The spirit of Harold Washington won’t save Chicago.
Washington’s legacy as the city’s first black mayor and Democratic machine breaker is legendary. A remarkable 82 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 1983 race in which he first won. Compare that to the dismal 34 percent earlier this week. Unfathomable numbers when you pair them side by side. Voter turnout in mayoral races has usually hovered around one-third of the electorate in recent years.
His mayoral tenure is oft referred as the halcyon days. It’s a story that reads like a modern-day political fable. The unlikely charismatic candidate who stood up to the powers that be. The experienced politician the white media initially dismissed. He split the white vote and bested a white Republican contender. Once on the fifth floor of City Hall, Washington ushered in new inclusive policies while giving blacks a better share of political power and jobs.
The 1983 and 1987 races saw a city alive with politics. I was a child, but I remember those elections. I had a sense of the racism he faced as Chicago is colored by its racial politics and polarization. I also knew something special was happening in the city. I saved his autograph in a scrapbook. I cried in sixth grade when the principal announced his death over the intercom during library. I wrote in my journal when my parents woke me and my siblings up late one night to view his body lie in state at City Hall.
The power of Washington’s name and legacy is real, but today, it’s almost a figment of our imagination. We’ve embraced a romanticized vision of that time and a belief that it is the template for harnessing black political power. His name is always invoked in political campaigns. When local elections creep up, the question comes up: Who is the next Harold? How do black wards agree on a “consensus candidate?” The magic of 1983 won’t likely be repeated. Ever. We will be okay.
To me, his 1987 death by heart attack signaled the end of black electoral politics in the city. The fight between two black aldermen — Eugene Sawyer and Timothy Evans — to be Washington’s heir apparently led to political disunity, ego and an opening for Richard M. Daley to become mayor. Today, some of the most exciting political activism comes from folks — notably young, working class or out of the political mainstream — not elected but who push issues particularly around police reform. (See: reparations for Jon Burge survivors and accountability for the death of Laquan McDonald.)
Washington’s win is a lesson to remember and study. But the state of black politics in Chicago has changed. Skin color doesn’t always equate to pushing a robust, equitable policy agenda. And today, we are in a political space most would’ve considered unlikely a few days ago — two black women in the runoff to be mayor.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and former Police Board head Lori Lightfoot square off on April 2. Neither won the black vote. Lightfoot didn’t win a single black ward on the South and West sides. Preckwinkle only won one on the West Side, the 27th Ward, which includes a number of diverse communities. But she did pick up some South Side wards. West Side businessman and gospel sensation Willie Wilson captured the most black wards. Yet a closer look at those numbers show Preckwinkle coming in second in those areas. Meanwhile, political scion Bill Daley — son of Richard J. and brother to Richard M. — was not among the top vote getters in black wards. A number of black business elite and black elected officials backed Daley, which immediately attracted accusations of “plantation politics,” a metaphor for blacks selling out their community for white interests.
Tuesday’s outcome tells us the need to identify a consensus black candidate à la Harold Washington needs rethinking. The idea surfaces a lot. It came up back in 2011 when former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun ran for mayor. She tanked in the election receiving less than 10 percent of the vote citywide. After Emanuel announced last fall he wouldn’t seek re-election, an intergenerational group gathered at Jesse Jackson Sr.’s Rainbow PUSH headquarters to say that a black consensus candidate was needed in this year’s mayoral election.
But there wasn’t one. And despite that fact, two black women — one who is queer — made history on election night. The field of 14 mayoral candidates had six black candidates of varying political ideology and experience. Chicago politics is fascinating. This city produced Oscar De Priest, the first northern black congressman elected in the 20th century; Braun, the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate; and of course, the country’s first black president. In a matter of weeks, it will produce an African-American woman mayor making Chicago the largest American city to ever accomplish such a feat. New York City hasn’t done it. Los Angeles hasn’t done it.
If we want to honor and remember Harold Washington, let’s look at how he legislated and governed. Take heed of those lessons.
Washington isn’t coming back. But if we want to resurrect the voter turnout that propelled him to victory more than three decades ago, let’s remember the months of exhaustive ground work to register and mobilize tens of thousands of black voters — a condition Washington demanded before he’d enter the race. For many black folks, that process awakened a passion for civic involvement.
The black vote is just one expression of black political power. But there are others.
Back in the 1960s, more than 200,000 black families pulled their children from Chicago Public Schools to protest the inequitable conditions of the so-called Willis Wagons.
More recently, the dramatic and persistent pressure applied in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting caused an earthquake of civic unrest that stopped highway traffic, shut down Michigan Avenue commerce, convicted a police officer and toppled political figures.
Make no mistake. Washington is unforgettable, particularly for black Chicagoans who witnessed his rise to power. That time will always have a place in our hearts. But true black political power has many faces. It helped created the opportunity for Harold to become Harold — not the other way around.