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A walk on the wild side


The 1987 Chicago mayoral election is history. The political box score reveals the extent of Harold Washington's primary and general election victories. Already commentators have reconstructed the dynamics of the mayor's reelection by examining campaign strategy and interpreting the numbers. Yet the real inside story of Chicago mayoral politics, as well as its fun and excitement, can be best learned by observing the action in the neighborhoods.

So in the spirit of Boston's historic Freedom Trail and the western pioneers' adventurous Santa Fe and Chisholm trails, I would like the reader to travel with me along Chicago's perilous "Green Trail." For over 20 years I have spent election days in Chicago traversing a prescribed route checking out the skirmishes and intrigues in the city's wards and precincts. Admittedly over the years Chicago politics have become technologically more sophisticated and vastly more expensive, but still you can gain no better citywide political insight than to see who is winning the trench warfare battles on the streets of Chicago.

The trail begins on the far southeast side 10th Ward — the home of Cook County Democratic chairman and former alderman, Edward Vrdolyak. It then winds west through the middle-class black wards: the 6th, the 8th and the 21st. This area is the heart of the political movement that elected Mayor Washington. The trail then moves farther west to the fashionable 19th Ward — the Beverly area, home base of Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes. From Beverly it moves north along Western Avenue through the racially divided 18th and 15th wards and on to the turf of 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke. At 55th Street we turn right and after passing through the poor communities of Ald. Dorothy Tillman's 3rd Ward, we enter the new Eton of Chicago politics — Hyde Park. Long the bastion of Chicago's leading independents, this area now is "clout central." Its traditional anti-City Hall liberal residents have switched their views on the importance of having strong executive government in the city. This is also home of Mayor Harold Washington. After Hyde Park it's on to Bridgepoint in the 11th Ward — the ancestral home of the Daleys. From here the trail leads north west to the Hispanic 25th and 22nd wards. At Pulaski we turn north to Roosevelt Road to check out Ald. William Henry's 24th Ward and the rest of the west side. The trail then winds its way back in a northeast direction until we end up at Lou Mitchell's restaurant on West Jackson Boulevard for the best cup of coffee in Chicago. By now it's mid afternoon and the real action is about to begin -- the trail heads to the "east 40s." In Chicago that means the lakefront wards of 42, 43, 44, 46, 48, and 49.

Unlike most other parts of Chicago these wards have remained competitive mayoral elections and have recently been the scene of some bare-knuckled or thin-Gucci-gloved aldermanic contests. Bisecting the east 40s, the trail slides occasionally into former Park District Supt. Ed Kelly's 47th Ward and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski's 32nd Ward, before it ends back downtown at the Michigan Avenue bridge. From here it's easy access to a candidate's campaign headquarters, a radio or TV station or if you're lucky, an excellent saloon.

Primary election day, February 24: Although technically Chicago is a two-party town, the following saga will only deal with the Democratic mayoral primary between former Mayor Jane Byrne and incumbent Mayor Washington— since approximately 98 percent of Chicago's 1,173,596 primary voters a Democratic ballot. For the record, Don Haider, a prominent Northwestern University management professor, was the easy Republican mayoral primary winner; former 10th Ward Ald. Ed Vrdolyak won on the Solidarity Party ticket, and Tom Hynes on a fourth party ticket.

46/July1987/Illinois Issues

On primary day the south end of the 10th Ward is alive. Though their champion Ed Vrdolyak is being challenged in his Solidarity Party mayoral bid, his war organization has plastered Byrne-Vrdolyak signs all over the ward. The Vrdolyak in this tandem is the alderman's brother Victor, a former Chicago policeman who is running as Ed's designated aldermanic pinchhitter. It is truly a marvel of Chicago politics to see most of Vrdolyak's precinct captains pushing the mayoral primary candidacy of potential general election rival Jane Byrne, while a few special captains work their selected precincts for Ed Vrdolyak's Solidarity primary victory over a nonentity.

Moving north we see the anti-Vrdolyak black sections of the 10th Ward smothered in Washington signs. The same is true for the middle-class, heavy-turnout black wards to the west. What is missing here are campaign workers on the street. Perhaps nothing demonstrates Washington's popularity and control over Chicago's black voters more than the fact that he needs very little organization strength to get them to the polls to punch his number.

Nothing unusual happens along the trail until I reach Hyde Park in late morning. The 4th Ward has a highly publicized aldermanic contest. The mayor's choice and his council floor leader, incumbent Timothy Evans, is being challenged by the Independent Voters of Illinois (IVI) candidate, Toni Preckwinkle. Scurrying outside a huge three-precinct polling place (voters from three different precincts vote here) are the white independent precinct workers, looking high minded and dressed somewhat shabbily. Opposing them are the 4th Ward organization regulars, who are mainly black and well-dressed. I am given seven pieces of aldermanic literature, each of which suggests that the mayor has endorsed their candidate. No matter which alderman they favor, everyone is backing Washington. Realizing it would be a risky business tell these energized combatants that I am not a 4th Ward resident, I march into the polling place, look around for a respectable period of time and then boldly march out, thanking the precinct workers for their information while I seek the sanctuary of my car. Chicago politics is truly changing. Thirty years ago who would have thought that Hyde Park would have have political sluggers muscling voters (admittedly much of it intellectual intimidation) to support their rival aldermaniac candidates? On the other hand, history did repeat itself. Evans beat Preckwinkle four to one, as once again the IVI's was buried by a City Hall endorsement.

Bridgeport is peaceful compared to Hyde Park. Some homes have Byrne-for-mayor posters; more have signs supporting incumbent Ald. Pat Huels, who is running unopposed for reelection. A quick but delightful stop at the Healthy Food Store for Lithuanian stuffed cabbage and mashed potatoes — and the day turns brighter.

Hispanic and west side black wards are quiet, as is Cabrini-Green. The action on the street is nothing compared to 1983. The lakefront east 40s all have aldermanic contests, but even in these highly competitive wards only the 43rd has any real action. As the polls close, I realize that the bitter edge is not present in this primary as it was four years earlier. Key differences: (1) Washington is the incumbent and (2) the real 1983 action in the white ethnic wards was between Richard M. Daley and Byrne. Thus, 1987 is a mild campaign replay with few political undecideds. Turnout will determine the contest, I conclude. And it did.

General election day, April 7: On paper it looks like an all-time Chicago barn burner — Washington v. Vrdolyak. Haider is on the ballot but not in the hunt, and Hynes is off to the side, having dropped out 36 hours before the polls opened. However, the streets reveal clearly that this is not a heavyweight title fight. Rather, it's a club fight with both contenders going through the motions because one of them, Washington, cannot lose.

The 10th Ward is businesslike — Vrdolyak signs are everywhere, but there is no enthusiasm. The southside black wards are incredibly more quiet than in the primary. I stop at a few polling places and find the turnout will nevertheless be only slightly less than it was in 1983. Finally the 18th Ward produces a spark. The white incumbent, Robert Kellam, has been forced into an aldermanic runoff by a black challenger. Eldora Davis. This ward is almost evenly split white/black, but as I travel the streets I realize Kellam's organization is everywhere in his areas, while Davis' troops are nonexistent even in the black neighborhoods; that night on WGN radio I fearlessly predict a Kellam victory. Not surprisingly, few mayoral window signs are evident, though Washington's troops have covered every lamp post along Ashland Avenue and other main streets in the black community. Each ward along the trail gives off the same feeling. Where there is a hotly contested aldermanic run-off race, there is action. Otherwise, few people and few posters are on the street. Seeing Mrs. Richard J. Daley leaving her house in the early afternoon (probably to vote) lifts my spirits, but the day is truly saved by the Battle of the 43rd Ward.

For non-Chicagoans, the 43rd Ward is the city's yuppie mecca. The ward that gave the city, and the world, Paddy Bauler's immortal ''Chicago ain't ready for reform" is now filled with well-dressed, physically fit, mobile professionals whose most vocal political statement usually concerns their favorite brand of carbonated water.

The combatants, Edwin Eisendrath and Robert Perkins, have covered the ward with expensive and colorful posters. Combined they have spent enough money to balance the books of most Third World countries. Each has every precinct polling place covered with workers, though it's Eisendrath who seems to be the most organized and who has the most people. And what people they are! Well-dressed young men and women civilly but firmly push their literature on every incoming voter. Instead of the usually quick thank-you, many voters stop to discuss aldermanic, national and universal issues with the workers. At the LaSalle School polling place I observe a curbside "Nightline" style debate take place on the merits of both 43rd Ward aldermanic candidates. When it's all over, Eisendrath will sweep to a landslide victory, but more important for me is the potential for new style political organizations emanating out of the 43rd Ward into surrounding wards undergoing "yuppification."

What does it all mean? In both the primary and the general elections, the sights along the trail revealed that Chicago is changing demographically. More and more the old style neighborhoods are disappearing as new people and new life styles alter the landscape of Chicago politics. Most clear of all is the fact that like previous reelected mayors, Harold Washington reflects the Chicago electorate better than his opponents — and that's why he won.

July 1987/Illinois Issues/47

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