Grayson Mitchell, dead at 67, Mayor Harold Washington’s first press secretary

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Grayson Mitchell, who was Mayor Harold Washington’s first City Hall press secretary, seen in 1983. | Sun-Times files

Grayson Mitchell, who was Mayor Harold Washington’s press secretary during the pressure-cooker days of his campaign, election and the heat of the City Hall in-fighting known as “Council Wars,” has died.

“He was a wise person and very politically sophisticated and had great judgment,” said attorney James Montgomery, who was the top City Hall attorney for Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor.

“In the middle of craziness, he had a level head, and he was always the gentleman in suit and tie,” said Christopher Chandler, a Mitchell deputy in the Washington administration.

Mr. Mitchell, 67, was found dead Friday at his home in Hyde Park, said Sean Murphy, a business partner, who said the cause of death was not yet known.

An Alabama native, he had an internship as a Chicago Sun-Times reporter while attending Morehouse College. He earned a degree in economics from the University of Illinois at Chicago and also worked as a reporter for the Washington Post. And he served as an assistant to Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson and wrote for Ebony, Jet and Black Enterprise, according to Shawnelle Richie,an assistant press secretary in the Washington administration.

When the mayor hired him, he was the head of communications for Johnson Products, Richie said.

Mr. Mitchell became a savvy City Hall adviser who “was able to thread the needle between the political militants and the mainstream Democrats,” said Brian Boyer, a Washington speechwriter.

After Washington’s election, a bloc of 29 aldermen, mostly white, repeatedly thwarted the mayor in what became known as “Council Wars.”

“Other people might be angry. Other people might be worried, anxious. But Grayson was thinking,” Boyer said. “One of the things he had to deal with frequently was to keep the mayor’s tongue quiet when he was raging at (Council Wars leaders Ed) Vrdolyak and [Ed] Burke.”

Mr. Mitchell’s political pragmatism was evident when mayoral aide Clarence McClain’s old police record – which included fines for pimping and patronizing a prostitute – wound up in the news.

At a City Hall staff meeting, Montgomery said he argued McClain had already been punished. But he said he learned a lesson from Mr. Mitchell, who told him, ” ‘Jim, he’s got to go.’ ”

Mr. Mitchell said, “The pawn has to be sacrificed to protect the king,” according to Chandler’s book, “Harold Washington and the Civil Rights Legacy.”

After leaving City Hall, Mr. Mitchell did public policy work. He started his own firm, North Star Communications. In 1991, he and Murphy helped found Summit Consulting.

Grayson Mitchell. | John Reilly Photography

Grayson Mitchell. | John Reilly Photography

“He was a rare combination of being brilliant and a kind and caring person,” Murphy said. “Working in the Washington administration during Council Wars and that whole period of upheaval gave him a unique view of public affairs issues. . . . He was able to take those experiences and apply them on behalf of companies and organizations.”

At Summit, “He worked on major issues of the day,” Murphy said. “When land-based casino gambling was proposed in Chicago, he led the effort to stop that on behalf of the horse-racing and breeding industry. During the Edgar administration, a Medicaid tax was put on community hospitals. He led the effort to end that tax. He also worked with Exelon on electricity deregulation. These were public policy and grassroots issues that he had the unique ability to work on because of his experiences in journalism, politics and corporate communications.”

Summit’s client list was full of heavy hitters, including Exelon, Quaker, United Airlines, the city of Chicago and JCDecaux, the French firm that provided bus shelters to the CTA. For a time, he also represented minority stockholders at the Emerald Casino.

An avid cyclist, Mr. Mitchell would ride his bike for miles, even during bad weather. “He was out there all the time,” Murphy said. He also took up painting watercolors. And he enjoyed a good Scotch and cigar, said his friend, attorney Stephen Allison.

He is survived by his daughter Ayanna Mitchell, son Jua R. Mitchell, five grandchildren and sister Cassandra Mitchell, Richie said.

A memorial service is being planned, possibly for late March, friends said.

Grayson Mitchell (left) speaking in 1983 with reporters Fran Spielman and Harry Golden Jr. | Sun-Times files

Grayson Mitchell (left) speaking in 1983 with reporters Fran Spielman and Harry Golden Jr. | Sun-Times files

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