Harold Washington served as mayor of Chicago in the 1980s.
In Chicago, a lot of political history gets forgotten or distorted in order to serve a bigger political narrative, especially when race is involved.
During the passionate debate that broke out over surplus TIF dollars in Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) told a whopper of a story about the Council during the Harold Washington years that not only gets the history wrong, but also insults the memory of anyone who was alive then or how fought for the kind of reform Washington stood for.
As I wrote on Thursday, the debate over TIFs wasn’t really about TIFs at all. Instead, it was much more about aldermanic privilege and the need to maintain a system of broken parliamentary procedure and aldermanic “congeniality” in order to avoid dealing with some of the most pressing issues facing the city.
At issue was an ordinance calling for the city to redistribute surplus funds from Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) districts. The proposed legislation had been introduced in July, and the ordinance’s primary sponsors -- Bob Fioretti (2nd) and John Arena (45th) -- decided to call it out for a vote.
After a series of floor speeches by various aldermen castigating the sponsors for failing to respect a convenient political fiction that allows legislation to remain buried in the Rules Committee, chaired by Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), Ald. O’Connor rose to speak.
Ald. O’Connor is both one of the longest serving alderman in Council and the Mayor’s floor leader. So you know he’s unlikely to offer up anything that’s not meant to send a message to someone in or out of Council.
Sure enough, O’Connor played the role of enforcer to the hilt, lecturing his fellow aldermen on the dangers of what might happen if they ever refused to continue to remain docile and keep their mouth shut about controversial issues.
To do so, he brought up the specter of the Washington years and the ‘Council Wars’, of the 1980s, when a group of reactionary white aldermen fought desperately to halt the agenda of the city’s first black mayor.
So hated was Harold by some of the Council’s white alderman that 29 of them—led in part by current 14th Ward alderman and Finance Committee chair Ed Burke—formed a majority in opposition. They not only voted down every piece of legislation Washington proposed in his first years in office, they voted themselves complete control over every Council committee, voted down all of the mayor’s appointments and held up his budgets and appropriations to embarrass and shame him just for daring to be black.
It was an ugly and embarrassing time for the city, and anyone who was around then remembers it wasn’t about Council procedure. It was about racial animosity, pure and simple, and who was going to divide up the political spoils in Chicago.
But that’s not how O’Connor chose to remember it. Instead, for him it was simply a time when aldermen forgot to remember to be nice to one another, and let a simple lack of civility get out of control.
“At the height of the worst days I’ve had in this Council, I never felt that I couldn't go to the leadership or the members of the other side of the debate and talk about something that was of interest to me and my community and ask them to support it,” he said. “At no time was it a time where we individually disrespected each other, where we stopped talking to one another, where we stopped being part of a body and being proud of serving our communities together.”
Doubling down on his revisionist history, he said “Those were the worst days I’ve ever had in this body. And it was because we as a body departed from an opportunity to be civil to one another all the time, and be able to take opposite ends of a political question and know the difference.”
To which I say: Horse hockey. Or something stronger, if this wasn’t a family political blog.
To a lot of people, Washington represented a fundamental reform movement that sought to fix decades of racial imbalance in how Chicago was run, how resources were distributed and whether minorities were allowed a seat at the table when it came to political power. That’s why his election was such a victory for hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans who suddenly felt hope for the future, and why the reactionary forces in Council did everything in their power—decorum be damned—to make sure everybody in town knew who was really in charge.
Which was exactly the message he was sending to the sponsors of the TIF ordinance—Fioretti, Arena and the rest of the Progressive Reform Caucus in today’s City Council. Don't step out of line, or Chicago will return to those days when somebody will have to bring the hammer down on you, and you won’t like it one bit.
During and after Wednesday’s Council debate, some aldermen are choosing to view what happened—a move by a group of mostly white alderman to call out a black woman committee chair on a matter of process—in racial terms. Which on some level is understandable, given Chicago’s racial history.
But it wasn’t an African-American alderman who raised the memory of Council Wars on Wednesday.
Because if it was, the message that was sent to fellow alderman might have been very, very different.
And perhaps a little bit closer to what really happened.