Updated: May 15, 2013 6:44AM
It’s easy to forget today, 30 years after Harold Washington was elected Chicago’s first African-American mayor, what a refreshing and ultimately popular voice of reform took the helm of our city in 1983.
There’s a perception now in some quarters that Washington’s victory was a fluke in which a solid African-American vote was enough for a plurality in a three-way Democratic primary and a general election against a previously unknown Republican. But even black voters didn’t automatically side with Washington — he got only 11 percent of the citywide vote when he ran for mayor in 1977.
Washington earned his political support, starting in the first televised debate against his primary election opponents, Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, said Robert Starks, director of the Harold Washington Institute for Research and Policy Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. Washington demonstrated he was super smart and understood government, and he didn’t scare city workers “who thought they were going to lose their jobs,” Starks said. Hispanics and enough white progressives rallied to his side to send him to the fifth floor of City Hall.
It was hardly smooth sailing for Washington. The continued hostility was so strong in some neighborhoods that columnist Mike Royko felt compelled to write, “Don’t worry, Uncle Chester, Harold Washington isn’t going to marry your daughter.”
And in the infamous Council Wars, the City Council’s Vrdoylak 29 blocked Washington’s reform efforts, giving Chicago the nickname “Beirut on the Lake.”
But Washington persevered, and when a new ward map gave him the votes, he pushed through some excellent reforms. The more Chicagoans got to know him, the more they admired — even revered — him. A monthlong tribute to the former mayor began on Friday.
Back in 1983, Royko ended his “Uncle Chester” column by saying of Washington, “Who knows, we might even wind up liking him.”
We certainly did.