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Was Harold Washington "a colorful and ruthless black political boss"?
October 21, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I notice that a Tribune columnist recently described Harold Washington, the late Chicago mayor, as "a colorful and ruthless black political boss." Is this a common perception in Chicago now? I observed the Washington years from afar, mostly via the national media, which tended to focus on the Beirut-on-the-Lake aspect of things. Still, the characterization of Washington that sticks in my mind from those days is "a reformer by Chicago standards." Faint praise I know, but still: is Chicago's first black mayor now remembered as boss?

— Tony Davis, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cecil Adams replies:

We had some debate about the wisdom of answering this question, Tony. Nothing against you, but the general sentiment was that the idea of Harold Washington as a ruthless political boss was so laughable as to be unworthy of this column's attention — and yes, we're the ones who calculated how much gas you'd need for a self-launching fart. What next? wailed my colleagues. Do you refute claims that the Pope was Jewish? That the sun rose in the west?

Now, now, I said. There's good reason to explore the subject. In our brave new era, when everybody with an Internet connection was a journalist and information was more or less immortal, an assertion launched in a seemingly reputable online venue had already made it past the first cut of history. Next thing you know somebody cites it in Wikipedia, and suddenly yesterday's crackbrained contention has hardened into today's accepted fact. Time for the Straight Dope, I declared, to give reality a fighting chance.

First we needed to define our terms. What was a political boss? The classic case, our colleague Mike argued, was Richard J. Daley, who was not only mayor of Chicago but chairman of the Cook County Democratic party. Richard M. Daley, on the other hand, was strictly the mayor and held no party position. Ergo, Mike suggested, the elder Daley was a political boss. His son wasn't, and by implication neither was Harold Washington, who also didn't have a party job. 

Get out, snorted Ben, chairman of the Straight Dope political science department. Richie Daley controls everything in Chicago — the City Council, the boards and commissions, the budget. Maybe he isn't an old-school boss, but that's because he's rendered the idea of an old-school boss obsolete. He's a boss in the sense that George Steinbrenner was The Boss: the guy in command.

Harold Washington, in contrast, was barely in command of the executive bathroom. For most of his tenure his faction in City Council had 21 votes; his opponents had 29. The other side opposed virtually everything he did. Washington's only effective weapon was his veto power. The result was stalemate for three years.

Was the split tribal? Of course it was tribal. The anti-Washington faction, led by the "two Eddies," Eddie Vrdolyak of the 10th Ward and Ed Burke of the 14th, consisted of 28 white and one Hispanic aldermen. The Washington bloc was made up of 16 black and five white aldermen, with all of the latter from traditionally liberal lakefront wards. Things don't get much more tribal than that. 

A federal court decision in 1986 broke the deadlock. Whites and blacks each accounted for roughly 40 percent of Chicago's population at the time, Hispanics about 15 percent. But whites held two-thirds of the City Council seats and Hispanics had one. In a lawsuit, Washington's allies argued that the ward lines had been purposely drawn to shut minorities out of power and demanded a redistricting. A federal judge agreed and ordered that the borders of seven wards be redrawn and new elections held. Washington sympathizers won four of the seven contests, resulting in a 25-25 aldermanic split. Since Washington cast the tie-breaking vote, he controlled the City Council from that point on.

That was in April 1986. Washington won re-election a year later and died of a heart attack in November 1987. He'd been top dog for just 19 months.

Did he display bosslike proclivities then or at any other point during his time in office? Not so you'd notice. Take personnel appointments — if the mayor had been a champion of tribal politics, you'd expect most of the jobs and contracts to have gone to black people.

But they didn't. Former Reader writer Gary Rivlin, in Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race (1992), says that of Washington's top appointees during his first year in office, 43 percent were black, 37 percent were white, and 16 percent were Hispanic, approximating the city's ethnic makeup. Initially the number of black city workers actually fell slightly due to budget cutbacks. Contracts and city services were likewise evenly distributed in white and black wards. Some in the black community groused that it was their turn at the trough and instead they had a mayor who was determined to be fair.

By all accounts Washington opened up city government. He signed the Shakman decree, which ended the political hiring that had been basis of the Democratic machine's power. By 1987 about 40 percent of the city's commissioners and deputy commissioners were women. Some of his appointments were academics and civic do-gooders, people who had never had a place at City Hall before.

The question before us, though, isn't whether Washington was a reformer. It's whether he was a boss. Here the best evidence is a conversation with Washington that was secretly taped by James "Skip" Burrell, a candidate for a special aldermanic election in the 3rd Ward. Washington had invited Burrell to his Hyde Park apartment on a Sunday morning in early 1985 to ask him to drop out of the race to benefit a Washington ally. For reasons that needn't concern us, Burrell passed the tape to the Vrdolyak faction; ultimately a complete transcript was published in the Tribune. It gave what's perhaps the most vivid picture we have of the kind of man Washington was:

Burrell: I have done … what the last three white mayors have told me to do. And there ain't nothing in the world I want to do more than to do what you want me to do. I have a problem … I have a whole lot of people that … are looking for me to run for alderman of the 3rd Ward. I'm caught between a rock and a hard place. I want to do what you want me to do and I want to do what they want me to do. What the [obscenity] do I do? What do I do? Do I die?

Washington: No. Do you want me to answer?

Burrell: Yes, sir.

Washington: You do as you want to do. What you want to do depends on what you consider your best interest …

Burrell: My best interest is to keep my biggest boss happy …

Washington: Well, I'm not like your white boss. I'm not going to try to tell you what to do.

Burrell: Yes, you are. In a roundabout way you are …

Washington: No, I'm, I'm not a boss, and some people say that's a flaw. I don't think so. I sleep at night. I don't [obscenity] with people …

Burrell: I've never been this close, your honor. Never been this close. That brass ring's right across the street.

Washington: … I know the feeling. I don't take your ambitions lightly. I've told you several times. One of the major criticisms people lodge against me — I don't tell people what to do. I'm too sensitive to other people's feelings, 'cause I don't buy telling me what to do …

Burrell: So what's going to happen if I don't get out, your honor?

Washington: There ain't nothing nasty going to happen to you … I'm not after you for anything. You haven't done anything to me …

Burrell: I ain't making no good friends, though, if I don't get out. [Laughter]

Washington: You asked me if I'm going after you. The answer is no. I've got other people I'd rather [obscenity] with than you. Ah, I wouldn't be the happiest man in the world when I saw you, but I wouldn't be angry … I'd say, "Hello, Skip, how you doing?" I mean, [obscenity].

Is that a ruthless political boss talking? I don't think so. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, do some people in Chicago think Harold Washington was a boss? Apparently at least one person does. The chances of persuading said individual perhaps aren't great. But others may judge for themselves.


I continue to be surprised at how little reaction the "ruthless black political boss" comment provoked. I spoke the other day with Alton Miller, Harold Washington's former press secretary, who's now a dean at Columbia College. "I cut Kass some slack," he said. "Harold Washington could be considered a political boss only in the context of Council Wars," where each side routinely demonized the other. "I think if you pressed Kass he'd agree it's not literally true. But he's writing under the protection of a convention — as a columnist you're supposed to make extreme statements."

This is what I'd call the horse's-ass defense: as a columnist your only job is to be provocative, and damn the facts. Miller also points out that Washington-as-boss fits with the "time of troubles" take on Chicago history: that the inter-Daley period was one of pointless conflict and drift, when the city came close to going the way of St. Louis or Detroit.

I don't dispute that a lot of people see it that way. I just think it's bullshit. City Hall had been a politburo previously; Harold Washington opened it up. Things never went back to the old ways. The man deserves some credit for that. If you don't feel like giving it to him, hey, your privilege. But to call him a ruthless political boss? I'm sorry, that's just wrong.

— Cecil Adams

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