April 12, 1983
The election of Harold Washington the first black mayor of Chicago
A bitter, divisive campaign
Front page of the Tribune. (Chicago Tribune / April 12, 1983)
But things were different in 1983. Black community leaders and politicians sensed that the combination of dissatisfaction with Mayor Jane Byrne and unusually high numbers of newly registered black voters had made the time right for a major campaign for the mayor's office in a city that was about evenly divided between black and white residents.Washington, a United States congressman who had once done prison time for failing to file federal income tax returns, was a reluctant candidate. He demanded financial backing, and he got it. He demanded even more new voter registrants, and he got them. Finally, he agreed to challenge Byrne and join the field, which included Cook County State's Atty. Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.
As a Daley Democrat, Washington had been elected to six terms in the Illinois House, but he had broken with the Democratic machine in 1977, when he first ran for mayor. Because of that, he had support in white liberal wards along the lakefront, where he was seen as the reform candidate. Because Byrne and Daley split the remaining white vote and Washington got nearly all of the black vote, the mathematics were simple. Washington won.
Although winning the Democratic nomination historically was tantamount to election, racial tensions were so high in Chicago that Republican candidate Bernard Epton, a liberal former state legislator, became the favored son in blue collar and white ethnic neighborhoods.
A poorly conceived and quickly withdrawn Epton campaign slogan, "Before it's too late," fueled racial strife. But Chicago was still a Democratic city, and on April 12, 1983, Harold Washington was elected to become the first black mayor of Chicago.
In his inaugural address at Navy Pier, Washington was not conciliatory. "Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of this city," he said. "Business as usual will not be accepted by this chief executive of this great city."
The battle was joined. Ald. Edward Vrdolyak quickly solidified a majority bloc of 29 anti-Washington aldermen, and "Council Wars" had begun. The "Vrdolyak 29" blocked much of the Washington agenda. His appointments were held up for months, even years. Every issue was hard-fought, with stalemate often the result.
But in April 1986, court-ordered special elections resulted in a Washington majority in the City Council for the first time. The Washington administration was ready to begin its work.