Politics and Salt Pork at Izola's

November 20, 2007

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Izola White presides over a Saturday gathering, under a portrait of another restaurant regular.
Izola's Restaurant was a regular stop for Harold Washington. According to one version of the story, this is where he decided to run for mayor of Chicago. Even today the diner is a place where politicians and everyday people cross paths and commune over biscuits baked from scratch. Chicago Public Radio stops by, as part of our series this week reflecting on Washington and his lasting impact.  

Listen to more stories from Harold: Then and Now (View full size photo).

Every Saturday morning, a dozen or so black men hold court near the front of Izola's, at 79th and Rhodes. They are gray-haired and seasoned – retired judges, police officers, political operatives and businessmen. They eat bacon and talk politics. Sometimes they signify on each other.

Looming over them is an oversized poster of Harold Washington. It's the same photo seen in many black Chicago homes, right next to frames of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus. Twenty years ago a heart attacked killed Washington.

Friends say he would've built a massive political organization had he lived. But they say while he was alive, he devoured dictionaries and thesauruses and he laughed. A lot.

McCORMICK: The laughter he would evoke would always not be mean-spirited or hurtful or derogatory toward other individuals. He was often the butt of the joke he would tell.

Carl McCormick is a retired appellate court judge. Next to him is Mitchell Watkins. They go back and forth.

WATKINS: He was an extremely smart, charismatic, charming fellow who was disappointing in terms of either a political legacy and he was awful good at politics and obviously enjoyed the fray. Unfortunately, he died suddenly and didn't leave much of an organization or much in the way of marching orders behind.

McCormick doesn't see it that way.

McCORMICK: He opened up city government to the people in a way that it had probably never, during my lifetime, had been open up. All of the city had a chance to participate in city government under his administration.

Owner Izola White says the legacy started here. She's perched near the cash register greeting and giving people back their change.

Izola waitresses often have to elbow their way to tables. Every seat is filled in the twenty-four hour diner. The hash browns have just enough seasoning and the short ribs melt off the fork. It was common to see Washington dine here. He'd work the room to shake everyone's hand – that was the politician in him. But he also had a smile that that could thaw cynicism.

WHITE: He would come in and eat. He'd eat salt pork. This is the only place he could get salt pork and it would be right. Congressman Hayes and Washington was sitting at table 14, and I said, ‘Well, why don't you run for mayor?' He said ‘We're thinking about it and when I decide, Izola, I'll call you.'
MOORE: What year was that?
WHITE: Hell, I don't know; that was twenty-something years ago.

Well, he did call her. It was 1982, and Ms. Izola White hosted one of his first fundraisers at her home.

Some Saturday mornings are particularly raucous at the restaurant. Chicago historian Timuel Black is sitting with this Saturday crew, which some folks liken to a political barber shop. He was part of the kitchen cabinet that pushed then-First District Congressman Washington to run for mayor.

BLACK: We had to convince him. In fact with Lu Palmer and others we brought him in to have an interview. He said if you get fifty thousand new black voters and one-hundred thousand dollars then I'll consider running. MOORE: When he said that, did he think that was an impossible feat?
BLACK: That's right! That's what he felt. We hit the streets and within that month we had ‘we shall see in '83.' 'and then ‘come alive October 5.' We registered more than two-hundred thousand new black voters. Then, I went to Harold and said ‘hmm…whatcha gonna do now, man? And he said, ‘I think I'm gonna have to run.'

Washington won the first of two terms in 1983. There are women enjoying breakfast at Izola's, too. A group of lawyers and judges sit in the back. They are quiet compared to the rowdiness up front. Judge Arnette Hubbard worked on all of Washington's campaigns and was a co-chair of one of the fundraising committees.

HUBBARD: He made a difference not only by achieving the office but having the good sense to look at middle management bureaucracy in which all governments function and see that if there was going to be any lasting change politically and economically in Chicago and in government, there would have to be layers of people in these different bureaus and departments and divisions.

But her fondest memory is when she'd walk in his office and he called her “angel.”

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.