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Lightfoot’s inaugural address could set the tone — or draw the line

Harold Washington wanted no more “business as usual.” The result: Council Wars. How will Lightfoot’s call to action be received?

Harold Washington inauguration speech
Mayor Harold Washington at his first inauguration. His challenge to change the way things were done at City Hall prompted pushback, but other incoming mayors have been treated more kindly.
Chicago Sun Times

When Lori Lightfoot delivers her inaugural address Monday at Wintrust Arena, one alderman will share the podium with her who also was onstage the last time a self-declared reformer was sworn in as mayor of Chicago.

It was in 1983. The alderman is Edward Burke. The mayor was Harold Washington.

On that historic day, Chicago’s first African-American mayor followed through on his campaign promise to “tell the truth” by sounding the alarm about what he called an “immediate fiscal problem” that was “both enormous and complicated.”

He warned that Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Transit Authority each had $200 million budget gaps; the city’s corporate fund had a $150 million shortfall; and former Mayor Jane Byrne had exacerbated those problems by doling out “hundreds of new city jobs” and reassigning hundreds of other city employees.

After delivering the bad news, Washington followed up with the bitter medicine.

Executive salaries would be cut; Washington’s cabinet would be paid “considerably less” than their predecessors. What Washington called “unnecessary” city programs would end. And the “fat” would be “removed from all departments until there are sinew and bone left.”

Mayor Harold Washington and his predecessor, Jane Byrne, at his inauguration at Navy Pier in 1983.
Chicago Sun Times

Washington also declared his support for a state income tax increase and warned the city needed “additional sources of revenue.”

Next, Washington delivered the fighting words then-Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak (10th) and his Council Wars cohort Burke (14th) self-servingly interpreted as a declaration of war.

“I am asking all of you — particularly you who have taken the oath with me today — to respond to a great challenge: Help me institute reforms and bring about the revival and renewal of this great city while there is still time,” Washington said.

“Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of this city. Business as usual will not be accepted by any part of this city. Business as usual will not be accepted by this chief executive of this great city.”

Within hours, Vrdolyak and Burke had used Washington’s words as a rallying cry to organize 29 mostly-white aldermen into a powerful force that thwarted the new mayor’s every move.

The epic power struggle known as “Council Wars” would drag on until special aldermanic elections gave Washington control over the City Council in 1986.

We’ll never know whether the “Vrdolyak 29” still would have organized against the new mayor had Washington delivered a less provocative address.

But we do know other mayors have made similar declarations without political consequence.

Take Jane Byrne’s 1979 inaugural address.

Chicago’s only female mayor — until now — talked about the days and months she spent walking through neighborhoods subsequently paralyzed by the Blizzard of `79 that ultimately buried Mayor Michael Bilandic.

“I talked with people who felt that their neighborhoods had been betrayed, forgotten. ... I had only to walk their streets to see the boarded-up buildings, burned-out homes and dying commercial areas,” she said.

Kathy Byrne, Jane Byrne, Michael Bilandic
Jane Byrne and her daughter Kathy (left) at her 1979 inauguration as mayor. At right is Byrne’s predecessor, Michael Bilandic.
Sun-Times Media

Byrne promised “a new renaissance of neighborhood life and community spirit” and a “fair and adequate redistribution of city services” to all neighborhoods.

“City employees will be hired and promoted because of their abilities — without outside interference,” Byrne said.

“And no longer will some of them have to consider themselves as second-class citizens. When I said I supported collective bargaining, it was not just an empty campaign promise.”

But Byrne would renege on her promise to replace handshake agreements with a written contract with Chicago firefighters, triggering a bitter 1980 firefighters strike that dragged on for 23 days.

Her promise to end political hiring also turned out to be empty.

During Byrne’s only term, loyalists of her arch-rival, then-State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, were targeted for firing with a vengeance. The city was hit with an avalanche of Shakman lawsuits.

And Byrne’s promise to challenge the “cabal of evil men” whom she once accused of “greasing” a 1977 taxicab fare increase lasted only a few months.

Byrne tried briefly to run the City Council with a new coalition of aldermen, led by Bill Lipinski (23rd), Richard Mell (33rd) and Marty Oberman (43rd). But that lasted only until she managed to show who was boss by defeating Burke and Vrdolyak in a City Council floor vote.

That vote stemmed from a hostage situation involving Croatian terrorists at O’Hare International Airport. Vrdolyak’s brother Victor, a high-ranking Chicago Police official, had been dispatched to the airport to help negotiate — until Byrne yanked him out of there.

Ed Vrdolyak and his City Council allies wanted to investigate. Byrne cobbled together the votes to prevent it.

Edward R. Vrdolyak (left) and Vito Warzullo (right)
Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak (left) confers with Ald. Wilson Frost (back to camera) and Ald. Vito Warzullo (right) at Mayor Jane Byrne’s last City Council meeting.
Chicago Sun-Times

Minutes later, a self-satisfied Byrne smoked a cigarette as she gloated about her victory.

After bringing Vrdolyak to his knees, Byrne turned the council over to Vrdolyak, Burke and then-Ald. Fred Roti (1st). Mell and Lipinski looked shell shocked as they left the mayor’s office after learning they had been double-crossed.

Like Byrne, Lightfoot challenged the Democratic machine and won against seemingly impossible odds.

Like Washington, she has warned she’s inheriting a financial crisis more dire than she anticipated that will set the stage for painful budget cuts and tax increases.

But Lightfoot has promised not to abandon her principles, as Byrne did, as she tries to reorganize the City Council with her supporters at the helm; end aldermanic prerogative at the center of countless City Hall corruption scandals; and “blow up all the old concepts about using city government to profit oneself.”

During an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times just days before the inauguration, Lightfoot was asked what parallels she sees between her own situation and Washington’s, and whether her inaugural address could trigger a revival of Council Wars.

“I feel very confident that we’re gonna have a good working majority in the City Council. I’m not worried about that,” she said.

Lightfoot laughed off comparisons to the wildly-popular TV series “Game of Thrones.”

“Politics is an interesting parlor game. What I’m interested in is governance and delivering for people. I feel very confident, based on the conversations that I’ve had with almost every single alderman — whether we agree or disagree on a range of different issues — that we’re gonna have a good working majority to be able to deliver for the people of Chicago,” she said.

Lori Lightfoot
Lori Lightfoot greets voters during South Side St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March.
Sun-Times Media

“Disharmony, infighting, all of that — that’s what this election said: ‘We don’t want any more of that.’ And it’s particularly important for cities to … move forward. We have divided government at the federal level. The city is where the action is gonna come. … We’re gonna drive an agenda that’s gonna address and resolve some of the big challenges we have in the city. I hope City Council will come along with us. But I’m not going to be steamrolled by folks who are clinging to the past.”

Those sound like fighting words — just like the ones Harold Washington uttered in Navy Pier’s grand ballroom 36 years ago.

Is Lightfoot even the least bit concerned that her inaugural address and the provocative statements she’s made leading up to it will have a similar impact?

“There are some parallels. But I don’t want to try to compare myself to the great, late Harold Washington. Our city was in a very different time when he arose. He broke through so many doors and ceilings, and ignited a passion for change in the city that I absolutely have been the beneficiary of,” she said.

“But I do think the city is in a very different place. Look, I am a black, female, lesbian married with a kid. This would have been inconceivable not that long ago. And I am somebody who nobody sent, right? I’m not part of the political machine. Also inconceivable not that long ago. That’s to the credit of our city. It’s to the credit of people all over who voted for change and are enthusiastic and optimistic in a way that, maybe, they haven’t been for quite a long time.”

Just days before taking the oath of office as Chicago’s 56th mayor, Lightfoot said she expects her inauguration to be a “very emotional moment” for her, her wife, daughter and 90-year-old mother Ann, who will make the trek from Lightfoot’s hometown of Massillon, Ohio.

“I hope that my speech is worthy of the moment — and we’re certainly trying to make sure that it is,” said Lightfoot, 56.

“I stand on the shoulders of lots of pioneers — like Harold Washington, like Jane Byrne —who were outsiders, to some extent, and fought through very difficult circumstances to rise to the top of the leadership of the city. But we are at a different place now than we were back then.”