Hot Air in the Windy City

January 01, 1986  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Policy Review  ·  Government

Chicago has had its own distinctive brand of politics since 1833, when 11 residents incorporated the town — by a vote of 12-1 (no kidding). It is a place where the dead rise from the grave not to devour the living but to cast ballots and where the unofficial electoral motto is "vote for the candidate of your choice, and vote often."

Richard J. Daley, first elected in 1955, was the greatest leader of the Chicago machine. Founded in 1931, the machine provided an otherwise volatile Chicago with political stability, a Pax Democratica of sorts, with the term referring not to democracy but to the Democratic Party which seized complete control of the city during the Great Depression and holds it to this day.

The machine provided for slow, evolutionary change. It simply ignored the demands of insubordinate aldermen, and it domesticated the opposition by giving it a share of the spoils. The only threat to the machine in Daley’s time came from the increasing black immigration into the city and consequent white flight to the suburbs, which created racial tension among whites and economic discontent among blacks. Boss Daley handled this demographic shift by throwing welfare, jobs, and public services to the blacks while soothing the whites by preventing integration.

Daley never had to deal with a Chicago of equal proportions of black and white. He died in office in 1976, leaving a power vacuum which has yet to be filled. Michael Bilandic was mayor for three years, but he was defeated in 1979 by petulant Jane Byrne, the first woman to hold the office. Enter Harold Washington, then a Congressman, formerly a legislator in the Illinois General Assembly.

Washington is witty, intelligent, and black. It was by virtue of his color that he won a plurality in the 1982 Democratic mayoral primary against Byrne and Richard Daley — the late mayor’s son — and then went on to beat the Republican candidate, Bernard Epton. In the Epton-Washington race, each candidate sought to portray his opponent as an opportunist preying upon the racial prejudices of the electorate. Rumors, innuendo, and graffiti abounded, from the objectionable ("Punch two for the Jew; punch nine for the shine"), to the foul ("Nigger die" was spray-painted on the door of a church which Walter Mondale and Washington attended).

What complicated matters was the revelation that Washington was a crook, not in the generic sense ascribed to Chicago politicians as a whole, but in the literal sense of having had his law license suspended for taking clients’ money without performing services and of having served a few weeks in the pen for not filing his income tax forms four years in a row. But Washington won the election anyway, squeaking by with 51.4 percent of the total, including 19 percent of the white vote and 97 percent of the black. The media celebrated his win as a victory over racism, concerning themselves little that Washington won only because the black racists were more monolithic than the white ones.

On the Job Training

Bernard Epton threw a temper tantrum and stomped off to Florida, while Harold Washington took office. But if the new mayor expected to have the run of the city as did his predecessors, or at least to have a decent honeymoon period, he was to be quickly and rudely awakened. Many of the newly elected and re-elected Democratic aldermen never liked Harold Washington.

Some of the more conservative ones distrusted a mayor who had been a member of the radical Congressional Black Caucus. Some had even worked for his Republican opponent. They were in no mood to kiss and make up after the election. Twenty-one aldermen agreed to support Washington, but 29 lined up against him behind the leadership of Cook County Democratic Chairman Edward Vrdolyak.

The existence of the "Vrdolyak 29," as they came to be called, established a political gridlock in the City Council. With a majority of seats, the 29 could pass whatever legislation they wished and block that of the pro-Washington aldermen, but without a two-thirds majority they could not override the mayor’s veto.

The 29’s first act of defiance was to elect council chairmen at a meeting which Washington insisted was illegal because Vrdolyak reconvened it after Washington had left (thus earning for Vrdolyak the nickname "Fast Eddie.") Washington challenged the meeting in court and lost, but is so doing raised the ire of Vrdolyak’s faithful lieutenant, Alderman Edward Burke, who attempted to use his position as City Council finance chairman to refuse to pay for the mayor’s inauguration.

Heads of state no longer declare war, but mayors still do. On May 26, 1983, Mayor Washington solemnly told the public that he was involved in a conflict of "good versus evil." His conflict with the City Council "was no chess game," he averred. "This is no Mickey Mouse business. This is war." So began what a Chicago comedian later dubbed the "Council Wars."

The war was largely rhetorical, but it did approach violence during one session when Washington refused to grant Vrdolyak’s request for a point of order. Responding to Washington’s taunting, Vrdolyak called into question the mayor’s gender, whereupon Washington informed him he was about to "get a mouthful of something you don’t want."

At this point Burke offered to take up the challenge. The fray soon died down and both Washington and Vrdolyak made light of it. But the next day Vrdolyak found that Washington had reduced his bodyguard force from five to two, a development which Vrdolyak, who regularly receives death threats, found not at all funny.

The usual weapons of the combatants are the resolution, the veto, and the lawsuit. Both Vrdolyak and Washington have done their best to depose each other. In May 1984, Alderman Burke revealed that Washington was three weeks late in filing a statment of his economic interests.

Harold Washington

For Mayor Washington, this was nothing unusual; those documents he remembers to file are routinely submitted late. But state law calls for forfeiture of office for the untimely filing of a financial statement, and Burke was quick to pounce upon this as the best way to bring the Council Wars to a quick and successful conclusion.

To no one’s surprise, however, Washington refused to step down. Burke filed suit but a Circuit Court judge quickly dismissed it, pointing out that the law’s draconian penalty had never been applied. The judge did advise that either the Illinois attorney general or the Cook County attorney file suit before the Supreme Court. But as both had political aspirations and hence no desire to alienate Chicago’s blacks, both refused, leaving Alderman Burke in a very embarrassing lurch.

Washington had earlier chosen a more conventional route of trying to rid himself of his foe, trying to elect enough sympathetic committeemen to dump Vrdolyak as the County Chairman. Although Washington gained two committeemen, Vrdolyak remained in power. In fact, Washington found he couldn’t even get rid of Vrdolyak’s brother, Peter, whom he had fired from his $47,500-a-year job with the city.

A U.S. District judge ruled that the dismissal was poltically motivated and therefore violated the "Skakman decree" of the Illinois Supreme Court, which prohibits the firing of lower-level government employees on the basis of political affiliations.

Washington took power threatening to tear down the patronage system that fueled the Democratic machine but the Shakman decree made wholesale personnel changes virtually impossible. Washington requested and received from the court the right to replace 1,200 employees, but he was unable to make a real dent in the city’s 10,000 patronage positions. He is handcuffed for the duration of his leadership to the patronage system of earlier mayors.

Machine Dreams

Are the reports of the machine’s death greatly exaggerated? Probably. It merely operates in two sections now — Washington doles out his allotted full-time patronage positions while both he and Vrdolyak hand out part-time jobs not covered by the Shakman rule. The allocation of contracts and city services is also decided by the two sections of the machine. There is even the possibility that the sections could one day, under different leaders, reunite.

It will never regain its power — the growing strength of the media has emasculated all the old machines through repeated exposure of corruption, and Chicago’s is no exception. But the Windy City machine is not yet ready to join Tammany Hall as only a quaint memory.

The prevailing view is that racism is behind the Council Wars, and it is true that both sides have relied upon the racism of their backers. Vrdolyak has done little to embrace black voters and Washington has made few attempts to appeal to his white constituency. Vrdolyak knows that many white Chicagoans are terrified of what a black mayor could do to the city, and he draws strength from that fear. Washington plays on the racism of blacks.

But ideology seems to be at least as large a factor as race. Washington emerged as a political figure from the Congressional Black Caucus with its radical anti-defense and redistributionist agenda, while some of the Vrdolyak 29 and many of their supporters, despite their politically judicious Democratic affiliation, are conservative or moderate in both lifestyle and ideology.

Washington himself has made only a few real concessions to blacks — he appointed a black police superintendent and issued an executive order requiring 30 percent of city contracts to go to companies controlled by minorities or women.

Washington has tended to conceal his shortcomings behind the racism issue. Among these is his inability to meet deadlines, keep appointments, or pay bills on time. Once Washington invited Vrdolyak to his apartment for an emergency Sunday morning tete-a-tete. After considerable knocking, Washington appeared at the door rubbing the sleep from his eyes; he had forgotten about the meeting. How does Washington respond to critics of his personal irresponsibility? Complained an angry Washington, "The mayor’s latel Implication: black man can’t be on time; colored folks time, that crap all over again."

Washington has also been handicapped by his lack of experience in urban political streetfighting. While Vrdolyak and Burke were slugging it out in the City Council, Washington was working in the comparatively genteel chambers of the Illinois General Assembly, the U.S. Congress, and the Illinois State Penitentiary. He has shown that he has a lot to learn.

In December 1985, for example, Washington ordered the removal of a nativity scene from City Hall, even though the Supreme Court had just declared city-sponsored nativity scenes constitutional. Vrdolyak, rising to the occasion, blasted the mayor in a public letter and Burke labelled Washington a "grinch." Regardless of the merits of Washington’s position, his dismantling of the manger was politically unwise in so Catholic a town.

For days, the switchboard in City Hall was more lit up than the city Christmas tree — which the mayor had had the good sense to leave alone. The nativity scene went back up.

Notwithstanding the best efforts of the Council Wars combatants, the "city that works" still does. The Chicago River is still dyed green on St. Patrick’s Day, the baseball teams still can’t win a title, and the fans are as loyal as ever. There have been serious delays, as when Washington vetoed the expansion of O’Hare Airport in a dispute over the power to award contracts.

Mike Royko

New taxes have been delayed by squabbling, costing the city money. Workers have been temporarily laid off. Whether or not city services have suffered is a matter of debate, though most people think they can’t be any worse than they were under Mayor Byrne. Vrdolyak has alleged that trash recovery has suffered and went so far as to call a press conference to display a trash-filled lot and blame it on the mayor. But Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko countered that Vrdolyak had the trash dumped there himself and that anyway Chicago has always had a lousy garbage collection system.

A more serious concern is the lowering of the city’s credit rating by Moody’s Investors Service. The Council Wars were not directly responsible for this. As Moody’s report noted, "The city has declined in population, manufacturing, and retail sales" and "Its wealth levels and housing values are no longer above state averages." Departing investment is a real concern. The Speaker of the Illinois House, Michael Madigan, stated that several business associates and clients of his told him that given the fight between the mayor and the City Council, they had "foreclosed consideration of investment in Chicago."

Few people believe anymore that the Vrdolyak and Washington forces will ever forge a lasting ceasefire. Only total capitulation, brought about by defeat at the polls, will end the fighting. The Vrdolyak 29 look forward to the 1987 election and an anyone-but-Washington campaign.

But Washington clearly has the inside track. The black population in Chicago is projected to rise from 40 percent in the 1983 election to 44 percent in

  1. A Chicago Tribune poll taken last April showed him leading all the likely challengers in head-to-head competition. Moreover, if Washington is defeated in the Democratic primary he will almost certainly run as a third-party candidate, again using his 1983 primary election strategy of allowing the other two candidates to split the while vote and winning on the strength of minority turnout. Vdrdolyk’s hope of finding a white knight candidate to restore his faction to absolute power are slim at present.

And what can Chicagoans do if neither Washington’s nor Vrdolyak’s forces take complete power in the next election? Then as Mike Royko puts it, "We might as well relax and sit back and take in the show."

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