Few, if any will argue that when he was elected in 1983 Chicago Mayor Harold Washington interrupted the political stronghold the traditional Democratic Party in Illinois had on Chicago, particularly Black Chicago. That fete, nearly 35 years later, is still touted regularly in South Side and West Side neighborhoods. “We need another Harold,” is a mantra that resonates nearly every municipal election cycle. Not Mayor Washington, or Mayor Harold-just plain Harold.
Folks understandably drop the honorific because they see the city’s first African-American mayor as one of us-an everyday brother. Political scientists, barbershop election strategists, and self-proclaimed campaign pundits still talk about the wonder that was Washington. Forging a multi-racial coalition of Chicagoans is as much a hallmark of Mr. Washington’s tenure as any governmental achievements. In fact, those achievements, for the most part, were few and far in between as Mr. Washington was undermined repeatedly by a cabal of white aldermen. The persistence the mayor displayed in not caving into them attempting to forge policies that benefitted all citizens has become the standard by which the late mayor is memorialized. The rueful treatment energized citizens to name a political party for him, although it was short-lived. His legacy is etched by a city college that bears his name along with an imposing show of post-modern architecture south of downtown along State Street called the Harold Washington Library – the centerpiece of the system.
One would think that the adulation and admiration heaped on Mr. Washington because of his victorious stances against the machine politics would be the catalyst for the succeeding generations of those who wish to be mayor. However, each election cycle bears evidence that Black Chicago is a looking for the “microwave” version of Harold Washington, The call for “another Harold” repeatedly overlooks the fact that Mr. Washington was more akin to something cooked on the stovetop. Unlike too many today clamoring to be mayor, Mr Washington prepared himself for the job. He never demanded that anyone step aside and hand it to him. No, he recognized the intrinsic value of education, especially law school. Great orators and debaters, as well as sharp thinkers, honed those skills in law school.
Mayor Washington accumulated a wealth of knowledge and understanding outliers don’t get when he worked for Ralph Metcalfe, Sr., the Olympic medal winner, who ultimately would become a United States Congressman. Mr. Washington took advantage of every opportunity to marshall his youthful cohorts into a force that continually pushed for changes in city policies that would benefit Black folks. His political aspirations created wins for him in both chambers of the Illinois legislature; ultimately taking him to D.C. as the U.S. Representative for First Congressional District, and ultimately back home to the fifth floor of City Hall.
He left anyone who cared to look a perfect playbook for advancing in the often ugly, mean-spirited political arena. No one can truthfully call Harold Washington anything other than a political success, especially given the vitriolic and obstructionist path the Chicago City Council laid in front of him. Old folks would say Mr. Washington achieved in spite of and didn’t quit because of.
So, the glaring question remains: Why are so many of today’s young and not-so-young Black folks who aspire to political office ignoring what is so clear? Mayor Washington showed that success is driven by preparation.It is not handed over or falls in the lap of the loudest protester. He also demonstrated how to leverage inclusion without sacrificing advances for his own people. In all likelihood, he probably wanted his political career on a faster track but was astute enough to know the outcome is better, as well as more acceptable, when the people tell you they are ready for you and come get you, than you shouting to the people you are ready.