1-26-2005 Photo of the Late Mayoral-elect Harold Washington gesturing to a campaign supporter in this Wednesday April 13, 1983 photo by Sun-Times photographer, Al Seib. Sun-Times file photo.
Updated: May 30, 2013 2:14PM
Monday, marks the 30th anniversary of the inauguration of Mayor Harold Washington. His election as the city’s first black mayor lodged him forever in the history books.
This month has seen a raft of news articles, forums and celebrations commemorating the 1983 election and elevation of Washington to the 5th floor of City Hall. With them come lingering questions that have long dominated the city’s political milieu: Will there ever be another Harold? Will there ever be another black mayor?
“Never,” I answer to the first.
If only the second were so easy.
Three decades hence, many who helped elect him still mourn the demise of the “Washington Coalition,” that muscular combine of African Americans, Latinos, women and progressive whites that perished with the mayor in 1987. Others still hope for another black — or “progressive” — mayor.
That was the takeaway from a recent forum I moderated, hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.
Washington was black, but he wasn’t a black mayor.
He was a “masterful politician” who reached out far beyond his own racial limitations, noted panelist Michael C. Dawson, a political science professor and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.
Washington “was talking about issues that politicians are, were afraid of then, and afraid of today,” Dawson said. “Twenty years ago, 30 years ago, 35 years ago.” Issues like gay marriage; reproductive choice; amnesty for immigrants; neighborhood development; human rights.
Those issues were just a few on the progressive agenda that elected Washington mayor. Thirty years ago, 4th Ward Ald. Will Burns was 10 years old and growing up in Cleveland. He went on to attend the University of Chicago, base his master’s thesis on Washington’s 1982 primary campaign, and emulate his political career.
Back then, Washington held his fellow black elected officials accountable to their voters, Burns said.
No more. In his runs for office, Burns, recalled, he has filled out countless questionnaires from myriad interest groups, querying him on his positions on their issues. “I have yet to fill out a questionnaire that comes from a coalition of African-American organizations about where I stand on African-American issues,” he said.
Progressives also have lost their way. Since Washington, the values he championed have not been effectively embraced by any person, organization or movement. For example, the Chicago City Council’s so-called “progressive” caucus recently split into two separate factions.
I was honored to serve in the Washington administration. His election was the remarkable confluence of an extraordinary man, a singular moment and a political movement.
Lightning is seldom bottled.
Still, this is Chicago, a town with enough talent, mischief and brawn to make political magic for years to come. There was only one Harold. But this town still has names like Madigan, Daley, Quinn, Jackson, Stroger, Preckwinkle, Rahm.
Not to mention that “funny” African one.
At 5 p.m. Monday, a 30th anniversary celebration of Washington’s election will be held at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. King Drive. For more information, visit http://mayorharoldwashington.com/.