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Round One



FIVE WEEKS have passed since newly elected Mayor Harold Washington has moved into his fifth floor office in Chicago's City Hall. The framework of his administration has begun to settle into place, and the outline of his philosophy is slowly beginning to emerge. There is, as yet, no clear picture of what Washington's goals are as mayor, of his capabilities as the city's chief executive and of his ability as a politician to forge the kind of coalition which would enable him to govern the city effectively. As of this writing (late May), the image that Washington has projected is still somewhat blurred, his administrative skills are largely untested, and his political talents open to question.

As the ostensibly preeminent public figure in the city, Washington has been overshadowed in the fight over control of the City Council by his leading opponent, Alderman and Party Chairman Edward R. Vrdolyak. The print and television media have, on the whole, editorially supported Washington, but it is Vrdolyak, not Washington, who captured the attention, if not the support, of the television audience with his dramatic and effective outbursts declaring that Chicago was not Soviet Russia or Communist China in its legislative assembly, and by framing the dispute as a majority/minority democratic question with his repeated declarations that 29 votes is more than 21. Vrdolyak, despite his media image as "Fast Eddie," has clearly won round one of the media battle, and Mayor Washington has come in second. And, in a city which has become accustomed to seeing the mayor almost daily on the news shows during the years of Mayors Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne, Washington has failed to capture the public eye. He may improve his public image as the city's leader and spokesman, but he has not, as yet, used his office as a "bully pulpit," in the way President Theodore Roosevelt once described the presidency of the United States.

Mayor Washington's administrative skills have not manifested themselves very clearly either. He clearly had developed no major policy goals during his campaign or drafted a comprehensive program for his administration, except to proclaim himself as spokesman for reform (whatever that meant). He formed a transition team of financial consultants who advised him that the city had a $150 million shortfall developing for the fiscal year, a figure which was challenged by one of his leading City Council opponents, Alderman Edward Burke. The designated council finance committee chairman of the Vrdolyak council majority, Burke said the deficit was closer to $50 million. A massive 400-page study of the city government and its failings was produced by a volunteer task force headed by former independent Alderman Dick Simpson. The report, which claimed that there was duplication, waste and inefficiency in almost every city department, was long in description of problems, but short on solutions, except to argue that a more open government, decentralization of public services and reorganization of the city's government by executive order could bring about elimination of duplication, waste and inefficiency. Whether Washington will try to do that, whether he can do that, and how successful such an effort will be remains to be seen. Longtime students of government are generally skeptical of such reports, doubtful of the ability of chief executives to carry them out and aware of the built-in ability of bureaucracies to resist and outlast such attempted reforms. Mayor Washington has moved cautiously thus far in initiating programs, has made some good appointments of well respected people to head several departments but has manifested some lack of direction in developing an inner circle staff of competent advisers and spokesmen in the focal point of the city government, the office of the mayor.

As the city's leading politician, Washington has been out maneuvered by Vrdolyak, the leader of the opposition. He failed to put a majority coalition together to gain control of the City Council and has lost the initial battles in that body. He took on the strongest members of the Vrdolyak bloc in a confrontation which he lost, rather than picking off some of the weaker members of that bloc, which would have been an easier thing to do. He went into the confrontation meetings of the council ill-prepared and ill-advised, lost the political battle there and is, as of this writing, losing the battle in the courts, which have initially ruled for the Vrdolyak 29. The lines have begun to harden on both sides; the Vrdolyak 29 may be able to consolidate its newfound power, and the political fight is spilling over into the Democratic party organization, into the government of Cook County and into the city's delegation to the General Assembly in Springfield. It is not an auspicious beginning for Mayor Washington. He will have to pick up some steam if he wants his train to move down the track toward his destination. □

July 1983 | Illinois Issues | 36

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