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A Blueprint for Leadership from 1980s Chicago

Stepping into office after winning a tough race, he knew that getting his agenda passed would be difficult due to stiff opposition in the legislative branch. He eventually won lawmakers over with a massive infrastructure package that he figured correctly would be difficult to vote against since it benefitted his opponents’ own constituents. 

Not Joe Biden. He did that too, but Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, did it first. 

Washington’s historic early 1980s run to become Chicago’s 51st mayor set a blueprint for progressive politicians looking to lead in a time of intensifying partisanship and segregation. His first term as mayor, from 1983 to 1987 was a masterclass in how to govern in the face of political obstructionism, lessons that could be applied in similar political struggles happening today.

Those lessons have been assembled for the new Joe Winston-directed documentary “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” which premiered at film festivals in Chicago and New York last year. The 90-minute film examines Washington’s unlikely ascent from from one of Black Chicago’s prominent political leaders to mayor of the entire city. After successfully winning the mayoral race in 1983, Washington was immediately stiff-armed by political opponents in the city council whose top priority became, as one white alderman in the film said, “making Washington a one-term mayor.”

Republican U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell would express an almost verbatim sentiment a few decades later about Barack Obama (Washington’s political progeny) when he was elected president in 2008. McConnell also said as much this year when Biden, Obama’s former vice president, was elected to the White House. How Biden is responding to Republican defiance rings eerily close to Washington’s approach in the 1980s: through infrastructure and voting rights. 

Washington wasn’t up against Republicans; he was facing members of his own Democratic Party who didn't back his mayoral campaign, even after he defeated challengers Richard M. Daley, the son of the former mayor Richard J. Daley, and the incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne in the primary. Instead, they rallied their constituents to back Washington’s opponent in the general election, the Republican Bernard Epton, who came up just 40,000 votes short of defeating Washington.

Unsuccessful, Democrats tried to neutralize Washington via city council, where 29 of the 50 alderman districts formed an impenetrable voting bloc of Democrats representing the local party machine. Led by Cook County Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, the group launched what’s been called “Council Wars,” vowing to vote down any legislation promoting Washington’s agenda. 

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab