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Harold Washington's People: Where Are We Now?

Ten years after the Washington administration took over City Hall, eight key members assess his legacy: Have the reforms lasted? What has been lost?



Ten years ago a group of new, mostly young appointees took over City Hall intending to overthrow Chicago government and reform it as it had never been reformed before. Many of them had never worked in government. Some had never even had a real job. But to them Harold Washington's 55 months in office was the Chicago version of Camelot. His death was as much a blow to their aspirations as John F. Kennedy's was to another generation of idealistic and motivated activists.

What do Washington's appointees think has happened to their boss's vision of the city?

Surprisingly, some of the true believers today see Rich Daley as the Lyndon B. Johnson of his time: he may not have the intellect, charisma, or vision of his predecessor, but he has become adept at making Washington's ideas reality. These former staffers point out that Daley took Washington's executive order ensuring city contracts for minorities and turned it into an ordinance that will most likely withstand judicial scrutiny. They say the current mayor also beefed up the ethics ordinance and continued access to government through a modified freedom of information (FOI) act.

Others find Daley more like Richard M. Nixon: he talks a good game, appears to do the right thing, but is slowly and subtly dismantling the framework of the Harold Washington administration in the most evil and insidious ways. These people think Daley has paid lip service to minority contracts while using loopholes in the ordinance to give personal-services contracts to lily-white law firms that contribute big bucks to his campaign funds. They also think the Daley administration has diluted Washington's freedom of information policy and done everything possible to stanch the flow of documents to the press and the public.

Was the Washington administration a brief shining moment? Have his reforms been undone since his death? Or have the structural and institutional changes that Washington stood for been permanently woven into the fabric of city government? We tracked down eight key Harold Washington aides, all now departed from city government, and asked their opinions. We also asked them to reminisce a bit about their boss. Here are their responses:

Sharon Gist Gilliam was first deputy budget director, then budget director in the Washington administration; she is now a partner in a local consulting group:

Every mayor and every administration is so totally different. But this was different. You had a sense that it was more than a mayor and governance of Chicago. You were really a part of a movement to make change better for the city.

It's a good comparison to JFK--a lot of old-line bureaucrats combined with new blood. There were a lot of people who were never in government attracted to government--young people who wanted to make changes. I think the Washington administration made some fundamental changes. Clearly not everything he did will go on forever. Clearly for the black community there was a sense of empowerment and a sense of we can do it. So even though the black community is disorganized, they can hold themselves out so that whoever in power does not meet our needs, we can band together and throw them out. Because of that, things are better. Government is more open. A lot of things that Washington did--FOI, executive orders, state statutes--are there and nobody is ever going to repeal them. Every reporter and every activist group has that. Community groups may not be as vocal and involved now, but they are more vocal than before Harold. That administration was trying to be more responsive to get things into the neighborhoods. It's less the case now.

Had he lived, Harold Washington would be faced with the same problems as Daley, no money and no way of getting money. You can't take from the Police Department to build housing. Harold Washington would have been faced with the same economic problems and Harold Washington couldn't have gotten more federal funds.

Rich Daley runs a fairly open government. I'm a small business person with a minority-owned firm. Harold Washington had the MBE [minority business enterprises] program, which Daley got through the Council. He did it the right way and in a way that so far hasn't been challenged. It is being enforced by the layers of bureaucracy. Would that have occurred if Harold Washington had not been mayor?

Maxine Leftwich was administrative assistant to the mayor; she is now a local investment banker:

I found Harold Washington to be extremely innovative. He had a vision and image for the city and he was dedicated to that. He was a workaholic.

He wanted to see development in neighborhoods, theaters, education. He went at it with great passion. It was a poor peoples' campaign. A movement of people.

And that evolved into the Daley administration. To be honest, I see no difference. Washington was a mayor of the people. Same thing with Daley. I think the policies and ideals will continue. It has all moved to another captain's table.

I think they've probably run equal administrations. There are extremely talented people in this cabinet. You can't say that without Washington you wouldn't have an MBE program. We don't know what Daley would have done. This administration has been even more aggressive in giving minority contracts and business. I'm quite sure this mayor would have done the same things if there hadn't been a Washington administration.

Judson Miner was corporation counsel; he is now an attorney in private practice:

Harold Washington was a wonderful client. A very thoughtful and talented person who grasped things quickly and enjoyed the legal process. I met with him every day for an hour about issues that were breaking and those coming down the pike. He would absorb quite quickly. In the two years I worked quite intensely with him, I was never disappointed.

The excitement was that you were right in the middle of a revolution and the magnitude was so great that it was incredible. I had spent my life fighting for affirmative action, open government, and labor rights. In a handful of years, they all became a part of government. It wasn't perfect, but all the stuff was put in place. Things like the ethics ordinances. Government was discussing the issues on a daily basis. You read in the newspaper about every blemish because he didn't mind that it got out, unlike the government prior to that period.

There was a very serious attempt to address how the government ought to process issues, like Commonwealth Edison. There were nongovernment advisory commissions and open hearings. We opened the process up to a lot of sources, including the press.

It was cumbersome and new and was far from model. The changes flowing through the law department were revolutionary. It had been a patronage haven with one or two stellar attorneys who did the bulk of the work and the important work done outside by a fully professional law firm. Government started attracting quality people.

Harold Washington loved open robust debate and he was willing to bring in people who had their own constituency and own personality and their own ideas. The Daley administration seems more bent on bringing people in who play less aggressive roles in government. They are good bureaucrats but lack their own ideas.

The changes made under Washington were fundamental but all the building blocks hadn't been put in place to make them permanent. He had a keen sense of how the blocks could be built, but he thought he had plenty of time to build it. Thus the loss was devastating and tragic.

One of his purposes was to realign the power structure of the city--to bring minorities and people not a part of the power structure into the power structure--and he was just beginning to accomplish that.

Harold came into office with less of the feel for people that is necessary for government. He made mistakes early on but didn't let those mistakes throw him. When there was turnover the replacements were as good or better. Even during all the investigations, he never felt so besieged that he felt he had to bring in people who he knew he could control.

He set a tone that has required at least lip service by subsequent administrations, but they don't run government the way Washington did. Part of the difference is the role of press. They were at our heels every day about every contract. Every time a black received a city contract they made the amazing revelation that the person had contributed to Harold Washington. There wasn't a black businessman in the city who didn't contribute to Harold Washington. Each one of those stories was on page one.

But when Daley's brother's brother-in-law is hired at a top post in aviation, it makes hardly any news and is buried in the back of the paper.

There was a civil rights lawsuit against the city and Harold Washington turned it around to a totally integrated administration.

Daley has to pay lip service to a lot of these things. But you don't pay adequate attention to these things unless they are very high on your agenda. If it's not tops on your agenda you are not going to have an effective MBE/WBE [women's business enterprises] program. The Daley people like to have an MBE program but aren't going to bring in people to make it the best. They like to have an FOI office but don't have an FOI officer in every department. Instead, they have one FOI officer and when 7,000 requests come in they say sorry, we'll get to you as soon as we can, then they stall it and review it to determine what you really have in mind and undercut it by making some announcement.

That's what is going on now and that is a fundamental difference. Have they abandoned these things? There is little distinction between abandoning them and reducing them in importance so that they aren't really dealing with them.

I'm simply flabbergasted that you have found some people who say his death didn't make a difference.

Ernest Barefield served as Washington's chief of staff; he is now a national government affairs consultant:

I think working for him was a seminal experience. He was the most mature and able mayor in his time. He set the standard for grappling with developing issues in large cities that were underfunded and faced with extremely complicated problems because the federal government was retrenching and the states didn't know how to deal with it.

The importance of Harold Washington was he harnessed all the elements of community leadership and directed all the forces in a way to make it possible to succeed in difficult and trying times. Through Council Wars he was able to reshape and harness local government and determine how it shall serve the people. He set the agenda for the city.

Were there permanent structural changes or was this really a futile exercise because of his death?

It's a combination of those things. Fundamentally there were structural changes. So fundamental that it will be difficult for any subsequent mayor to deviate from them. But there was a significant opportunity that has been missed. The energy, wisdom, and commitment in which he shaped issues is gone forever. For example, school reform--my sense is it is floundering right now. Other important issues as to how local government entities should function--how well county and city, schools, and Park District are functioning in a way that reflect strategic development for the city as a whole--are also gone.

But there is a much greater emphasis on a genuine politics of inclusion than had been the case before Harold Washington. Minorities were in the process but not a part of it. They were used as symbols and stopgaps.

His death probably affected the internal politics of his own community in a very significant way more than anything else. Development of a new leadership cadre will take time to emerge. It will be a tough and protracted job to build back to that level but it won't take forever.

I've worked for Maynard Jackson, Wilson Goode, and Andrew Young. Working for Harold Washington stands out and rings louder than any of the others. The thing that resonates for people all over is having worked for Harold Washington. He really set the standards for dealing with the realities in the big cities. He was the national spokesman for urban issues at the time of his death.

He harnessed and tamed political forces. He made the business community come to the table. He was recognized and heralded both nationally and internationally. There was always that quip about Chicago being Beirut on the lake, but after the battle was over and he had won and had fashioned an important stance for the city in charting a new direction, a lot of people who lamented he didn't lie down for City Council opponents to get things done were glad he fought. We really don't know how much further he could have gone, and that is a significant loss.

Rob Mier was commissioner of economic development and assistant to the mayor for development; he is now a professor of urban planning and public administration at UIC:

I thought he was an extraordinary human being. Some of the things that made him extraordinary: a clear sense of his own values. He was social-justice driven--who pays and who benefits? These were important questions to him.

I was never in a decision-making situation with him where he didn't bring something unique to the decision. He was an amazing historian; he really knew the history of Illinois. He brought the history of the civil rights movement to the decision.

He was as charismatic in private as in public. He could disarm you with a twinkle or a scowl. I ran his overseas trips to promote investment, and on a half-dozen overseas trips to Milan, Tokyo, Beijing, London, he'd be out on the street and within five minutes he would be mobbed by people. He was one of the top five recognizable politicians in the country and probably the only mayor.

Does the legacy live on, has it been totally destroyed, or is it somewhere in the middle?

The truth is somewhere in between.

On some fronts there's been a real slide. Washington did put together truly a rainbow coalition. You can quibble on the numbers but I think it would have grown. That's a real loss because the rainbow could have continued to grow.

He had a secret to more humane politics in this country. It ain't what it was. It seems to me we haven't reverted back as much to 1983 as we have to 1977. On the other hand, it's not easy to go back to the old days. Daley has been forced to play it cool.

Daley campaigned rigorously against things we stood for in the development area. He was dead set against planned manufacturing districts, but now supports a community-oriented approach to development. Daley was smart enough to come up with the best people.

I think it will be difficult for Daley to go back to 1983. But the new patronage army is how you handle contracts--pinstripe patronage. Thompson was a master and Daley is following in his footsteps. Under new federal rules and regulations, he has to pay attention to MBE and WBE. Daley's more attuned to community sensibilities than mayors used to be.

Working for Harold Washington was an extraordinary experience and I'm a better person for it. It gave me faith that it is possible to expect and demand of society more tolerance and humanity.

James Montgomery was Washington's first corporation counsel; he is now an attorney in private practice:

I never worked for anyone other than Harold. Harold was a guy who was hands off. He gave me the full rein to run the office. I noticed that he was a person who never gave his people directions as to what to do, but he would kick tail after they screwed up. My job was to advise him on legal issues and I frequently counseled him. I found him an extremely brilliant man, sharp and quick minded. He made me a better lawyer because he was so thorough.

He was an extremely political boss. Frequently I would give him advice and he would tell me, "That proves you can't count." He was very sensitive to politics.

I think the structural aspect of government has changed for good despite his death. He opened up city government--the FOI ordinance that he initiated. Government now has an MBE/WBE program that he initiated. He was not unresponsive to certain segments of the population that were previously ignored. Rich Daley cannot back off substantially from those structural changes in government.

But a lot was lost in his death. Washington appealed to a large segment of the population in a way that Daley does not. In the old days when Richard J. Daley ran the city of Chicago, followed by Bilandic and Byrne, there was an attitude towards the black community of lack of concerns. Rich feels the necessity of at least trying to pay lip service to the black community and bringing blacks into his administration in a number that would have been unthought of before Harold Washington.

He doesn't have the numbers that Washington had, but he's trying hard as hell to have a reasonable balance, which is better than any administration that came before. No other administration before Harold Washington has had as many blacks in visible cabinet and board positions.

Kari Moe was deputy economic development commissioner and assistant to the mayor; she is currently chief of staff for U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota:

The thing I remember most is how incredibly smart he was. Now that I'm in Washington and seeing how Congress works I have a greater appreciation for who he was. He was smart in terms of issues and politics. He had an enormous depth of knowledge. He could quote Shakespeare, Roosevelt, and the latest best-seller.

He was in a class by himself. The level of commitment--he was very single-minded about what he saw as his mission and his historical moment. Unlike other black mayoral candidates in other cities, he worked at a progressive vision and progressive policy approach, though implementation was another matter. His campaign didn't have to care about policy--just turnout. The Washington policy papers didn't have to be done. But he insisted they be done because they were central to how he wanted to be a leader. He cared about substance.

So what about the current structural nature of city government? Have there been permanent changes or have there been rollbacks?

Probably a little bit of both. I actually fall more in the camp of permanent change. The basic notion that blacks, other minorities, and women ought to be represented in the cabinet remains. Daley ended up selling his cabinet as a rainbow. The center of debate has shifted. Numbers might not be what they used to be, but you're never going to go back pre-Harold.

The minimal starting point got shifted. Things in the basic city code got changed--FOI, the deadline for the budget, and publicizing the budget. These baseline things will be tough to roll back. To some degree they might be held in rhetoric but rolled back in practice. The jury's still out on that.

We always struggled with the question: are we institutionalizing the changes and what does that mean? We started, but it can all be rolled back. I always thought of the second term as the term of institutionalization, and of course we didn't get that chance.

Yet the things on our agenda seem to remain: turning his executive orders into ordinances; building-code reform; council reorganization; getting a handle on the auxiliary agencies--CHA, CTA, Board of Education.

One of the things I notice from here was Harold's commitment to play a national leadership role for the urban agenda. He intended to spend time on that leadership role. There's no one close to being able to play that role now. No one out there. I don't see that kind of visionary approach coming from Rich Daley or even David Dinkins.

There is that lost potential of his leadership.

Doug Guthrie was deputy housing commissioner and later deputy executive director of CHA; he is now president of the National Equity Fund:

The attraction was the challenge of the job. I saw this as my opportunity to earn my PhD in politics. Harold represented more than working for an individual. We felt we were part of a very significant historical movement.

Many of us were extremely dedicated to our agenda and intended to fight through tough times sticking to that agenda. So Harold's death was very tough. We all felt like family. It affected us for a long period of time.

His tenure resulted in historical and institutional changes, particularly for the black community, which has legitimate representation for the first time ever. People who had felt locked out all of a sudden had equitable and open government that the city was not used to having.

There was a desire for fairness and equity. Even now, there's no way to go back to the behind-the-closed-door policy-making. He clearly went out to the neighborhoods and that led to empowerment of community groups and fervor in the community groups. There's no turning back from that. On the other hand, Harold Washington was exhausted by the day-to-day harassment of politics. He was not in a position to exert his mayoral powers until right before his death. He was just ready to be a fully fledged activist mayor. Many of us felt ready to start running the government and then he died.

People in the neighborhoods are now empowered and Daley recognizes that. No mayor can ignore the neighborhoods now. The federal government cutting back puts problems on the city. The housing agenda suffered during the Washington administration and it is suffering now. Daley is attempting to do as well, but clearly that's not enough. But that's not really Daley's fault.

Harold Washington was a man of great integrity, committed to his agenda. I work with activists around the country and all are intrigued about what they heard about Chicago. It's too bad we hardly had a chance. There were missed opportunities. We would have had an opportunity to deliver better services.

I know I miss Harold. I still miss him. I just get a sense of lost opportunities to do some really good things. I don't think anyone else could have done what he did at that point in time. Maybe he wouldn't have accomplished anything else as mayor. Maybe he really was best at the politics. But I just get a sense of lost opportunities to do some really good things.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith, Marc PoKempner.

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