Forty years ago, Harold Washington shook up Chicago politics

Washington was Johnny Appleseed, spawning a generation of organizers, advocates, judges and members of Congress. Even now, one member of his coalition is running for mayor, and other candidates stand on Washington’s broad shoulders.

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Mayor Harold Washington at a post-reelection victory news conference at City Hall on April 8, 1987.

Mayor Harold Washington at a post-reelection victory news conference at City Hall on April 8, 1987

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Feb. 22, 1983, was among the best days of my life.

Forty years ago this Wednesday, Chicago experienced a seismic shudder that many felt coming.

Harold Washington’s emergence as our city’s first Black mayor, and first “reform” mayor in years, was a vote heard ‘round the world. As Harold noted, “If you go to Zimbabwe and say you’re from Chicago, they’re gonna ask, ‘How’s Harold?’”

In the 1970s, I had a chance to work with Harold (he was one-named, like Selena or Plato), then a member of the Illinois Senate, on the state’s potential ratification of a constitutional amendment to give the District of Columbia full representation in Congress. No pie-in-the-sky-dreamer, he counted noses and knew the dance of legislation. The bill died; decades later, Washington, D.C., residents still don’t have a fair voice.

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Harold’s 1977 mayoral bid was an insurgency lacking insurgents. I canvassed for him in Bucktown, where I distributed Roman Pucinski pins to Polish voters to siphon votes from Mayor Michael Bilandic. (Get that strategy?) Harold finished third, but it laid the groundwork for 1983, which was a crusade, a firestorm.

Going from Richard Daley the Elder to Bilandic then Jane Byrne fueled an appetite for change among voters. We do-gooders knew Harold was no angel. He was a savvy pol tutored in turnout by the legendary Ralph Metcalfe, who had his own break with the Machine.

But Harold was so charming. As a white supporter, a “Honky for Harold,” I’d wear the “blue sunrise” button on the L, drawing a mix of sneers and quiet grins. I recall no campaign button as galvanizing or polarizing. It broadcast a shared faith in a multiracial possibility and confirmed his grin had put a spell on us.

For many bone-chilling months, I was a precinct grunt for Harold by Howard and Damen in “The People’s Republic of Rogers Park,” as that left-leaning neighborhood was known. On cue, the sun came out for a balmy pre-election weekend. Blue-buttoned volunteers emerged like crocuses in sooty snow.

On Feb. 22, turnout was heavy. That night, I headed downtown prepared for another grim Election Night for reformers.

McCormick Place was packed! No totals yet, but the crowd was buoyant as countless speakers wrestled for the mic — a sign of things to come. Then, long past midnight: “You want Harold? Well, heh, you sure got him now!” Tears, singing, swaying, joy. An attractive stranger planted a big wet one on my lips. Victory in a coalition campaign has many faces.

Everyone knew Harold pledged to “knock the damn door down!” To most revelers, that also meant empowerment.

April 29, 1983 photo of Mayor Harold Washington’s inaugural address. Behind him to his left is former mayor Jane Byrne.

This April 29, 1983 photo shows Mayor Harold Washington giving his inaugural address. Behind him to his left is former mayor Jane Byrne.

Sun-Times file photo

Harold’s legacy, beyond and including a great library and City College named for him? A progressive in a segregated Rustbelt metropolis, he enacted an ethics code, brought diversity to City Hall and championed renters’ rights. He forced debate on police misconduct and school governance. He countered the ugliness of “Before It’s Too Late” and “Council Wars” with guile and grace. He was the Cheshire Cat taunting Fast Eddie Vrdolyak: “Antediluvian dodo-head!”

Harold was Johnny Appleseed, spawning a generation of organizers, advocates, judges and members of Congress. Even now, one member of Harold’s coalition is running for mayor, and other candidates stand on Harold’s broad shoulders, including one whose father succeeded Harold as mayor.

A quarter-century later, marching up balmy Michigan Avenue with thousands of others after Barack Obama’s Grant Park victory bash, I recalled that 1983 night: the smiting of Goliath, a headful of “hopium,” a beautiful stranger’s kiss.

Harold’s vision may be part of his legacy. It’s said teenagers today are more open to different races, faiths and sexual orientation than any generation. Harold was a “herald.” Today, as tolerance is belittled and diversity mocked, let’s honor Harold’s dream.

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I have many fond Harold memories: a Springfield smoke-filled room, sweaty campaign rallies, his off-key singing, his historic inauguration, where I was when I heard he’d died, seeing my wife address his memorable memorial at UIC Pavilion.

But that ecstatic February night back in 1983 at McCormick Place will always shine.

Claude Walker was a senior adviser to former Gov. Pat Quinn, a spokesperson for the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and state chairman of Common Cause-Illinois.

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