Remembering Harold, Thinking About Barack

The 42 nd person to lead America’s Second City, Washington, who was serving in Congress at the time of his election, became the first African-American to hold that position. In a bruising primary , he’d bested the incumbent, Chicago’s only woman mayor, Jane M. Byrne , as well as Richard M. Daley , presumptive heir to the seat his father had held for two decades. Still more bruises followed in the contest against Republican State Rep. Bernard Epton , as the Web site of the local CBS affiliate reported :

90 percent of white voters in Chicago, including ward bosses, turned their back on the Democratic Party. The atmosphere of the city became divisive and hostile in ways that would be difficult to imagine … a quarter century later.

… It became a campaign of slurs, accusations, charges and counter-charges, and a contest dominated by the issue of race. …

I remember it well. The election took place while I was a student at Chicago’s Northwestern University School of Law , from which Washington had earned his J.D. in 1952, a time when, according to campus lore when I was there, the school was considered “progressive” for setting aside two seats in each class, one for a woman, one for an African-American. (Washington’s set-aside sibling also proved her mettle: Dawn Clark Netsch  graduated magna cum laude, became a politician and Northwestern law professor, and, in 1994, became the fist woman to receive the Illinois gubernatorial nomination of a major party.) Although decades had passed, in 1983 the city remained splintered, a metropolis of ethnic enclaves circled by unseen but well-known walls. Isolation fed bitter, overt hostilities.

Emblematic of the ugliness of the 1983 campaign was a button that my relative saw worn openly on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange: Beneath the circle-with-slash that’s the universal sign of “NO” was a green watermelon against a black background.

And yet, that year, Chicago began to rewrite its history. Citywide turnout on Election Day was nearly 88 percent , the highest ever. In the end, a coalition of African-American, Latina/o, and “white ‘lakefront liberal’ voters” elected “Harold ,” as supporters called him, by a slim margin.

Washington’s four years as mayor he died from a heart attack in 1987 were landmark. The city fared as it had under other mayors. That fact of competence eroded Chicago’s entrenched ugliness. And though Daley eventually did become mayor, his way of running things proved far more inclusive than that of his father.

Harold’s breakthrough, moreover, inspired a generation not only this onetime lakefront law student, but also a man who came to the city in the ‘80s to work with poor people . That man was Barack Obama , now himself a member of Congress, now taking his own bruising as he endeavors to repeat in the national arena what Harold achieved in Chicago.