Harold Washington

From Academic Kids

Harold Lee Washington (April 15, 1922-November 25, 1987) was a lawyer and the first African-American Mayor of Chicago, Illinois serving from 1983 until his death in 1987.

Aftere graduating high school, Washington studied at Roosevelt College (now Roosevelt University), graduating in 1949 with a B.A. degree. He then studied at Northwestern University, School of Law in Evanston, Illinois, graduating in 1952.

In the 1983 Democratic mayoral primary, community organizers registered more than 100,000 new African-American voters, while the white vote was split between the incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and the other challenger, Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Washington won with 37% of the vote, vs. 33% for Byrne and 30% for Daley.

Although winning the Democratic primary is normally tantamount to election in heavily-Democratic Chicago, after his primary victory Washington found that his Republican opponent, Bernard Epton--earlier considered a nominal stand-in--was supported by many white Democrats and ward organizations, including the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, Alderman Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak ("Ver-doh-lee-ack"). In the spring of 1983, Washington defeated Epton by less than 4% of the vote.

Washington's first term in office was characterized by ugly, racially polarized Council Wars, in which the largely white ethnic City Council opposition, led by "The Eddies" -- Finance Chair Edward Burke, Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly, and Alderman Ed Vrdolyak -- and supported by States Atty. Richard M. Daley, Cong. William Lipinski, Cong. Dan Rostenkowski, and other powerful Democratic committeemen, prevented Washington from making appointments of reform nominees to boards and commissions, and refused to enact his reform legislation.

But Washington, who had been a capable legislator throughout most of his career (State Rep, State Senator and U.S. Congressman) confronted the 29-21 majority aligned against him in City Council and used his legislative skills to rule by veto. Personal compunctions and, where those were faint, neighborhood pressure, encouraged African-American aldermen, and several Latino and white liberal aldermen, to support him despite pressure from The Eddies. The '29' (also known as the 'Vrdolyak 29', as the opposition was called) could never muster the 30 votes needed for a veto override. Meanwhile, in the courts Washington kept the pressure on to reverse the redistricting of City Council wards that white Democrats had pushed through during the Byrne years, and when special elections were ordered in 1986, victorious Washington-backed candidates gave him the 25-25 split he needed. His vote as chair of City Council enabled him to break the deadlock and enact his programs.

Washington was reelected in the spring of 1987. During Washington's short second term, the Eddies fell from power: Vrdolyak became a Republican, Kelly was removed from his powerful Parks post, and Burke lost his power as Finance Chair.

On November 25, 1987, Harold Washington died of a heart attack in his office.

Washington was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago. The new building housing the central branch of the Chicago Public Library system was named for the mayor, and Loop College in Chicago's downtown was renamed Harold Washington College in his memory.

[1] (http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=W000180) [2] (http://www.chipublib.org/images/hwcolor.gif)

Preceded by:
Jane Byrne
Mayor of Chicago
Succeeded by:
David D. Orr

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