Seven Wretched Days | Feature | Chicago Reader

Seven Wretched Days 

The breakup of the coalition. The making of the mayor. The victory of the "mob." The errors of the press.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

I. The Campaign Begins

Richard Mell doesn't waste time. He telephones Alderman Luis Gutierrez. The Latinos are pivotal. Mell will have the votes if he can lure the Latinos into his camp.

And who's done more for Latinos? Mell will remind his compadres that he was a lone voice preaching Latino advancement long before any of his black or white colleagues in the party. Irene Hernandez, the city's first elected Latino official; Cook County Commissioner Hernandez--she's from his ward organization. He was her sponsor and mentor.

It's 11:30 AM--Gutierrez remembers glancing at his watch--when the phone rings. Later, when Gutierrez has time to think, he'll realize that Mell just might be the last person on this planet he wanted to hear from on this of all mornings. At 11:30, the mayor is in an ambulance en route to Northwestern Memorial, where he won't be officially pronounced dead for over two hours.

Later Mell will explain that he called to offer his condolences. The conversation just naturally drifted to politics.

In Gutierrez's telling, Mell barely hesitates before making his pitch for mayor: "He said, 'Your mayor's dead. I'm calling you because I want you to keep your options open. I don't want you to rush and make hasty decisions.'"

What an asshole, Gutierrez thinks to himself. An ally, a friend, an important man in his life--damn, his political mentor--is hanging on for dear life and this fool is asking for his vote! As though he'd get it if he made a thousand phone calls. (And he'll call several more times, too.) He can talk all he wants about Irene Hernandez--she sat silent on the County Board for years without once publicly taking a stand against the machine's terrible mistreatment of Latinos. Not even when Mell himself used his ward's share of street-resurfacing money without spending a dime in the Latino neighborhoods (which account for roughly 40 percent of the ward). Or when Mell fought to the bitter end the special aldermanic elections that created the Latino "bloc" in City Council.

Gutierrez practically hangs up on Mell, mumbling first that he doesn't believe the mayor is dead. "First I think, this is great," Gutierrez said. "The mayor will come out of this, and I'll tell everyone in the media about Mell's call. Then I'm scared shitless. Then I started to cry. What did that bastard know that I didn't?"

Perhaps Mell's call to Gutierrez was the first of the wretched week-long campaign that began with the mayor's heart attack and ended the next Wednesday with the big vote at 4 AM. Probably not, though; 30 minutes had passed between the time Washington was stricken and the moment Gutierrez's phone rang. Plenty of time for Mell and many others to have made a lot of calls.

II. THE CANDIDATES

The early line saw Tim Evans the favorite to succeed the mayor. This was nonsense. Evans could count on no more than 15 solid votes, if that many. For one thing, at least half the council's black caucus of 18 had never cared much for the mayor and his progressive, antimachine agenda; they had little use for Evans. As the mayor's floor leader, Evans was the lightning rod for much of this group's disaffection. "In a sense, Tim was Harold's hit man," one black alderman said. "He had the job of going around and keeping people in line. Those who didn't feel they were really included by the administration put a lot of the blame on Tim. To them, Tim never did a thing for them."

Why should they support Evans now? For four and a half years they'd groused that they were not getting the kinds of privileges traditionally accorded to the loyalists of past administrations. They were not getting an especially large cut of the city's federal poverty funds, and they did not enjoy untethered control over the city dollars coming to their wards. "Why change the rules just when we're getting into the game, right when we're where we want to be?" Alderman William Beavers said back in 1986. Beavers and his colleagues didn't dare take on the mayor--that would have been political suicide--but now and then they quietly cheered on the likes of Richard Mell. "Some of these guys want Harold out more than we do," Mell said a couple of years back. "Black colleagues grab me all the time and tell me what a disaster this guy is. They congratulate me when I really kick Harold's ass on the council floor because they'd love to be doing it."

With Washington out of the way, the disaffected blacks saw a chance to regain some of what they had lost, and they were damned if they were going to let little Timmy Evans jeopardize it. He had been one of them, a machine loyalist, until opportunity called for him to be the mayor's goody-two-shoes floor leader. That only made it worse. Why should they go to the mat for a guy who had never done the same for them?

Several of the black machinists made little effort to mask their feelings of liberation. "I went downtown expecting people to hug me--to cry, to feel what was happening," Gutierrez said. Yet aldermen looking to the City Council chambers in search of a supportive environment were in for a shock. "Several aldermen were almost jovial that Harold died," another alderman said. "They sensed a new day had come." How do you know that--did they say those words? "I saw it, it was obvious. They didn't look mournful. Like I said, they looked almost jovial." Gutierrez said he didn't have to read faces: "One alderman walked up to me and said, 'Hey, Gutierrez, don't take it so rough.'"

The aldermen who remained committed to the Washington agenda had their own misgivings about Evans. There was no telling what an Evans administration would be like. Sure he was an effective role player on the Washington team, an adept floor leader who could mix it up with the best of them. He was a good choice for that job: smart and smooth and, perhaps most important, a onetime member of the club whose rule Washington had challenged.

But that was the rub. Only a few years earlier Evans had been a foe of the movement whose support he now coveted. On top of virtually every list of doubts was Evans's support of Jane Byrne in the 1983 mayor's race. It wasn't bad enough that there was a serious black candidate in the race who had the support of the movement; Evans was ignoring him to support Jane Byrne, an incumbent whose callous treatment of black Chicago is legendary. Evans committed the mortal sin: he put his own self-interest before the interests of the black community.

Unlike a majority of his black machine colleagues, Evans did buck Byrne and the machine by rejecting their remapping of his ward after the 1980 census, a remapping later scrapped by a federal judge who ruled that it discriminated against blacks and Latinos. Yet those heartened by this one critical and courageous stand on principle were forgetting that Byrne's mapmakers were not at all kind to Evans: they moved a goodly chunk of the strongly antimachine Hyde Park community into his ward, giving him 20,000 nettlesome new voters to contend with, a full one-third of his constituents.

For those who considered Evans only the lesser of two evils, Danny Davis was the preferred choice. During the Byrne years, the IVI-IPO ranked aldermen on a variety of classic reform and progressive issues: for 1981 and 1982, Evans received a 56 percent rating, while Davis's was 80 percent. (Eugene Sawyer's was 13 percent.) Evans was "moldable," Davis a true believer. Davis was the closest thing to a Harold Washington that the City Council had to offer. He is an eloquent speaker with a silky baritone, more at home in a church than in the council. He boasts impeccable movement credentials. He began his political career fighting the machine--fighting "plantation politics," to use a rallying cry that came into vogue in the late 1970s and one that has made its way into the debate in recent days. Davis beat a white-dominated ward organization to become alderman, in 1979, of his virtually all-black west-side ward.

"At first I didn't take him seriously, and that's a shame," one alderman said of Davis. "He was like the opposite of Tim. Danny doesn't always shave, he has this stuff growing under his lip. He wears his ties loose. He still wears polyester at times. He's not neat. But that's unfair to be reluctant to support him for those reasons. He's also a visionary. He's fought the good fight for years."

What about the possibility of a white candidate? For a while there were three--Mell, Burke, and Terry Gabinski, a quiet machine stalwart whose tenure in the council dates back to the 1960s but the numbers never really added up. Though 28 of the 50 aldermen are white, they wouldn't be voting as a bloc. David Orr, Larry Bloom, and Helen Shiller, three white aldermen from lakefront wards, hold to political views and principles that would never allow them to vote for any of the three white hopefuls. A fourth white lakefront vote, that of Edwin Eisendrath, was harder to predict. He is a political neophyte, so there was little more than his rhetoric on which to base an educated guess; still, it seemed unlikely that he could stomach Mell, Burke, or Gabinski.

That put the white machine bloc two votes short of the magic 26. There wasn't much chance of picking up any loose votes, either. Juan Soliz would be the only one of the four Latino aldermen conceivably willing to listen seriously. Picking up a couple of black votes seemed equally unlikely: the same black aldermen who'd been grumbling in Mell's ear had been grumbling just as much in the old days, prior to Washington, about a lack of patronage and other perks of the machine. They weren't likely to vote for the return of white rule.

From early on, then, the smart money was on Eugene Sawyer. He could count on the votes of those black aldermen left adrift in the political wreckage caused by Washington's first mayoral victory--he was one of them--and most of the white aldermen would come around to his side once they faced up to reality. Sawyer was the most marketable of the black machinists. Those pushing his candidacy stressed that in 1983, he was the first black committeeman to endorse Washington's run for mayor. They also hammered away at his being the council's president pro tem. Not since 1976, when Mayor Daley's death left Wilson Frost at the helm of City Council, has so obscure a title commanded so much attention. When Mayor Washington appointed Sawyer president pro tem, he was entrusting him with the gavel, wasn't he? So why shouldn't Sawyer be entrusted with the gavel now? Sawyer was the candidate of experience, too: an alderman since 1971, he was the dean of the black caucus. If he was a reluctant warrior, he was in many other ways the perfect one.

III. THE BETRAYAL

They gathered, grim-faced, in the mayor's political office, a block from City Hall. It was noon on Wednesday, doctors were furiously at work on the mayor. Jacky Grimshaw, a key Washington organizer since his first run at the mayor's seat, in 1977, was there. So was Tim Wright, a key mayoral aide and the administration's City Council liaison. Also there were several aldermen: Jesus Garcia, David Orr, and Larry Bloom. Cook County Commissioner John Stroger, Tim Evans, and Wilson Frost, a former alderman and now a member of the county's Board of (Tax) Appeals, were there. So was Gene Sawyer. These politicians unofficially represented some piece of the Washington coalition, though the group was weighted with blacks new to movement politics (Stroger, Evans, Frost, and Sawyer). "We wanted to make sure that we all kept together, should anything happen to the mayor," said one participant (an alderman who is not quoted by name elsewhere in this article). "We all agreed that the Washington coalition should choose the next mayor."

Keeping this coalition together would be no easy chore, they all knew. Temptation lay just outside the door. The coalition had never been more than an uneasy and diverse one, held together by special circumstances and a shrewd, popular leader. At least one participant in this meeting recalls feeling a sense of relief looking over at Sawyer, who seemed both genuinely broken up and gung ho about unity: perhaps grief will become the glue that holds the coalition together, he thought to himself.

Later that day, Sawyer told a newspaper reporter, "I would hope that in his memory we will make an effort to be together as one Chicago." Two days later, he said, "Unity. That's what we're working for."

Who knows what goes through someone's mind when offered the mayor's job on a silver platter? For a black man it's much more than the most highly coveted office in this city, it's one of the most visible and prestigious political posts in all the country. Still, the rumor mill had Sawyer a reluctant candidate from the start. He must have sensed the anger that greeted his candidacy, the anger that haunted him the night of the vote in City Council.

Press accounts described the thousands who descended on City Hall as "ardent" Evans supporters, but that was just plain wrong. Most of them were Davis supporters, if anything. Evans wasn't their hero, nor was Sawyer their enemy. Evans and Sawyer were just bit players in the bigger drama. The unity had been broken. A small group of opportunists were selling out the coalition, playing right into the hands of the enemy.

What deal had been cut? That was the question on everybody's mind in the days leading up to the big vote: what did Sawyer, Henry, et al give Burke and company to win their votes? But it was the wrong question. Maybe the whites were in for a cut of the pie (though you can be sure the helpings will be meager, as black machinists will no doubt want to give the white aldermen a taste of their own medicine), but they didn't really need inducements. A politician with an eye on 1989 would realize that there was far more to gain in a Sawyer candidacy than a few choice committee assignments. The 23 or so white aldermen acting as a bloc could do plenty for their cause just by supporting Sawyer, and thereby causing division in the black community.

Jesus Garcia claims that there was a point during the Tuesday night-Wednesday morning council meeting when the mayor's seat was his for the taking. He was among those sought out by the Burke faction when it seemed Sawyer was out of the running. Why they would rally behind Garcia doesn't make much sense, at least on the surface. Garcia was a housing activist before coming to the council. His politics are way to the left of Burke's and Mell's. Any list of the council's most principled members--a list of those who would not play it the machine way--would have Garcia up near the top, if not the first name on the list.

Then why the offer? For one thing, a Garcia candidacy would have the advantage of splitting the coalition along another fault line--the black-Latino alliance critical to the mayor's majority. It was no secret that that alliance was particularly tender at the time of the mayor's death. For another, Garcia would be eminently beatable in 1989. "They wanted me only because they thought I'd do poorly in the job," Garcia says. "They'd be right, too. I don't know the city well enough to be mayor."

The real power brokers to be feared aren't Burke and Mell but Henry and Shaw, two of Sawyer's main pitchmen. Shaw is the less troublesome of the two, if for no other reason than his lack of backbone. Shaw was one of five black aldermen unwilling to stand up to Jane Byrne, for instance, when she proposed replacing two blacks on the school board with two white women long associated with the fight against school desegregation. At the time, the school system was 61 percent black; the addition of two whites would lower black representation on the board from 45 to 27 percent. (None of the five was reelected.) In 1983, the Sun-Times explained its endorsement of Shaw's aldermanic opponent this way: "Shaw has distinguished himself mainly by his self-serving appeal to the office and unflagging allegiance to Mayor Byrne, all to the detriment of his constituents."

Bill Henry has a round face, a ready smile, and a formidable gold pinkie ring. He unabashedly spouts the machine line with bluster. His view of black empowerment begins with Bill Henry: the more power he amasses, the better off his people will be. "Yes, I look for jobs for people in my organization," Henry once said. "The more powerful we become, the more clout we have and the more clout the ward has." Jobs are precious, and who could be more deserving than Henry's dedicated, hardworking precinct workers?

An excellent Tribune editorial showed how Henry's petty tyranny cost his North Lawndale community, one of the country's poorest, a project that promised jobs and industrial investment. "He threatened to shut down the Business Enterprise Center, a joint public-private project designed to bring small industries to North Lawndale, unless a friend of his was hired as general contractor, and other friends as subcontractors. The city's Economic Development Department caved in." Henry wasn't pushing just any friend for this big job, but one who had previously been fired for inferior and tardy work at O'Hare Airport. "The contractor performed no better on the West Side project than he had at O'Hare," the Tribune said. "One reason may be that Ald. Henry burdened him with a set of subcontractors whose main qualifications seemed to be their contributions to the Henry campaign fund.

"Two months ago, the contractor was convicted of failing to report $71,000 in income . . . the Henry-selected subcontractors failed to finish their work and the entire venture was shut down."

The machine way, whether black or white, has been to favor more immediate narrow political concerns at the expense of long-term considerations; downtown interests over the community's. Under the machine, City Hall's connections to the neighborhoods were the local ward organizations--the regular Democratic organizations. The machine either ignored community groups that didn't play by its rules, or attempted to disrupt or destroy them. Under Washington, by contrast, community groups replaced ward organizations as the main power brokers in the neighborhoods. Nonprofit groups involved in single-issue causes, such as housing or plant closings, became the administration's think tanks and policy advisers.

So the movement--top-heavy with community activists--was angry at the prospect of losing these gains. They saw no reason to believe that Sawyer wouldn't revert to the old model. (There was no reason to believe that Evans would have been much different on this score, either.) When Washington was reelected in April, it seemed the death knell of the machine. The battle within black Chicago--and within Latino Chicago as well--had been won by those who saw machine politics and black progress as incompatible. The Shaws and the Henrys and Sawyers had lost . . . yet now, suddenly, they looked like winners.

And that wasn't the worst of it. Shaw and Henry and their ilk were playing right into the hands of the mayor's foes. (Perhaps most vulgar was their rising to praise Washington, using his name in rationalizing their vote--"he would have encouraged my independence.") A split black vote paves the way for a scenario far worse than a Gene Sawyer administration. Overnight, the prospect of a conservative white politician regaining the mayor's seat--a Jim O'Grady--looks alive and well. Suddenly all the celebrating about the demise of the machine seems premature. It was like suddenly learning that the Bears didn't win the Super Bowl after all. It was a wretched seven days.

IV. DIVERSIONS

Jesse Jackson came to town recently. A score of politicians followed by a phalanx of media folks were there to greet him at the airport. Press accounts portrayed him as a media hound.

He is a Chicagoan and he considered Harold Washington a friend. He was also the only black leader who stood much of a chance of keeping the black coalition together. To the columnist Mike Royko, Jackson was a "buttinsky."

The list of "outsiders"--nonaldermen--who sought a role in the naming of the new mayor was long. The gossip columns and news pages had Ed Kelly, Ed Vrdolyak, and Charles Swibel playing a role, to list only a few of the more prominent names. One journalist revealed that Swibel, Vrdolyak, and Burke met within a few hours of Washington's death. Swibel, unlike Jackson, is a suburbanite. He's been called "Flophouse Charlie," "The Prince of Darkness," and "Comayor," when Jane Byrne was in office. Rarely has a press account that includes Swibel's name been positive. Ed Vrdolyak is a boogeyman to black Chicago just like Jackson is anathema to white Chicago. His list of "negatives" is nearly as impressive as Swibel's. The Swibel-Vrdolyak-Burke meeting received barely a mention in the news. Jesse Jackson's involvement was page-one on three consecutive days.

Jackson's quest failed; the black caucus splintered. Jackson was only one of hundreds of people--top city officials, community activists, scores of black leaders--who tried to speak sense to Sawyer. But when the Sun-Times announced that Sawyer seemed to have the votes he needed, it proclaimed in its headline, "Setback for Jesse." It wasn't a setback for the Washington coalition; it wasn't a setback for the Washington agenda; it wasn't a setback for black Chicago, or for those believing in the mayor's politics. No, it was a setback for Jesse Jackson and his presidential campaign.

Congressman Dan Rostenkowski was another would-be influence in the City Council drama. Until a few years back, Rostenkowski was Chicago's most powerful post-Daley national political figure. The local media treated him with an affection and respect that bordered on reverence; he was always "Rosty," chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Chicago's powerful native son, the likely successor to House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

Jackson has left Rostenkowski in the dust; he's now Chicago's undisputed Big Man nationally. Yet Jackson doesn't enjoy any such reverence; no, the Chicago press enjoys portraying him in the worst possible light. When Jackson met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, in 1985, the national press portrayed the impromptu meeting as a serious discussion on the issues of peace and Soviet Jewry. The Sun-Times portrayed Jackson as an all-too-willing pawn for a Soviet chess master, while the Tribune styled him a publicity hound.

In the wake of Harold Washington's death, the Chicago press enjoyed trying to humiliate Jackson: he was a powerless politician even in his own backyard. The media called him a kingmaker, they covered him as a kingmaker, and then when he failed to fill the role of kingmaker they deemed it a "crushing blow to his presidential campaign."

V. THE COUNCIL VOTE (INSIDE CITY HALL)

Ed Burke and Gene Sawyer face off somewhere in the bowels of City Hall. This is at least the second toe-to-toe confrontation witnessed by aldermen who are cruising the back rooms. Burke is flushed, his voice is loud. He is berating Sawyer for his indecision. Alderman Keith Caldwell listens until he can no longer help himself. Until a short time back, Caldwell was a firm Sawyer vote. Now he has jumped camps to Evans, so his opinion no longer really matters to Burke, but there is only so much he can tolerate. Caldwell confronts Burke: "You don't talk to someone like that. You have no right to treat him like that." Burke doesn't argue back, he simply lowers his voice. Sawyer continues to listen, passively.

Sawyer slips into a supply closet near Tim Evans's office. (This may have been before the Caldwell-Burke confrontation, it may have been after: who can remember such things from so hectic a night?) He is joined there by the Reverend Claude Wyatt, his pastor. The two hunker down for nearly 15 minutes--so a curious onlooker estimates. The onlooker confronts Wyatt: "Don't let him do it. You know he's not ready. You can see all that it's doing already, to him and to the community." Wyatt tells the onlooker that he's not about to involve himself in politics, he's only there to provide guidance. Twice that night the Reverend Wyatt gathers his clan together--the Sawyer brothers, Burke, Mell, and the rest of Sawyer's newfound allies--for prayer sessions. The sessions were a Burke "brainchild," the Sun-Times reports a couple of days later.

There is a meeting in Tim Evans's office. "There were 10 to 15 aldermen there," said one of the participants. "Sawyer says, 'I don't want to run. Let's postpone, let's adjourn this meeting and we'll work this thing out.' It was agreed that we'd convene the family--the whole caucus--and figure this out together. Everyone's being reasonable. Henry, Beavers--everyone's in agreement that we'll postpone.

"Burke's outside. He says, 'I want in this meeting or I'm going down to the council floor and starting the meeting.' He's threatening a call for a quorum. So we let him in the office. He walks straight to Sawyer. He says, 'You made a commitment to us. You're going to keep your commitment. You're running, we're placing your name in nomination, we have the votes with which to elect you.' To which Sawyer says, 'I'm not running anymore.' So Burke says, 'Yes you are. We have the votes to elect you and we're putting your name in nomination.' 'I'm not running.' To which Burke quotes Sherman: something like, 'If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.' It was like Burke was saying, 'Hey dude, I've heard that before, and it didn't work.'

"Sawyer wasn't angry, he was just kind of docile. He tells Burke, 'I'm not gonna run. I don't want to be mayor.'

"I'm like feeling great," this participant recalled, "because we've got it, but I'm also feeling real bad. It was sad." Sad? "Seeing the man there. I mean, you've got to be human. Seeing him try and stand up to Burke. I felt embarrassed for him. You should've seen him in the chair--you had to have compassion. To see Burke walk in the room, pointing his finger at Sawyer, Sawyer's eyes open wide."

The meeting ends, Sawyer leaving shortly after Burke. "Burke said to him, 'You owe it to the group to tell them.'" So Sawyer meets with the Burke faction. "We thought he was telling them he wasn't running because of what all the fighting was doing to the black community--the stuff he was telling us in caucus." But the next time many of his colleagues see Sawyer, he is walking into the council surrounded by bodyguards and his newfound allies. Apparently talk of black unity has somehow lost out. Sawyer's allies smile the smile of victors.

VI. THE POPULAR VOTE (OUTSIDE ON LASALLE STREET)

The media would have a field day. You could count on that. It was a crazy night: clandestine meetings in supply closets, our fearless new leader buckling at the knees, both figuratively and literally. Think of the potential for sharp parody by the cartoonists, the editorialists, the columnists! There was also the sudden reemergence of the black machinists. The likes of Henry and Shaw were now center stage. Certainly that would produce some biting commentary.

Or maybe the pundits would shy from partisan talk, there being all sorts of less complex crassness to write about. Richard Mell would certainly have made for a good study: licking his chops over Washington lying lifeless on a crash cart; working the phones as physicians worked on the mayor's heart; "offering the world," in his own words, to any two aldermen willing to put him over the top. (Mell later admitted offering Alderman Larry Bloom a highly paid job at a prestigious law firm in return for his vote; Channel Nine reported that the offered salary was $200,000 a year.) On the night of the big vote, Mell was up on a table frantically waving his arms, the city's court jester playing the fool for the cameras. This last spectacle was beamed across the country. Now that is embarrassing. Surely the papers would be full of it.

Yet the pundits--most of them, at least--were distracted by a sight that to them was even more appalling and far more embarrassing to the city's reputation: 6,000 or so people at City Hall--the "mob," to use the media shorthand. An alarmist plea ran across the top of the Sun-Times the day after the Sawyer vote: "The city is erupting with political volatility," began the front page "message" from the publisher, Robert Page.

Page left no doubt that his paper disapproved of this so-called mob rule and of those leaders whose "reckless accusations and feverish irresponsibility" had led to "an atmosphere of intimidation and potential violence." Raymond Coffey, managing editor of the tabloid, patted on the back those black aldermen who had voted for Sawyer--"brave souls" who stood up to mob rule. "A gang of creeps" was Steve Neal's description of the crowd. Neal is the Sun-Times's political editor.

Never in recent memory have the heavy hitters of the Chicago media joined so willingly with the powers that be. The Sun-Times did not stop at crying out against the unseemliness of movement-style democracy; it also saw the need to serve as the bedrock of our community, calling on all of us to rally round the new mayor: "While Eugene Sawyer was elected acting mayor with the overwhelming support of white aldermen and only half a dozen black aldermen," one editorial read, "his mandate is no less substantial for that. The legitimacy of his ascension does not deserve unrelenting denigration. . . ." It was as if the Sun-Times forgot that we had watched the whole thing on TV. We heard the commentators reporting that Sawyer wanted the vote put off, that he felt peace in the black community was worth more than his candidacy. And we heard them say, minutes later, that he'd knuckled under again. We watched as Sawyer sat quiet and befuddled during the entire session, never choosing to voice his wishes. We were embarrassed when we heard Channel Two's Jim Avila say, "The question was whether he had the stomach and the heart." But now, the Sun-Times was telling us, it is time to believe Sawyer's Washingtonian rhetoric. How dare we question our new fearless leader?

The tabloid also took to referring to the "biracial coalition" behind Sawyer. That was a new one--biracial coalition. There was also talk of Sawyer's being a coalition from "all parts of the city." It was as if suddenly the city had an integrated consensus behind a mayor. Back in the days when the press characterized the City Council as being split between black and white, five aldermen in the old Washington 21--24 percent--were white. Six of the new 29--or 21 percent--are black. The former situation was "Beirut on the lake," the latter was a "biracial coalition." Nor were the losers in the Sawyer vote referred to as a "multiracial coalition"--4 Latinos, 11 blacks, and 4 whites.

It was odd and troubling to have spent several hours outside City Hall that evening and then to read these alarming, almost hostile accounts. The crowd was nothing like a lynch mob with shotguns dispensing their own justice. People were angry but peaceful, vocal but restrained. It was calmer on LaSalle Street for those few hours than most nights on Rush Street.

Moreover, there was a lot more to be proud of outside than in the back rooms of City Hall. That "mob" was more concerned with the city's best interest than Burke or Henry were. Rather than being the shame of Chicago, this coalition of black, white, and Latino is what makes Chicago politics unique--indeed, to some eyes, it's what makes it special and beautiful. For a while, shared interests prevailed over diverse, often contradictory interests having to do with race and class. Chicago was the hope of those who believed that a multiracial coalition could unite based on the common thread of progressive politics.

Perhaps the press was so appalled by these people who called themselves a movement, so disdainful of their naive enthusiasm and rhetoric, that it failed to notice the crowd's victories. Though Sawyer left the council that morning the new mayor, the crowd had had its desired effect of influencing the aldermen. While the media nosed around the back rooms that night for their story, those making the news in those back rooms looked outside--at times quite literally, as they peered down from second- and third-story windows. "They weren't their usual selves in caucus," one alderman said. "They looked distracted. They weren't joking; they were solemn, even when we were just hanging around waiting to see what would happen next." It's no wonder they were distracted. "While we were all together talking over the course of the night, you could hear the chants. I mean real clear and crisp. And loud, real loud. There was no way to tune it out."

"I felt almost jovial that night," this alderman said, though he couldn't have been pleased with the way the vote turned out. "I felt so strong about what I had just seen. The so-called mob certainly sent a message that was heard loud and clear: the movement is still a mighty force in this city that needs to be reckoned with. A few aldermen who were never part of the movement may have left the fold, but no one else did. We hung tough.

"And anyone criticizing this so-called mob as just a bunch of loudmouth sore losers just doesn't understand politics in this city. I assure you our influence was felt and will be felt."

William Beavers is one alderman who felt the influence of the movement. He told at least one of his colleagues on the council floor that he received 1,000 phone calls that day, only 48 of them in favor of Sawyer. Though Beavers had been one of three aldermen campaigning on Sawyer's behalf, he voted for Evans on the night of the big vote. In Monday morning's newspapers Sawyer claimed to have pledges of support, in writing, from 12 black aldermen. By 4 AM Wednesday he was down to six.

But the crowd may have scored a victory far more significant than this moral one. "Gene is an ambitious man, and also a smart man," says one top administration official, "and that means he must realize that the only way to stay mayor is to be more like Harold than Harold." In other words, Sawyer realizes he will be compared to the Harold Washington who now, in death, is bigger than life.

Sawyer is keenly aware that he's now a politician without a base. The top official quoted above wonders aloud whether even Tim Evans would feel as beholden as Sawyer now must to the people who voted Washington into power. "You can be sure Gene will be looking over his shoulder. He will be keenly aware that he will be greatly scrutinized by those who put Washington into office. His political future is held captive by [that] political base, and they are going to demand he stick to the agenda.

"I don't see him as having any choice."

Perhaps this is just the wishful thinking of a die-hard progressive who's been fighting the good fight for too many years. Or perhaps it's the rationalization of a man who is not yet ready to leave city government. Perhaps--but it's also sound reasoning. This may have been the extent of Sawyer's victory on the night of the big vote: he emerged as mayor, yes, but also as a rattled politician with an addled brain and no choice but to appease those who had opposed him. Certainly he received a loud, clear message that he never would have heard had he been chosen without a fuss at six o'clock that evening.

There was a comfortable consistency in the way the media missed all this. As tributes to the mayor and his policies filled the press in the days after his death, there was something discomforting about the sudden-found admiration: if the papers were sincere, for instance, in their postmortem claims that Washington did not discriminate against the city's white residents the way the whites had discriminated against the blacks, why weren't they reporting this to contradict the white aldermen who claimed otherwise? But the press quickly reverted to its true form, to what one longtime activist has called the media's "conventional ignorance," snubbing and scorning the thousands of people outside City Hall the night of the Sawyer vote, and the 12,000 or so at a Washington memorial rally the evening before. For a few days, these were the people who'd elected that great mayor we were reading about; they'd kept him in office, they'd ensured that folks like Bill Henry stayed in line. When they assembled at Daley Plaza, a Sun-Times headline writer called them "Harold's People." But by Wednesday morning they were a mob again. The media peered down on LaSalle Street only long enough to sneer; in the process, they missed the night's big story, and perhaps the story of the next 17 months.

VII. THE LOSS

So there may be hope for a Sawyer candidacy. If the top official quoted above is correct, then Sawyer will use what clout he has to bring around his black machine colleagues. The budget passed last week by a vote of 29-19 is one encouraging sign--it was a lot closer to the budget Washington had proposed than to the one Burke wanted, and Sawyer got it passed with the help of Tim Evans and the votes of all the council's blacks, all the Hispanics, and nine whites. The gay rights ordinance might be a beneficiary of similar coalition building. Bill Henry voted for it when it came up for a vote last year, and he will evidently be Sawyer's floor leader. It is easy to imagine Henry saying something like this to his black allies who voted against the ordinance: hey, it's all a matter of addition, and we can use the gay voters and their money. So the city may have a gay rights ordinance.

And Latinos might make some advances with an eager-to-please politician in the mayor's office--perhaps the Sawyer administration will come through on demands the Washington administration was slow in meeting. (Then again, maybe not. Henry, Beavers, and the other black machinists were among those who openly opposed the treatment of Latinos as partners in a black-Latino coalition. They saw Latinos as costing them jobs and contracts.)

As for the bigger picture, it seems certain that even if Sawyer's heart is in the right place, he won't be able to bring about the sort of changes the Washington administration might have, given time. Sawyer has been low key, cautious, and nonconfrontational through his entire career. Unlike Washington, he has loyally held to the machine credo of "make no waves." One of Sawyer's former council allies opened the door a crack to provide a view of Sawyer's style in caucus: "He's not a [Marian] Humes, or a Henry. It's not like he was always cutting down the mayor's reforms in caucus. He was completely loyal to whatever Harold pushed for: in some ways, more loyal than many of us [the progressive bloc]. He was real quiet. He almost never spoke, not even to say stuff like, 'Hey, let's hear the man speak.' As a matter of fact, I'm having a hard time remembering anything the man's ever said.

"About the only thing I can recall about Gene is him lighting up one cigarette after another--those brown More cigarettes."

There are ominous parallels between Sawyer and Jane Byrne. Both took office with no real power base with which to work. Byrne's solution was to empower the likes of Swibel and Vrdolyak, the very people she ran against. They came to dominate her government.

This is the sad reality of that wretched week: A giant was replaced by a meager politician. Washington had a forceful personality and tremendous political skills; he also had saved up enormous political capital. At the time of his death, the question dominating politics here was how radically Washington, finally free of an ugly and underhanded opposition that had denied him a chance to govern, could change the face of city government. The city schools, public housing, public health--all were in a shambles from years of neglect. Whether Washington would be able and willing to take the political risks necessary to bring about the needed changes was unclear at the time of his death. Now, however, the question has been answered: Forget it. There will be no meaningful change in the foreseeable future.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Gary Rivlin

  • Eyes on the Prize

    Over more than two decades, Haki and Safisha Madhubuti have proved that African-centered education can amount to more than a black version of history. It can also be a springboard to a bright future.
    • May 22, 1997
  • Everybody's Mayor

    The media pundits believed that Council Wars was the fight of Harold Washington's political life. But a truer test of his skill was the balancing act he had to perform to keep his diverse coalition together--to ensure that each of its disparate elements s
    • Mar 19, 1992
  • Shoot to Kill

    • Aug 25, 1988
  • More »

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories