Chicago still mourns, celebrates beloved Mayor Washington
Nov. 25, 1997
CHICAGO (AP) _ He erased racial barriers and thumped the political machine at City Hall with a twinkle in his eye and a wisecrack on his lips.
Ten years after his death, Mayor Harold Washington is still larger than life for many in Chicago, a black folk hero who changed the city forever.
``He opened wider the doors of opportunity for all Chicagoans,'' Mayor Richard M. Daley said at a City Council ceremony on Monday, the eve of the 10th anniversary of Washington's fatal heart attack at his City Hall office.
People of all races have been crowding into ceremonies to remember Washington, demonstrating the depth of emotion still produced by the city's first black mayor.
In 1983, Washington beat incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Daley, son of the legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, in the Democratic primary before narrowly winning the general election.
The upset made him highly visible among the new breed of black mayors swept to power in major cities by a civil rights surge.
It also produced an era of name-calling on the City Council, known as ``Council Wars.'' The political skullduggery became so feverish and complex that wags began to call Chicago ``Beirut on the Lake.''
Stalwarts in Chicago's political machine hated Washington's attacks on a political patronage system that had long reserved city jobs for insiders, a system that was lopsidedly white. Critics said the mayor was no better than they were and merely wanted the power for himself.
Often, Washington made laughter his chief weapon. He said the critics were spreading ``the same old doo-doo'' and that the machine's days were numbered.
``Like a wounded animal, it will crawl off in the woods and die,'' he said.
Chicago's black community splintered following Washington's death in 1987, unable to rally to another leader. Black voter registration is still down and many leaders say apathy remains widespread.
But the machine is history. And Chicago _ the nation's third-largest city, where 38 percent of the 2.8 million residents are white, 38 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic and 4 percent some other race _ is no longer a place where race decides who gets to the top in politics.
A Washington ally, Carol Moseley-Braun, has gone on to become the first black woman U.S. senator. The powerful Cook County Board now has a black president.
City departments are more open to women and members of minority groups. A freedom-of-information ordinance, an ethics code for city workers and modern, more open bookkeeping are all part of Washington's legacy.
His tenure wasn't unblemished. Turmoil on the Chicago Housing Authority dating to the elder Daley's administration worsened and Washington was criticized for having an ex-convict on his staff and for giving city contracts to friends.
Still, most in Chicago prefer to dwell on his successes.
``The key word is reform,'' said University of Chicago sociologist Terry Clarke, who is compiling an oral history of the Washington years.
``Before Washington, most of the aldermen would just laugh if you asked about reform and quote Paddy Bauler _ that Chicago ain't ready for reform,'' he said. ``Today, City Hall is a different place, more open, less secretive and hostile.''
Democratic U.S. Rep. Danny Davis smiles as he remembers those changes.
``I can remember Harold jumping up and shouting, `Patronage is dead _ we will dance on its grave,''' Davis said. ``People would go wild. Harold was able to radiate a feeling that Chicago belonged to all of us.''
Then came the stunning news _ the mayor was dead, shortly after winning a second term.
``It was unbelievable to see thousands of people lined up in the cold, just to get a glimpse of the hearse, or just to be able to say they were there,'' Davis said.
``There was a level of hope that this city has never seen before. And it is so sad to think of what happened after he died. There are many people who are still trying to come to grips with that.''