Council War Veterans

November 21, 2007

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Photo by Marc PoKempner from the book "Harold!"
This week is the 20th anniversary of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's death. In 1983, Washington turned Chicago politics on its ear, beating Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley to become the city's first black mayor. We now continue our series marking the anniversary of his death. Today, we go back to the political brawl that defined Washington's first three years in office. It was an epic struggle that engulfed city hall, gripped the public, and came to be known as Council Wars. Many questions remain for some of the people at the center of those battles.
Listen to more from our series, Harold: Then and Now.

In Chicago, Council Wars is the stuff of local legend. Council Wars is at once simple and impossibly complicated. More than 2 decades later, people who lived through it talk about it with nostalgia one minute. And the next, like a broken bone that never quite healed right. At its core it was simple.

WASHINGTON: History.  History was made tonight.

In 1983, when Harold Washington won he upset the power structure of the entire city. For years, Chicago'd been run by the Democratic Party Machine. White politicians controlled the machine and traditionally shortchanged blacks and other minorities when it came to money and power. Washington said that power structure was unfair and corrupt.

WASHINGTON: Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of this city.  Business as usual will not be accepted by any part of this city.  Business as usual will not be accepted by this chief executive of this great city.

For those who held the power, it sounded like a threat. The story of Council Wars is about how those who felt threatened undermined Washington. The council's 50 aldermen split into two blocks. 21, most of them black, sided with Washington. The other 29 aldermen, almost all of them white, were lead by two men, Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke. Both Vrdolyak and Burke refused to be interviewed for this story.

The 29-21 split worked like this. The Vrdolyak 29 could vote down anything Washington did. Washington could veto anything the Vrdolyak 29 wanted—and they didn't have to votes to override him. It became political game of bloody knuckles that lasted 3 years.

DAVIS: The government during that time appeared to be at a stalemate.

Illinois Congressman Danny Davis was one of the Washington 21.

DAVIS: Well it was frustration, but you also knew you had some leverage because you had the mayor.  And so you had an equalizer.

But Council Wars was more than political deadlock. These days politicians from both sides don't like to dwell on it, but the council did split almost entirely along racial lines. And for the public that was watching, race was a major issue.

DAVIS: I mean, I remember one Sunday, I took Harold to an all-white church.

When Davis and Washington got there, there was a crowd outside.

DAVIS: Chanting racial epithets and so forth.

Keep in mind, these are people outside a church... and they were talking to the mayor of Chicago.

DAVIS: Using what we call the n-word, and saying n-word go home.

O'CONNOR: I mean race was a big part of it.  I don't think there's a question about that because it broke down predominantly black and white

Pat O'Connor is the aldermen in the 40th ward on Chicago's northwest side. He was in the council with Danny Davis—but was in the Vrdolyak 29. O'Connor says, for him it was always more about what his ward might lose if Washington realigned power and resources.

O'CONNOR: The message was always, I'm going to redistribute the wealth, because my community hasn't been taken care of in those days.  It wasn't like people in our neighborhood would stand up and cheer and say oh good take my stuff.

O'Connor says he was a freshman alderman...he looked at his ward, which was mostly white, and chose the side he thought he had to.

O'CONNOR: You were pretty sure if you had no home, between the two sides, they would chew you up.  So there were no Switzerland in those days.  Everybody was a combatant.

Even though he didn't think he had a choice back then, he's not so sure now. O'Connor says he voted with Washington more than most in the 29—and he wonders if a group of alderman could have split off as independents.

O'CONNOR: I think maybe what you'd have liked to have done is to find a way to create a third group, a swing group.

A first-term alderman like O'Connor didn't have much power. But what about those who did—the people who created and exploited the divisions that were Council Wars.

MELL: In retrospect it would have been better if both sides would have simmered down.  If Washington went into the white community and said, you've got nothing to fear about me.

Dick Mell's been alderman of Chicago's 33rd ward since 1975. Unlike O'Connor he wasn't new... he was a powerful member of the Vrdolyak 29. In fact, when Washington ran in 83, Mell was one of several Democratic Party ward bosses who crossed party lines and used their political organizations against Washington—supporting Republican Bernie Epton. Mell says that's a decision that he'd probably take back.

MELL: Because I was a Democrat, it didn't feel right.

And that's not the only one.

MELL: Do you ever wonder if you were on the wrong side of history?  Oh certainly, I think we all did.

Mell says he thinks he made the best decision he could, with the information he had at the time. But his regrets raise other questions. Like whether Council Wars was inevitable.

MILLER: I absolutely do not think that was inevitable.

Alton Miller was Mayor Washington's press secretary. He says, Council Wars and the divisions it created were the direct result of choices people made.

MILLER: Dick Mell said to one of the reporters, it's a viable political strategy to just hold the city hostage for the term of the mayor in order to get rid of this mayor, that that's a legitimate political strategy.  Well that's political terrorism.

Miller says for those who believed in Washington, Council Wars is still painful, because it took up three of his four years as mayor. He died a few months into his second term... a little over a year after he won control of the council in a series of special aldermanic elections.

MILLER: Some people are still very bitter about what happened.  He died at the peak of his powers.  The what-ifs are very compelling.

Miller says people still need to think about the what-ifs. He says Council Wars still has a lot to teach Chicago. Miller says there are lessons that are important today, and are in danger of being forgotten. Miller says even if the stories of that time are difficult or politically inconvenient, they still need to be told.

I'm Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio.