• U.S.

A Loss in the Family: Harold Washington: 1922-1987

3 minute read
Jack E. White

When the near religious fervor of black voters combined with enough support from white “lakefront liberals” to propel him to a second term last spring, Harold Washington predicted that he would serve 20 years as Chicago’s first black mayor. But his bid to establish a political dynasty that would rival Richard J. Daley’s legendary machine came to a sudden end last week. Seated at the desk in his city hall office, the portly, 65-year-old Washington collapsed % from a massive coronary while going over the day’s appointments with his press secretary. Despite the speedy intervention of bodyguards and paramedics, the mayor suffered irreversible brain damage and was pronounced dead at Northwestern Memorial Hospital 2 1/2 hours later.

Washington’s death stunned Chicago’s black community. “He was a role model,” said Congressman Charles Hayes, a Washington crony who represents the South Side district that sent the mayor to the House from 1981 to 1983. “I never believed Harold could open up a city and turn it around as he did.” Roy Larson, editor of the monthly Chicago Reporter, called Washington’s death a “loss in the family in the way Jack Kennedy’s was.”

A flamboyant former ward heeler in Daley’s Cook County Democratic organization who served a month in prison in 1972 for failing to file income tax returns for four years, Washington broke away from both the machine and his past to become a symbol of black political empowerment. Turmoil marked his 4 1/2 years in city hall, as he fought to consolidate his political control over a city evenly divided between blacks and whites. After winning a bitter, racially tinged election in 1983, Washington told rejoicing black supporters, “It’s our turn now.” But his attempt to take charge of the city hall machinery was frustrated for three years by die-hard opposition from the city council’s white majority, led by the mayor’s archenemy, Edward R. Vrdolyak.

Not until a court-ordered special election in 1986 did Washington, who castigated Vrdolyak’s allies as “crooks and lowlifes who climb out from under rocks,” finally gain an effective majority on the 50-member city council. He tightened his grip on power with his overwhelming victory over Vrdolyak in April’s mayoral election. So thorough was the drubbing that many of Vrdolyak’s aldermanic supporters defected to Washington’s camp. Vrdolyak, who presided over the tattered remnants of Daley’s machine as chairman of the Cook County Democratic central committee, quit the party and became a Republican.

Vowing a war on patronage, Washington pushed through a tough ethics law for city officials and expanded city contracts for women and minorities. Yet his tenure was not entirely free of scandal: seven city officials, including two black councilmen who are allies of the mayor, have been indicted on federal bribery and kickback charges. Despite the mayor’s soaring rhetoric, there were few improvements in Chicago’s notoriously inadequate public schools or the city’s crime-ridden public housing projects.

Vice Mayor David Orr, 43, a white liberal, is serving as interim mayor while the city council selects one of its members to become acting mayor until a 1989 election. But the succession could turn contentious if Washington’s political heirs cannot agree on a candidate or their foes make an attempt to force a special election next year. Either way, the power of Chicago’s black voters and their determination to retain control of the city’s highest office make it likely that the next mayor will be black. The leading contenders: Timothy Evans, 43, Washington’s bland but competent city council floor leader, and Eugene Sawyer, 53, the council’s president pro tem.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com