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"I'll Be Mayor for Twenty Years!"

By Kevin Robinson in News on Nov 26, 2007 6:01PM

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the death of Harold Washington. The Chicago of 1983 was very different from the Chicago of 2007: factories were shutting down, and white middle-class homeowners were leaving the city in droves, taking their property taxes and urban stability with them. An alarming upswing in crime and drugs, coupled with escalating racial tensions left many Chicagoans nervous about the future. Richard J. Daley had been dead for seven years, and the power vacuum he left behind was filled with political chaos. It was this Chicago that Harold Washington inherited in 1983.

Although he ran as an anti-Machine reform candidate, the media labeled Washington as the "black candidate." Chicago Democratic Party chairman Ed Vrdolyak, a white Machine hack from the far South Side, declared that the election was a battle between the races. In the neighborhoods, "Whites for Epton" buttons appeared, and white voters rejected Washington, voting instead for Republican Bernard Epton, whose campaign slogan was "Before It's Too Late." After the election, Vrdolyak, who was also the 10th Ward Alderman, established a voting bloc of 28 other white aldermen in the city council who opposed Washington, and together they blocked many of the reforms he tried to enact. This video from Image Union, written and produced by Lynn Sweet, shows about 45 commercials from the 1983 mayoral race, pretty much in chronological order, and gives a glimpse of Chicago during the campaign.

The Trib's Clarence Page called Washington's victory "a triumph of civil rights movement politics over America's last big-city political machine," and that analysis explains more about the Washington years than any other. Washington worked to make his administration inclusive at a time when many feared it would be about black retribution. His leadership gave progressive and independent voices a stake in the future of the city, regardless of class or race. He worked to open the doors of city government to many Chicagoans who had previously been excluded, settling the Shakman case, cutting the city's payroll, and working to eliminate patronage. He invested city resources into the neighborhoods, including white wards where he was opposed. He worked with community and neighborhood groups to enact legislation that improved life for all city residents, including the Tenants Bill of Rights.

The narrative of the Washington legacy is that he broke down barriers, clearing the way for women and minorities to serve in city government. But his legacy left us with the notion that city government can be transparent and open, equal and fair. Although more powerful forces prevailed after Washington's death, the ideals and values of Harold Washington are still with us. Washington broke with tradition in Chicago, bringing outsiders and professionals into city government, giving them positions of authority that had been previously reserved for friends of the Machine. More than any local politician since, Harold Washington represented the best of what Chicago can be.

You can listen to This American Life's retrospective on Harold Washington here

For an in-depth look at Harold Washington and his times, check out Gary Rivlin's book, Fire on the Prairie.