In 1983 African-Americans ignited change with the landmark election of Harold Washington, who died 23 years ago today, as mayor of Chicago.
In 2008 a black Chicago resident was elected as our nation’s president. In 2011, can Chicago elect a second African-American as mayor? Some political watchers say probably not.
With U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, the Rev. James Meeks, who also is a state senator, and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun suspected to be on the ballot next week, some ponder whether the city can evoke the spirit that brought the election of Chicago’s revered first black mayor, Harold Washington.
“People aren’t riled up. They’re not mad at the mayor because there’s no mayor to be mad at,” Avis Lavelle, a public affairs consultant, said.
Lavelle, who possesses an extensive resume in Chicago politics, recalled that Washington’s campaign was fueled by intense voter animosity toward then-Mayor Jane Byrne. That’s not the case this time, the consultant said, noting that Mayor Daley’s decision not to seek re-election defused any opportunity for opponents to gather steam.
“You don’t have that passion right now for or against any of these three candidates,” Lavelle said. “There is no mayor to be against.”
One observer noted that Washington’s rise to power in 1983 was partly played out against a backdrop of hostility toward Byrne.
“He took on the machine and beat it by rousing wild enthusiasm in the black community, but also in the Hispanic and Latino communities, and among many white liberals,” Tom Goeghegan, a labor lawyer and author, said. “You had this sort of unification that was just electrifying, and you don’t have anyone like that today.”
That electricity was harnessed with the registration of 100,000 new African-American voters. During the 1983 primary election there were 615,000 to 650,000 black registered voters.
By the general election, the number rose to 694,000 black voters, the report states.
Lavelle said what was happening in 1983 is a far cry from conditions in the black community now.
“None of these candidates have engendered a particular passion in the community that makes people feel fervently that they want to go out and vote like they did for Barack Obama or Harold Washington,” she said.
Could the black community recreate the landscape that elected Washington in 1983?
According to Goeghegan, they can’t.
“No, we’re in a different historical moment,” he said. “After all, we have a black president. Whether we need a black mayor, it’s a matter of been there, done that.”
A group of elected officials, business leaders, social and community organizations, and clergy has formed in an effort to re-establish black unity, according to spokeswoman Tracy Alston.
The coalition announced Davis as their consensus choice, in hopes of bringing the African-American electorate’s support behind one candidate. Meeks and Moseley-Braun were un-swayed by the announcement.
Lillian Williams, a former reporter who covered both of Washington’s elections-he won reelection in 1987-said it’s important for African-Americans to have a voice in this political arena, but agreed the election is not about putting a black politician into office.
“I don’t think it’s so much that [the coalition wants] to elect a black mayor just for the sake of having a black mayor. I think the drive is putting the issue on the table that so much affects African-Americans these days,” she said.
Still, some wonder how effective the coalition will be in the election. According to Lavelle: “People in the African-American community don’t know who is in the group, so how is that a consensus? I’m not dismissing the value of the group, but I don’t know if they’ll be able to provide the leadership for the electorate in general.”
Williams, who teaches journalism at Columbia College, recalled the unity behind Washington, including the support of several high-profile politicians, including Moseley-Braun and Davis.
“Since Harold Washington, the question is [locally] have we had an African-American politician who has had such broad influence over all sectors of the African-American electorate?” she said. “And no, not since him have we had that. After he died things splintered.”