Harold Washington


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(b. Chicago, 15 Apr. 1922; d. Chicago, 25 Nov. 1987)

US; member of Illinois State Legislature 1966–80, member of the US House of Representatives 1981–2, mayor of Chicago 1983–7 The son of a Methodist minister and Democratic party activist, Washington spent his life immersed in the politics of Chicago. Following distinguished war service in the air force, Washington attended Roosevelt College and Northwestern Law School. Although he served as counsel for the Chicago corporation for a brief period, he was drawn to elective politics and ran successfully for the State Legislature in 1964. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1966 to 1976 and in its Senate 1978–80. Initially he was part of the powerful political machine that supported Mayor Richard Daley; but he later broke with the Cook County Democratic establishment and formed a coalition of support built primarily on the black and growing Hispanic communities. In 1980 he ran as an independent candidate in the Illinois 1st District (the South Side) and defeated the official Democratic candidate.

In Congress, Washington became identified with black issues especially the battle to extend the protections against discrimination offered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Chicago politics reclaimed him when in 1983 he was persuaded to enter the Democratic primary race for mayor, a contest which acquired national significance. Washington's opponents were the incumbent mayor, Jane Byrne (who had alienated her black support) and Richard M. Daley, the son of the former mayor (who was largely dependent on conservative ethnic voters). The contest opened up Democratic Party divisions as Walter Mondale backed Daley and Edward Kennedy backed Byrne. Washington received support from Jesse Jackson, a long-time opponent of the Daley machine. Washington won the primary and the general election in which racial divisions polarized as many white Democrats switched their vote to Republican Bernard Epton. Washington thus became Chicago's first black mayor. While many regretted the role which race played in the campaigns, Washington became a symbol of black political achievement and one of a number of key elected black officials who could play a role in the national debate about urban policy.

In office Washington's record was mixed. He displayed caution in economic matters and attempted to reassure the financial community by balancing the budget. The intractable problems of housing, poverty, crime, and white flight to the suburbs posed challenges to his administration which he was only partially able to address. His own style of machine politics incorporated minorities but was by no means free of corruption. Moreover, it lacked the administrative efficiency of the defunct Daley machine.

Despite doubts about many aspects of Washington's policies, he was re-elected in 1987. Although race was still a factor, Washington had by that stage transcended much of the sectarianism associated with his first term. His unexpected death so soon after re-election deprived the black community of a formidable political operator.

Subjects: Politics.

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