In the 30 years since an African-American last occupied the mayor’s office, many tried to re-create the formula that propelled Harold Washington to two terms in office, yet each of them fell short.
That streak ends Tuesday with the election of either Toni Preckwinkle or Lori Lightfoot, neither of whom followed the paths taken by their unsuccessful predecessors.
To state it plainly: there was no “consensus” black candidate in 2019, yet there will be a black mayor for the first time since 1989.
There must be a lesson in that.
For many years after Washington’s death, it was presumed that unity in the African-American community was the only way to win back control of the fifth floor at City Hall.
Toward that end, each election season was preceded by a process to identify a candidate who could unify black voters to rise up with one voice.
Meetings called “plebiscites” were held. Voices were raised. Teeth were gnashed. A name and promises of support emerged, though unity remained elusive.
And each of the ensuing elections turned out to be increasingly futile as Richard M. Daley secured the mayor’s office and proceeded to consolidate power with a coalition of mostly white and Hispanic voters, plus just enough black support to deny the hoped-for unity.
Losing African-American candidates Eugene Sawyer and Tim Evans in 1989 gave way to Danny K. Davis and R. Eugene Pincham in 1991, each of them defeated by a wider margin than the previous one.
In 1995 it was Joseph Gardner who took a drubbing in the Democratic primary, followed by Roland Burris in the general election.
Bobby Rush took the baton in 1999, the first election under the new non-partisan system that allowed for a runoff if no candidate exceeded 50 percent of the vote. It didn’t matter. Daley coasted.
The Rev. Paul Jakes and Dorothy Brown did even worse against Daley in 2003 and 2007.
It was on the 20th anniversary of Washington’s death in 2007 that Burris penned an op-ed for the Chicago Defender in which he posed a question others were asking:
“Will Chicago ever have a black mayor again?”
Many thought the answer was “no,” given the city’s changing demographics, but with Barack Obama then running for the presidency, Burris said he thought it could happen “in the next few years.”
Indeed, it wasn’t as if Chicago voters turned their backs on black candidates during the intervening decades.
In that time, Chicago propelled Carol Moseley Braun into office as the state’s first black U.S. senator, elected John Stroger as the first black Cook County Board president and fueled Obama’s rise to the Senate on his way to becoming the first African-American elected President of the United States.
But the mayor’s office remained out of reach.
Contrary to Burris’ expectation, Obama’s election didn’t immediately open any doors for black mayoral candidates.
When Daley stepped down in 2011, the president backed his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, for the job. Moseley Braun, the highest-placing black candidate finisher, was a dismal fourth.
And four years later, it was a Hispanic candidate, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who took Emanuel to the city’s first runoff election.
That brings us to 2019, when Preckwinkle and Lightfoot were the second and third choices respectively in Chicago’s majority black wards behind Willie Wilson in February’s first round of voting.
African-American voters couldn’t get much less unified than that, yet here they are with a chance to elect one of their own for the first time in three decades — mainly owing to the abilities of both Preckwinkle and Lightfoot to reach beyond any racial base with ideas attractive to a broader coalition of voters.
For all the emphasis on unity in the black community, I always thought the real lesson of Washington’s winning formula was that same cross cultural appeal.
Chicago voters will make history Tuesday by electing the city’s first African-American woman mayor, but the real story may be how small a role that race played in how that candidate got there.