Chicago political activist Richard Barnett forged alliances that helped Harold Washington become the city’s first African American mayor.
“He had a telephone book with a lot of numbers in it and a telephone,” said U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Illinois, who credits Mr. Barnett with helping him get his start when he ran for alderman. “Richard was always considered a leader of the independent political movement in Chicago, not just the blacks who would run for office but the white independents as well.”
“Richard quite simply was a person concerned about civil rights,” said civil rights attorney Judson H. Miner, City Hall’s corporation counsel under Washington.
He nurtured countless careers, including those of U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and former Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Before the two went to Congress, Mr. Barnett’s activism helped them secure seats in the City Council, which allowed Washington to wrest control from an opposition bloc.
An outsize number of kids Mr. Barnett coached in scouts and sports grew up to be politicians and judges, according to friends.
“Richard Barnett assisted more African Americans to be elected judge of the circuit court than any single person we know,” Davis said.
Funeral services are planned Saturday for Mr. Barnett, 88, who died Dec. 28 at Aperion Care Forest Park. He had a stroke on Labor Day, according to his daughter Annitria Barnett.
He grew up with 13 brothers and sisters on the South Side, where he attended Wendell Phillips High School. That’s where he met his future wife, Grace Burgess, his daughter said.
They got married and settled in a North Lawndale home that soon became filled with campaign buttons, brochures and posters. A postal clerk by day, he did organizing on nights and weekends.
“A lot of us were marching, demonstrating, going to meetings,” Davis said, “but, when it came to electoral politics, it would stop because of the view you could not go up against the Machine.”
That began to shift in the 1960s.
“The Black Panther movement died, as such, with Fred Hampton, but its power could still be felt in the political process,” Mr. Barnett said in a 1989 Chicago Sun-Times interview.
“For the first time,” he said, “blacks revolted against the Machine en masse, refusing to vote for the Democratic candidate for state’s attorney [Edward V. Hanrahan] — enough to allow Republican Bernard Carey to win and helping open the way for independent blacks to win state and city offices in the ’70s and ’80s.”
“He was a genius at getting out the vote,” said John O. Steele, a retired Illinois Appellate Court judge and alderman.
He registered voters, gathered signatures, planted yard signs, knocked on doors and challenged ward remaps. Block by block, Mr. Barnett sought out community groups and listened to their concerns.
“He would stop on the street,” Davis said, “and talk to the guy who just took a shot of Wild Irish Rose.”
When Mr. Barnett first took on Chicago’s Democratic Party Machine, “People were getting knocked down on the South Side, the West Side for handing out campaign literature,” Steele said.
Davis said it wasn’t uncommon for tricksters to put sugar in gas tanks or toss bricks through campaign windows.
In the midst of one aldermanic campaign, vandals uprooted hundreds of Steele’s yard signs. “They took 50 signs and threw ’em in my backyard,” he said.
Through all of that, Mr. Barnett “insisted the workers never, ever retaliate,” Steele said.
And Steele said Mr. Barnett “never took a dollar” for the campaign work he did for him.
He taught candidates about the importance of presentation, said Kari Steele, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and daughter of John O. Steele. When they turned in petitions, “He said they should look like you cared about them, not sloppy. Have the best pages in the front, the neat signatures.”
Political consultant Don Rose, who worked closely with Mr. Barnett, called him “a true grassroots organizer” who deserved part of the credit for wins linked to Rose, including the elections of Carey and Jane M. Byrne, the city’s first female mayor. “Richard was a principal actor on these campaigns that I’m credited with running,’’ Rose said, “and I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without his work.”
Mr. Barnett is survived by his daughters Annitria and Jeneria, son Jarmel, his brother Austin, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife Grace died before he did.
A viewing is planned from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at A.A. Rayner and Sons Funeral Home, 318 E. 71st St. A wake is scheduled at 9 a.m. Saturday at St. Columbanus Catholic Church, 331 E. 71st St., with his funeral there following at 10 a.m.
Years ago, Mr. Barnett and Mayor Richard M. Daley were on opposing sides in a court case centered on whether ward boundaries were diluting voting strength of African Americans and Hispanics.
“I remember being in City Hall with him and Mayor Daley walking in the opposite direction,” Mr. Barnett’s nephew Neil Barnett said. “There was a silent nod they gave to each other, and I said, ‘But that is your political enemy.’ And he said, ‘No, I don’t have political enemies. I have political adversaries.’ ”