Recently, Mayor Washington announced: “Council wars’ are over. Peace has broken out. Come out of the cellar, Chicago. The bombing has stopped.”
What? In “Beirut on the Lake”? Say it ain’t so, Fast Eddie.
It is not so, says Ald. Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and leader of the 29 aldermen who have been the bombardiers against Mayor Washington’s 21 supporters on the City Council. There are just 50 seats. There are no aldermanic Switzerlands – no noncombatants.
Vrdolyak came to politics as a bee to honey – naturally, instinctively – but not in a beeline. He comes from the neighborhood near the South Side steel mills, but by way of a more refined South Side institution, the University of Chicago Law School. The school did not refine him excessively.
This morning he is wearing a light gray suit that perfectly matches his eyes, which perfectly match, in color and chilliness, Lake Michigan in winter. His shirt has French cuffs, his gold watch is thin as a communion wafer. There the flash stops. He is as functional as a ball-peen hammer, this urban politician of the old school.
In Miami in 1972, he was a member, with Mayor Daley, of the group of Illinois delegates who were refused seats by the “reformers” running George McGovern’s convention. The McGovernites said they, not the likes of Vrdolyak, represented “the people.” McGovern managed to lose Cook County – quite an achievement for a Democrat. (Walter Mondale carried it handily in 1984.) Cook County’s “regular” Democrats deliver for, but only for, friends.
There is a twinkle – or what passes for a twinkle – in Vrdolyak’s eyes when he says he would love to see the precinct captains’ manual that Ferdinand E. Marcos issued in the Philippines district where Marcos beat Corazon C. Aquino 13,643 to zero. Vrdolyak does not seem like the sort who laughs a lot, at least not in the presence of Eastern journalists and other strangers. But he chuckles at the memory of Marcos explaining that he has a lot of relatives in that district.
In Chicago, the organization practices reductionist politics: Reduce the problem to bite-size components, then bite. One key is money on Election Day – say, $10,000 a ward. You spend it legitimately, openly, Vrdolyak says, giving receipts to the folks you hire to encourage – OK, if necessary to harry – people to vote.
Listen up. Vrdolyak speaks an American vernacular almost beautiful in its spareness. It is the short-hammer-stroke school of rhetoric.
What does his typical Chicago voter – “Barney Bungalow,” Vrdolyak calls this guy – want from government? “Get out of my face – make the streets safe, pick up my garbage, otherwise get away from me.”
Has Washington really, as he claims, ended patronage? “What a question.” But what about the court decision that forbids hiring or firing or awarding contracts for political reasons? “There’s always a way.” How about the improved press notices Mayor Washington is getting in out-of-town newspapers? “He’s gotta run here.”
Washington was at the game in Miami when the Bears suffered their only loss of the season. Vrdolyak proposed that Washington be banned from attending Bears away games. That was a joke, son.
So – sort of – was the episode early in Washington’s tenure when, in a City Council meeting, Vrdolyak, asking Washington for recognition to make a point of order, said: “To someone of your gender it should be `pretty please.’ ” Washington’s riposte was a threat to give Vrdolyak “a mouthful of something you don’t want.”
Soon the Council was voting to consider bullet-proofing the chamber and the gray suits sheathing Vrdolyak’s long, trim frame showed the outline of a bullet-proof vest.
The racial animosity felt by blacks helped elect Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. Racial animosity felt by whites has been used by his opponents. But racism is not, at bottom, what motivates his opponents.
Washington, inventive at coining verbs, says he has “rainbowed” city government with blacks, Hispanics and women. Vrdolyak just wants it mono chromed with people of any color or “gender” who will play the game by the rules he learned at Daley’s knee.
In the 1983 Democratic primary (which is the big game), Harold Washington got 36 percent of the vote and two white candidates got 33 and 31. In 1987, Vrdolyak’s “regulars” may run one white candidate, or – it could happen, he says – support one black candidate against Washington. If so, go back to the cellars, Chicago.
Vrdolyak can hardly wait. His focus on his turf leaves him only marginally interested in talking about the national party’s problems. It was ever thus.
Around 1950, an Eastern journalist visited a leader of Cook County’s Democrats and said: “Your governor, Adlai E. Stevenson, might get a presidential nomination.” The Cook County man, unimpressed, replied: “But that’s only national.”