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How Harold Washington, Against the Odds, Became the First Black Mayor of Chicago

Harold Washington at the commissioning of the submarine U.S.S. Chicago in 1986.

Originally published in Campaigns & Elections magazine.

Few local elections in modern American history generated more heat than Rep. Harold Washington’s run for Chicago mayor in 1983. That winter, Washington became the city’s first African American mayor following a brutal campaign fraught with racial tension.

We were the campaign’s media consultants, and earlier this year revealed for the first time that in the final hours before Election Day we disobeyed direct orders from the campaign’s governing body and ran a television spot we didn’t have permission to air. It was advertising that we believe played a significant role in Washington’s historic victory.

With tracking polls showing us several points behind in the closing stretch of the campaign, we created the provocative TV spot. The campaign leadership refused to allow us to run it, even though polling data indicated it could get us the votes we needed. This was before the development of systematic TV spot testing, so decisions about which spots to run were based on the political judgment of those in charge.

Four days before the election, we defied our superiors and ordered the spot to be aired 36 hours before the polls opened, when it would be too late for anyone to take it down. Not only did we run it, we did our best to ensure just about every voter in Chicago saw the ad that some within the campaign so adamantly fought against. We never told anyone (until this year) that we were actually responsible for the ad making it to air, while pinning the blame on TV station error.

Washington went on to win a narrow victory, and post-election polling indicated that the positive outcome was likely the result of our mutiny. Campaigns have changed a great deal since our act of defiance, but the ethical implications of what we did might just be more relevant than ever as campaign politics is increasingly decentralized and decision-making is no longer always in the hands of a tiny cadre of consultants. To help you understand our motivations, here’s the full story of our secret rebellion.

A City Divided

The 1983 mayoral election in Chicago was all about race. The city was 40 percent African American, with the Latino vote in single digits. The white powers-that-be had limited black political influence and enforced strict, albeit de facto, residential segregation, leaving blacks confined to immense ghettos on the city’s South and West Sides.

City government was run by Chicago’s vaunted political machine, which between 1955 and 1976 had been controlled by Mayor Richard J. Daley with little opposition. His successors were lesser lights, and in 1983, one of them, Mayor Jane Byrne, was up for reelection. Her lack of popularity encouraged Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, then Cook County State’s Attorney (equivalent to a D.A.) to run against her.

Meanwhile, on the South Side, a plan coalesced within a loose group of community activists who had first come together 20 years earlier to support the Southern civil rights movement and who later had collaborated on local housing and education struggles. They encouraged a newly elected black congressman and long-time state legislator to once again seek the mayor’s office (he had run twice before as a token candidate). They promised Harold Washington that if he ran again, they could organize an “80 for 80” campaign, that is, produce an 80 percent black turnout that would vote 80 percent for him.

Initially, the idea had been to continue demonstrating black electoral power in hopes of gaining more bargaining chips with which to counter decades of racial discrimination. But when young Daley got into the race, it was suddenly transformed into a serious effort to elect Washington.

The arithmetic was obvious. If two white candidates, Byrne and Daley, evenly split the white vote, it was possible for Washington to win a 40 percent plurality in the Democratic primary with only the votes of African Americans.

Chicago was a Democratic city, with roughly 80 percent Democratic registration. The last time it had elected a Republican mayor was in 1927. Therefore, the winner of the Democratic primary almost automatically became the mayor, and the Democratic primary could be won with a plurality. Needing a larger campaign budget than he had ever previously raised, Washington turned to the city’s black business establishment.

These wealthy businessmen had supported African American candidates in the past, but only for spots on the city council, school board and state legislature. Unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the larger budgets required in a citywide race, they agreed to fund the campaign but on condition that they form a finance committee that would retain the right to approve all major expenses. It was this finance committee’s power that we would later choose to so blatantly defy in the campaign’s final hours.

Setting the strategy

The primary was scheduled for February 1983. In late November 1982, we were hired to run the campaign’s communications with Bill producing the advertising and Marilyn running the press operation. We were both veterans of the civil rights movement ourselves, and as former Chicagoans were acquainted with many of the city’s black leaders. We were deeply committed to black empowerment, so for us Washington was more than just another client.

Our first act was to get Patrick Caddell and his young assistant, Paul Maslin, hired to do a baseline poll. The results were a surprise. Two and a half months out, Mayor Jane Byrne was carrying more black votes than Washington, and had a commanding lead citywide. After decades of racism, black voters just didn’t believe that a black candidate could win. They thought young Daley was a greater threat to their interests than Byrne, so they were supporting her over him. Those results set our strategy. We had to convince black voters that Washington could win (which by itself would produce a tremendous black turnout) while we simultaneously helped Daley increase his vote to create the possibility of him evenly splitting the white vote with Byrne.

Community organizers began to turn out large crowds at Washington events. By early January, the Washington campaign was on fire in the black community. Organizers mobilized massive rallies in the city’s African American neighborhoods, each of which enhanced the next until a full-blown crusade was underway. Slowly, it dawned on the press that if the non-black vote was evenly split between Daley and Byrne, Washington could theoretically win.

We began to command more news coverage, and as we did, Marilyn aggressively attacked Byrne with scripted and highly visual press events. Campaign contributions, especially from African American businesspeople, increased. That meant Bill was soon able to make TV spots that demonstrated Washington’s competence and experience as a legislator.

By late January, most black voters had shifted to Washington, along with a small segment of liberal whites. But when the strength of the crusade building in the black community became evident outside of it, racial tension in the city grew proportionately. Given thousands of patronage jobs and millions of dollars in city contracts, all controlled by the mayor’s office, Chicago’s white politicians mobilized to stop us.

An ugly racism permeated the city. Many whites who were not regular voters were convinced to turn out to stop Washington. But since most had been lifelong Democrats loyal to the old Daley machine, they were more likely to vote for the younger Daley than for Byrne, which played right into our hands.

On primary election night, we smiled broadly as pandemonium broke out when results were announced to the thousands of Washington supporters packed into the ballroom of the McCormick Place Hotel: Washington 37 percent, Byrne 33 percent and Daley 30 percent.

African American voters had a 79 percent turnout and had given Washington 85 percent of their vote. The “80 for 80” strategy had worked. Community organizing carried the day, with a minor assist from our press and advertising work.

A general election surprise

The general election between Washington and the Republican nominee was to be held in April. With the primary behind us, we thought it would be a victory lap. We were wrong.

The powerful chairman of the Cook Country Democratic Party, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, immediately endorsed not Washington but his Republican opponent, State Sen. Bernard Epton. Other powerful white aldermen, lifelong Democrats all, quickly followed suit, equally determined to stop Washington even at the previously unthinkable cost of electing a Republican mayor.

It was a stunning development. Vrdolyak and the other white aldermen didn’t bother to hide the racial motivation behind their unprecedented embrace of a Republican candidate. Using language that claimed Washington’s supporters were outsiders trying to overthrow the established order, but avoiding overt references to their race, Vrdolyak and the others nonetheless managed to argue that white city workers and white city contractors would lose out to blacks who would supplant them. Worse, they had no qualms about using racial polarization as a central aspect of their strategy because they knew that many in Chicago would respond. Nonetheless, immediately after the primary victory, the Washington campaign did not appear to be in any real danger.

Polls conducted by Caddell and Maslin shortly after the primary indicated a comfortable lead. Latino support had solidified behind Washington, and it appeared that we had the vote of white liberals who made up 15 to 20 percent of the white vote, which was all we needed to carry the general election. Enthusiasm in the black community remained at a historic high. We made TV spots and organized press coverage that claimed Washington would bring much-needed reform to the city.

While we assumed we were coasting to victory, the Democratic machine doubled down. They mounted a campaign that relied on salacious charges and crude innuendo to accuse Washington of being a slumlord and a tax-evader. The opposition even suggested he was gay.

Upping the ante, they hired Republican media consultant John Deardorf, who, leaving subtlety behind, produced negative spots that were tagged, “Bernard Epton…before it’s too late.” The message wasn’t lost on anyone in Chicago.

The Washington campaign did not respond to these slanders. We stayed on the high road. But because of the unrelenting attacks, Caddell and Maslin began weekly tracking polls. Initially, our white support held firm, but then with each new poll white support dropped a little more. The attacks were working.

We increased our positive messaging, switching from 30-second to 60-second TV spots. That didn’t help. White voters continued to defect. Two weeks before the election, we were jolted out of our complacency: our overall vote had dropped just below 50 percent with the number of undecideds rapidly diminishing. If we couldn’t find a way to alter the direction of the race, we were convinced Washington would lose.

The election: Lost and then won

Horrified, we convened an emergency meeting of the campaign leadership, including the powerful finance committee. We argued for an immediate change in strategy, one that would directly confront the not-so-subtle racist campaign that was eroding our support among white voters.

The two pollsters and the two of us argued forcefully for new TV spots designed to make white voters with liberal politics feel awkward or even guilty for having been drawn into the essentially racist campaign against Washington.

Much to our surprise, the businessmen on the finance committee vehemently opposed us. Recounting their prior experiences supporting black candidates in local races that required carrying some white votes, they argued that whenever the issue of race or racism had been raised, it had always backfired.

Their experiences in race-dominated Chicago had taught them never to discuss racism if a black candidate needed white votes to win an election. Countering their argument was not easy: all four of us were white; everyone else in the room was black.

We pointed out that their experience was not relevant because in this case we were not trying to win a large number of white votes, only enough to put us over the top. Chicago’s north lakefront neighborhoods, while only a fraction of the overall population, were packed with white liberals who we knew would be alarmed at any association with racism.

We believed they would respond to the kind of TV spots we were proposing. Furthermore, we argued, the polling showed that the election was already lost. Remaining on the same course was suicidal. The dispute was intense. There were shouts and slammed doors.

Eventually, we were given a budget to produce two new TV spots that would directly address racism, but permission to air the spots or even show them outside the campaign was withheld pending the approval of the finance committee. Harold Washington himself remained aloof from these discussions, preferring to leave them to campaign staff so he could spend all of his time actively campaigning for votes.

Raw material for the new spots was readily at hand. Over the previous several weeks, many national Democratic leaders, outraged by the overt racism of the city’s leading Democratic officeholders and fearful that it would harm the party nationally, came to Chicago to campaign with Washington. One of them was former vice president Walter Mondale, who accompanied Washington to St. Pascal’s Church in an all-white working class neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side on Palm Sunday.

When Mondale and Washington walked to the church with press and campaign staff, an angry crowd awaited. Stones and threats of serious violence followed spiteful screams and racist catcalls. The police had to hustle the two leaders into the church. Fortunately for us, the entire episode was captured on film by CBS, including a tight headshot of an angry man bellowing “nigger lover” at the former vice president. So shocking was the news footage that it was aired over and over, first on local news outlets and then across the nation.

Working with his then partners, Sid Galanty and Daniel Dixon, Bill used the footage to make two new spots. The first, called “Pledge,” starts tight on a four-year-old white boy struggling through the first line of the Pledge of Allegiance as the camera pulls back to reveal him standing with other children. An abrupt cut takes the viewer to the near riot at St. Pascal’s Church and features the man screaming “nigger lover.” The spot then cuts back to a young black girl as the group of children continues to recite the pledge. After she delivers the next line, the St. Pascal’s footage repeats.

The spot returns to another child continuing the pledge, followed for a third time by the scene at St. Pascal’s. Finally, a somewhat older white boy finishes the pledge, the camera freezes on his face and slowly the spot fades to black. A tiny picture of Harold Washington appears at the bottom of the screen next to very small titles that read, “Harold Washington for Mayor.”

Over the fade to black at the end, an announcer’s voice is heard for the first time. He says, “When you vote for Mayor, make sure it’s a vote you can be proud of.” The spot’s emotional power derived not only from the kids reciting the Pledge against the backdrop of ugly racism but also because viewers were never asked to vote for Washington, only to watch the action and consider what was at stake.

The second spot, “Shame,” also relied on the footage from St. Pascal’s. It began with a series of well-known and emotionally evocative photographs that appeared on screen one by one with ominous music in the background: the Kennedy assassination, the massacre at My Lai in Vietnam, the killing of Martin Luther King, a dead student lying prone at Kent State University.

Over these powerful images, an announcer says, “There are moments in our country’s history of which all Americans are thoroughly and profoundly ashamed. One of those moments may be happening now, here in Chicago.” As the last sentence is delivered, the video cuts to the St. Pascal’s footage, holds on it for some time, and then ends in the same way as the first spot.

The four of us who had argued for this new material were pleased with the results. We thought we had powerful new tools to convince white liberal voters to once again support Washington. Yet, when we showed the two new spots to the businessmen on the finance committee, they reacted not with congratulations but with anger. They reiterated their belief that the spots provoked guilt and that guilt about racism would backfire with white voters.

Once more we countered that we were not targeting whites in general but only those with some liberal inclination. Caddell and Maslin presented convincing data that enough of them could still be converted to our camp to overcome our polling deficit, which still showed support below 50 percent and dropping further. We finally prevailed by proposing that we run the spots in combination with daily tracking polls. If the spots were damaging, we would quickly see it and have time to withdraw them. Reluctantly, the finance committee gave us permission to air “Pledge” on that basis, but forbid us from airing the more provocative “Shame.”

We sent “Pledge” to the TV stations and got it on the air with the election only eight days away. The results were immediate and palpable. Our tracking polls revealed that Washington’s decline among whites had been stopped. By the third day, it was on the increase, if only slowly. We were concerned that in the limited time remaining the rate of increase would not be sufficient to get us over 50 percent. As the last weekend before the election loomed, we appealed to the finance committee for permission to run “Shame.” But before they could respond, we discovered that the spot was flawed.

“Shame” had high emotional impact and was remarkably memorable when first seen, but upon repeated viewings it became evident that what was going on in Chicago, while shameful, was not parallel to the killings and assassinations depicted at the beginning of the spot. The more often it was seen, the less powerful it became.

Ideally, we needed to show “Shame” to every voter in Chicago but make sure that no one saw it more than once. While that would not be possible today, it was possible then because there were only three dominant TV networks and during prime time a large majority of voters all watched one of them. This was an era before cable TV, the Internet, TiVos, DVDs, and all the other technological developments that have fractured the voting audience into various opinion silos.

By purchasing a spot on each of the three networks at the same exact moment during prime time broadcasting, something then referred to by media buyers as a “roadblock,” a large majority of viewers would see the spot but no individual viewer could see it more than once.

It was a good plan but the finance committee rejected it out of hand. They remained as certain that “Shame” would drive away white liberals as we were certain it would encourage them take a second look at Washington.

Early Friday morning, with only four days remaining before the election, the tracking poll indicated that Washington was not moving up fast enough to win. For the previous 48 hours, the two of us had continually grilled the pollsters about the likely impact of “Shame” and had been told that everything in the available data indicated we should use it. The moment of truth had come. We knew there was a Friday noon deadline at the TV stations for locking down which spots would run over the weekend and on Monday.

The two of us agonized over what to do. For two hours Friday morning we weighed the pros and cons of the action we were considering. Chicago was on the verge of an historic change. Through sacrifice and hard work, organizers had mobilized the African American community as never before. It would all be wasted if Washington failed to carry the election on Tuesday.

The finance committee, a group lacking any meaningful experience in media-driven campaigns, was using its authority to block a necessary decision. Clearly, we had a contractual obligation to obey, but did we not also have a responsibility to the candidate to act in his best interests?

Fully cognizant of the stakes—for everyone—and fully aware of the moral ambiguity, we decided to risk defying the finance committee and put “Shame” on the air. Bill convinced campaign manager Bill Ware that copies should be sent to the TV stations in case we were able to alter the finance committee’s decision over the weekend. Then, without informing Ware or anyone else, and in total disregard for the finance committee’s orders not to run “Shame,” we shifted the campaign’s purchased TV airtime to set up a “roadblock” for it at 8:01 p.m. on Sunday.

We did not bring Washington into this decision. We did not want to force him to choose between his consultants and his financial backers, although he had seen the spots and liked them both. “Shame” ran in the roadblock Sunday evening. The next morning, Ware and members of the finance committee were livid. We pretended to be as surprised as they were and blamed the TV stations for misinterpreting our orders. It was pure fabrication, but it got us through the day.

On Tuesday, it no longer mattered. Harold Washington won with 51.7 percent of the vote. In a vindication of our strategy, he carried 19 percent of the white vote. The press talked about both “Pledge” and “Shame” at length and gave them some credit for putting us over the top. We, however, wanted a more scientific assessment. The campaign authorized Caddell and Maslin to conduct a post-election poll to pinpoint how and why we had won. The completed poll clearly indicated that absent both spots, especially “Shame,” which was the more memorable, Washington would have narrowly lost.

The Aftermath

After the victory, most of Washington’s supporters and campaign staff, black and white, expressed their appreciation for the powerful closing advertising. They thought it had been an effective counter to our opponent’s racism without having further exacerbated racial tension in the city. But members of the finance committee and a few leading staffers dependent upon them for salaries remained angry and bitter about our insubordination.

Some months after the victory, the finance committee sent Bill’s company a letter demanding $50,000 to replace the money spent to broadcast “Shame.” Bill referred the letter to Mayor Washington, who made sure no further action was taken.

Did we, as the finance committee charged, over-step our authority? Certainly, but would it have been more responsible of us to follow orders knowing that doing so would have resulted in a likely defeat, not just for Washington personally but also for the unprecedented and massively successful community organizing work that had mobilized Chicago’s African American community?

The situation we faced in Chicago is not likely to recur. Sophisticated targeting and the ability to pre-test TV spots have taken some of the guesswork out of campaign decisions. And, clearly, a “roadblock” that captures so many voters can no longer be executed.

Instead of a majority of the electorate watching one of three channels during prime time, viewers have scattered themselves over a much wider array of options, making it impossible to aggregate such an audience. Unlike 1983, it’s not possible for an overriding message to break through the fog of ideology, opinion, and junk science that now cloud our political discourse. Nonetheless, our ethically ambiguous decision begs the question: do the ends justify the means? Over long careers and many campaigns, as a general principle, we don’t think so.

Still, there are exceptions, and we believe that the Washington campaign was one. Clearly, a political professional is not comparable to, say, a medical professional dealing with a life or death decision and a misinformed patient. Yet as professional political consultants we often confront situations in which hard data conflicts with client inclinations or beliefs.

Certainly consultants have the option of simply resigning from a campaign if their advice is rejected. Occasionally, however, there are larger issues at stake, as there were in Chicago in 1983 and often are in present-day ballot initiative campaigns. In the end, we see no way around the fact that questions of ends and means have to be evaluated on a case by case basis, which only adds to the ethical ambiguity.

Some, no doubt, will criticize our actions, while others, we hope, will applaud them. We remain comfortable with our decision, given the particulars of the situation, but would welcome a larger discussion of these issues. Political consulting has become more corporatized and regimented than it was in 1983. Today it is rare for one or two individuals to be presented with circumstances like those we faced. Still, it would be better to ponder these issues before they arise instead of one day facing them in the heat of battle.

Writing in 1992, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, noted political communications authority, said this of the final TV ad we aired in that campaign: “There is not a more powerful instance of ‘reframing’ that I know of in the modern history of televised campaigning.” That was gratifying, but not nearly as much as downstream events that occurred even later.

Unbeknown to us at the time, a 24-yearold African American man moved to Chicago to accept a community organizing job two months after Washington’s victory. As he later described it, the victory had created a heady spirit and a new enthusiasm for politics in the city’s black neighborhoods. As a result, he was provoked to consider a political career himself.

Simultaneously, the 28-year-old Chicago Tribune reporter who had covered the Washington campaign and had become fascinated by the work we were both doing decided to leave journalism to become a political media consultant. Exactly 25 years after Washington’s victory, the two, Barack Obama and David Axelrod, reframed politics for us all.