Category Archives: Harold Washington

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving.” — Elizabeth Cady Stanton

WORKING MOM?

Look, I don’t care if Ann and Mitt Romney had ten kids, Hilary Rosen was right.

All the corporate media pundits are saying the Rosen flap is a win for the Romney campaign. Maybe. I don’t know.

Perhaps a significant number of middle class and poor mothers around this holy land will say, Golly gee, I raise a family and I know it’s a tough business.

It is — for them. For Ann Romney it was not.

Do you think she spent countless hours on her knees scrubbing the toilet?

Did she struggle trying to put together a healthy dinner for a family of seven on a budget more amenable to a family of two or three?

Did she ever have to take a bus to her kids’ school for a parent-teacher conference?

Did she keep her fingers crossed that her 14-year-old car wouldn’t crap out suddenly?

Did she wear tattered underwear because her family’s health insurance premiums precluded her from buying new ones?

Whenever her kids bawled or sassed or puked or spilled orange juice all over the kitchen floor, was she the only responsible adult around?

Or were there any paid helpers around to suffer the abuse or pick up the pieces?

Did she ever have to sew up holey socks?

Nope

Did she ever check the mail every single day for weeks at a time in the hope her federal income tax return check had finally come?

Were gangs a problem at the exclusive schools she sent her kids to?

Did she lie awake at night wondering how she could prevent one or more of her kids from dropping out of high school?

Did she ever worry about her credit card bill?

How often did she shrug her shoulders at the suggestion of sex because she was too exhausted from chasing kids around all day?

Really, did she ever have any of the worries, did she ever suffer any of the ordeals, that the vast majority of American moms have had to endure?

I know the answer and you do too.

So let’s cut the bullshit: Ann Romney has never had to work a day in her life.

HAROLD

Yesterday was the 29th anniversary of one of the weirdest municipal elections in memory.

On April 12th, 1983, Harold Washington, US Congressman from Illinois’ 1st District, was elected mayor of Chicago.

He was the first black man to attain that office in what had long been called the most racially segregated city in America.

Yep

My hometown had been run from 1955 though the end of 1976 by Richard J. Daley, the last of the big city machine mayors. As a little kid I actually thought Mayor Daley was a single word that meant any city’s boss. I recall watching the news one day and seeing that New York had elected a new chief executive. I concluded, therefore, that John V. Lindsay was that city’s mayordaley.

Chicago’s Big Cheese For 21 Years

Then Daley dropped dead in his doctor’s office a few days before Christmas in the Bicentennial Year. The City’ Council’s President Pro Tem announced he’d be the acting mayor until a special election could be held, per the city’s charter.

Well, the City Council wasn’t going to let that happen because its President Pro Tem, Wilson Frost, was a black man. Hell, the city just might slide into Lake Michigan if a black man became mayor, if only an acting one. So the Council did what it does best — it made a closed door, illegal deal to select a harmless alderman named Michael Bilandic mayor.

Bilandic, naturally, won the special election and seemed a lock to retain the office in the next regular election until a 20-inch snowstorm paralyzed the city days before the 1979 primary. Chicagoans blamed Bilandic for the massive expressway and el train snarls that resulted and threw him out in favor of a feisty former Daley department head named Jane Byrne.

Bilandic And His Snow

Even though she possessed the wrong genitals in certain Chicagoans’ views, many liked Byrne because she was tough as nails. For instance, on election day 1979, she phoned Alderman Fred Roti, the Mob’s man in City Hall and a notorious ballot box stuffer. Look Fred, she said to him, I’ve got a good chance to win this thing. All I ask is that you and your boys give me a fair count. If you do, I’ll be fair with you. If you don’t, I’ll cut your balls off.

It was Fred Roti, by the way, who proudly told this story again and again.

Janey Was Tougher Than Roti

Anyway, by the time Byrne came up for reelection in 1983, Harold Washington had thrown his hat into the ring. Most observers figured he was being silly. The voters of Chicago would never in a million years elect a black man mayor, they reasoned.

Then a strange thing happened. Daley’s kid, Richie, the State’s Attorney, started thinking the mayor’s office was a family heirloom that was rightfully his. He, too, entered the Democratic primary race.

Voters living in the vast Northwest and Southwest sides of the city (read: white people) began suffering from the vapors. By good god in heaven, they shrieked, that dumb Daley kid’s gonna split the white vote!

Old Man Daley’s Kid

But Richie Daley wouldn’t drop out even when polls showed him neck and neck with Byrne.

Lo and behold, on the day of the primary Daley and Byrne canceled each other out and Harold Washington won the Democratic nomination.

You never saw such hand-wringing in “The City that Works.”

The Republicans, meanwhile, hustled to put up their own candidate for mayor. Previously, the words “Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago” were merely a more verbose way of saying “loser.” But the heretofore moribund GOP, sensing their first real shot at the office in half a century, selected a member of the Illinois House named Bernie Epton to go up against Washington.

Bernie Epton

The idea that a Republican — and a Jew — could become mayor would have been laughable only two months before the general election. But the city’s white electorate was far more terrified of a black man than a Jew. Come election day, Washington won by the narrowest of margins.

Harold was a fascinating fellow. Personally charismatic, he was a master at pulling a reporter or a fellow pol close while shaking his hand and whispering some pearl of wisdom in his ear. It was as though Washington trusted him and him alone with what he had to say. I’d been pulled close by Washington a couple of times; the gesture made me feel like the biggest shot in the room — next to him.

Washington also had served time in the federal joint before becoming mayor. The IRS claimed he hadn’t filed income tax returns for 19 years, although it admitted he’d paid his taxes in full. Many wondered why such an astute lawyer (he was the only black man to graduate from the Northwestern University School of Law 1952 class) could be so dumb as to not file his returns.

Some Washington biographers claim to have evidence that Washington’s daddy-o was the South Side’s premier policy wheel operator (“policy” was the black ghetto’s illegal lottery game). According to these biographers, Washington himself earned a bit of spare cash from his father’s racket and decided it was better to risk being charged with failure to file rather than declaring income from a criminal gambling operation.

Typical Chicago Policy Wheel

After a brief marriage during World War II — he served in the Philippines with the US Army Air Corps — Washington remained unmarried until he died. Republican operatives during the 1983 election floated the rumor that Washington was gay. When that didn’t prove effective enough, they began whispering that he’d actually gone to jail on a child molesting rap.

Washington’s supporters countered that he was a great ladies’ man. One backer later claimed that if you put all the women Harold had slept with in one corner of City Hall, the structure would sink five inches into the ground.

Harold changed City Hall after his election. While he was mayor, the Hall became a festive place, filled with blacks and Puerto Ricans and more women than would ever be seen there under previous bosses.

Under him, City Hall became a mirror of the city itself.

Harold Waves To Well-Wishers After The Votes Were Counted

Washington was reelected in spring 1987. Then, a few days after Thanksgiving that year, while in a meeting with his press secretary, Alton Miller, Washington, sitting behind his desk, dropped a pencil. He bent over to pick it up but, to Miller’s puzzlement, remained bent over. Miller got up to see what was wrong but Washington was already dead. His heart, enlarged due to his widening girth and high blood pressure, had simply given out.

Even in death, Washington inspired delirious creativity in his supporters as well as his enemies. Certain Republicans claimed the Cook County Coroner had found cocaine in his body during his autopsy. His backers countered that he’d been poisoned to death by unnamed white people.

Here’s my favorite Harold Washington story. I heard this from someone in his administration who was there when it happened.

Washington was in a meeting with three people. It was getting late in the afternoon and the four hadn’t eaten lunch yet so Harold suggested they send out for sandwiches. One by one, each of his three underlings specified which sandwich he wanted with one of them jotting the information down. Finally, they got around to Harold. He said, “That sounds good. I’ll try that.”

The note-taker asked for clarification: “You mean that last sandwich?”

“No,” Harold Washington responded. “All three of them.”

He died fat and happy.

WRITERS READING

Hey, get yourself over to the Windfall Dance Studio this evening at six o’clock. Bloomington’s own master-ess keyboard clacker, my pal Joy Shayne Laughter, is reading a terrific short story there. (You know, the word mistress just didn’t work for me there.)

Joy’s story is called “The Last.” It’s based on the recollections of her great-grandfather who, as a young man, left Indiana for the wild’s of Kansas to take a job as one of the last of the wolf-poisoners. Honest, that was a position in great demand back a century and more ago. Cattle ranchers wanted to protect their livestock from predatory wolves so they hired guys to set out wolf bait laced with deadly poison.

Joy’s reading is part of the ongoing series “Early Drafts” featuring works in progress read aloud by local writers. The incomparable Tony Brewer is scheduled to spout some poetry tonight as well. There’ll be music, an act from a play, and other arty-fun things.

Windfall is located at 14th and Dunn.

BE PATIENT

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Please bear with me. I’ve got to post right now even though I haven’t selected and placed my pix yet. If I don’t get up off this seat, Soma Coffee’s gonna charge me rent.

I’ll have images up later today.

Okay, you’ve got pix.

The Pencil Today:

TODAY’S QUOTE

“How did it get late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness, how the time has flewn. How did it get late so soon?” — Dr. Seuss

MORNING BECOMES NIGHT

Yep, I’m late with my post today. Sue me.

OH, THOSE WACKY PAGANS!

Happy Winter Solstice!

The Shortest Day At Stonehenge

LET’S GO HALVSIES

Conventional wisdom has it that Congress isn’t working. It’s broke.

Pundits, wags, and the guy behind you in the grocery checkout line all agree — our men and women in the United States House of Representatives and the Senate can’t compromise, can’t work together, and flat out can’t effectively legislate anymore.

Only a fool would say otherwise.

Call me a fool.

Maybe — just maybe — Congress for the first time in generations is actually representing the people.

The Representative Of Our Dreams

I know this sounds crazy coming from a guy who firmly believes far too many of our politicians are in thrall to huge corporate interests and the bushels-full of cash wealthy campaign donors throw at them.

That’s still all true. But, strangely, I believe a bothersome percentage of the citizenry also buys into the thought processes and philosophies of plutocrats, robber barons, hyper-capitalists and other frightening creatures.

I’m not happy about it. I wish all people would understand that the interests of transnational corporations and Midas-rich individuals are at best not their interests and at worst — and far too often — exactly opposite our needs.

Gold-Leaf Toilet Paper

But that would take education, calm discussion, and rational discourse — none of which is terribly thrilling to a huge swath of residents of this holy land.

So, they believe unfettered capitalism equals freedom and that the market is protected by some mystical, god-like invisible hand. And that the rich are just like us. It’s this nation’s semi-official religion.

And, as I do whenever I pontificate about religion, I call bullshit.

Nevertheless, the vicars of Adam Smith and Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan are still among us, muttering incantations and sprinkling holy water on us in the form of grudgingly dispensed tax holidays and insufficient incentives.

We’re a species that needs to believe even (or, especially?) when the belief is based on nothing.

A Lot Of Us Actually Do Want A Solid Gold Toilet

So, if half of us believe in economic ghosts and I think they’re as wrong as flat-earthers, that half is still out there and they vote. And their guys are in office.

Those guys used to be called, simply, Republicans. What depresses me is that a pile of Democrats are buying into that religion now, too.

Sure, there’s talk of the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Street protesters and my leftie friends say, How can anybody defend the 1 percent?

Easy, I say. The religion of these Great United States, Inc. holds that any of us can become part of the 1 percent, if only we work hard enough, are crafty enough, and ignore messy government regulations enough.

If only.

Now, back to Congress.Why does it seem to be stuck?

Can it be that at this moment in history half of us buy into the prevailing economic religion and half of us don’t?

That half of us want our fellow citizens to be self-sufficient and hard-working because that’s the magic formula for prosperity?

And that the other half think the deck is stacked against the little guy so we need to help people when they’re unemployed, when they’re sick, and even when they go to jail?

A Lazy Bum Or A Brother In Need?

That half of us are scared to death that we’re fouling our air, water, and land to such an extent that disaster is right around the corner? And the other half is just as scared that environmental protections will shatter the economy?

I can go on but you get the point. This is a weird era — call it the Era of the Two Halves. And Congress’s seeming inability to work is merely a reflection of the duality in our national consciousness.

A simple historical example. When Harold Washington was elected the first black mayor of Chicago, the city population was almost precisely divided into black and white.

Just about half of Chicagoans suffered the vapors when Washington was sworn in. The other half danced in the streets.

Dancing In The Streets

The city’s aldermen split similarly. Washington allies like Tim Evans and Bobby Rush bickered daily with the anti Washington bloc, led by Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke. I don’t think I need to identify any of these esteemed statesmen by color, do I?

Anyway, over the next four years, until Washington gorged himself into a fatal heart attack, the two sides of the City Council couldn’t get a thing done. The stalemate became a punchline. National politic wags snorted in derision.

My old pal, the comedian Aaron Freeman even created an entire act based on the city’s troubles. He called it Council Wars. He’d go on stage around the city and the country, telling the tale of Darth Vrdolyak battling Harold Skywalker.

Council Wars

The real funny thing was, it was the epitome of democracy. No matter that one side was at very least crypto-racist. That was a given.

Even if I completely disagree with the other guy’s side, if I’m a true democrat (small d) I have to accept his or her position. Believe me, I didn’t like it then as much as I don’t like it mow.

But it doesn’t really matter what I like or dislike in a democracy, does it?

In any case, as I said, Washington stuffed sandwiches into his mouth until his heart grew to the size of old Comiskey Park. On November 25, 1987, he dropped a pencil next to his desk during a meeting, bent over to pick it up, and his heart’s electrical system exploded. He was dead before the other people in the room started to wonder why he wasn’t sitting back up.

Only two years later, Richie Daley was elected mayor on the strength of a coalition of voters that was black and white. People forgot what Council Wars was all about. And now the city even has a Jewish mayor.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Stalemates never last. This one won’t either.

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