at his desk in City Hall. He died of a massive heart attack.
In 1983, Washington surprised Chicago by winning the Democratic Primary for Mayor. He won with 36% of the vote, beating out incumbent Mayor Jane M. Byrne and Richard M. Daley. In the April 1983 general election, Washington received 52% of the vote to become Chicago’s first black mayor, trumping Bernard Epton (Republican) and Ed Warren (Socialist Workers).
Many in a racially divided and tense city were surprised by his win. Washington amazed his critics when he delivered city services to all corners of the city fairly and without regard to ethnicity, fighting for equal provision of public services and neighborhood street, curb and gutter repair. It was during his first term that he often found himself at odds with the City Council, a bloc of 29 council members stood in the way of appointing reform nominees to boards and commissions. In 1984, When Washington was late filing an ethics statement, they even tried to remove him from office. As a result, he governed by veto, knowing the Council couldn’t get the one more vote needed to overturn the power of Washington’s pen. Washington pushed the courts to reverse the Ward districting implemented by white democrats during the Byrne years. Special elections were ordered in 1986, bringing more African-American and Hispanic council members, which led to a 25-25 split needed for him to exercise his power as chairman to break any deadlocks. As mayor, he issued a number of executive orders to change the way the City conducted business; increasing minority business contracts; opening government with Freedom of Information; and opening the City’s budget process for public input.
He was reelected in April 1987, only serving seven months of his second term before his death. In addition to serving as mayor, Washington also served as an Illinois State Representative, Illinois State Senator, and a United States Congressman.
Image of Harold Washington by Antonio B. Dickey, via Chicago Public Library.