Harold Washington served as mayor of Chicago in the 1980s. Barack Obama idolized the Chicago politician.
Last week, Your Ward Room Blogger received a phone call from a woman at WNYC, New York’s public radio station. The reporter had an intriguing premise: she wanted to compare Obama’s re-election strategy with the 1987 re-election of Mayor Harold Washington.
Washington, of course, was Obama’s political idol. Obama moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer in part because he wanted to live in a city where blacks were determining their own political destiny. In the mid-1980s, Washington was the most prominent black politician in America. When Obama mapped out his political career, he planned to follow Washington’s path: state senator, then congressman, then mayor.
It didn’t work out that way. Obama’s political skills carried him to a higher office than even he had dreamed of. But now that he’s trying to hold on to the presidency, what can he learn from his first role model in politics?
Washington’s election resulted in Council Wars, in which he faced a bloc of white aldermen determined to block his agenda and ruin his mayoralty.
For Washington, a former state lawmaker and congressman who had campaigned on bringing all of Chicago together, the gridlock forced a change in strategy.
“He was a legislator all of his life, and he was all about compromise, and he was all about collegial deal-making and accommodation,” remembered Alton Miller, Harold Washington’s press secretary. “When he realized that that was never going to work, he took off the gloves and his fortunes changed immediately.”
In the second half of his first term, Washington confronted his opposition directly, like in this fiery exchange with his chief opponent Edward Vrdolyak on local Chicago news in 1986.
Washington also changed the rules mid-game. In 1986, a year before his reelection, Washington won a federal lawsuit that required that Chicago’s council districts be redrawn, and Washington won the votes he needed in new council elections, effectively ending the Council Wars.
"The parallels with Obama are striking there,” Miller said. The team of advisors who had backed Washington's unexpected victory “were so happy to have him in that office that they thought he’d be able to float above the fight and have surrogates do the fighting for him.” The dynamics changed when Washington “realized that if he kept doing that, he might keep them happy, but he wasn’t going to achieve his agenda.”
Still, all the while, Washington and his team were sensitive to the delicate dynamics of confrontation in a racially charged environment.
“He had just an instinct about how an angry black man reads in the media and how important it is to avoid that stereotype of the angry black man.”
Washington also benefited from a divided opposition. Just the fact that he was mayor unhinged many Chicago politicians. In 1987, former mayor Jane Byrne ran against him in the primary. Ald. Ed Vrdolyak and County Assessor Thomas Hynes both ran independent campaigns, although Hynes dropped out two days before the election.
Republicans are similarly unhinged about Obama’s presidency, and it’s driven them to extreme positions that are not popular with the electorate. As a result, Obama is in a good position to follow Washington’s feat of winning a second term.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!