Annals of Daley: The Racial Healing Card | Bleader

Annals of Daley: The Racial Healing Card


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I've noticed a major theme running through the pre-post-Daley encomiums, perhaps even the most prominent one.

The Trib editorial, quoting themselves at length from 2007:

What truly distinguishes today's Richard Daley from many big-city mayors is his remarkable if impossible-to-complete work to narrow racial chasms that, during the 1980s, threatened to swallow Chicago.

Mary Schmich:

I say this as someone who has lived many other places and lived here for 25 years. When I arrived, Chicago was dirty, viciously racist, tired.

The Sun-Times editorial:

If we have one great worry for the post-Daley era now on our doorstep, it’s that the ugly racial politics that threatened once to tear apart the city could return.

Neil Steinberg:

The change will awaken some sleeping beasts.

This being Chicago, you can’t ignore the issue of race, which Daley managed to adroitly minimize, if not suppress.

When Harold Washington died, there was a conviction among many in the African-American community that the mayorship somehow belonged to them, and no doubt Daley’s passing will be seen as an opportunity to reclaim the office.

Mary Mitchell:

While many of us seethed over his tactics, he took a city that was mired in ugly racial politics and molded it into a city where every ethnic group found a place.

Greg Hinz:

He restored racial peace to a city that was locked in political civil war, putting out the welcome mat for everyone, black or white, Anglo or Latino, gay or straight, Jewish or Muslim.

But Daley wasn't the first mayor to attempt to heal a divided city by putting out a welcome mat. Before him, Harold Washington attempted to build a coalition in the manner that Daley would perfect—or, put more skeptically, actually be able to accomplish. In the essay collection Restoration 1989: Chicago Elects a New Daley, Ed Burke wrote: "Nobody understood the changing makeup of the electorate more than Harold Washington, but the lesson was far from lost on Richard M. Daley, and it showed in his campaign as well as his appointments."

As former Reader staff writer Gary Rivlin pointed out in "Everybody's Mayor," drawn from his book Fire on the Prairie, Washington tried to approach a racially and politically divided city with an approach not unlike Daley's. To quote at length:

Yet for all Palmer's complaints the administration Washington put together was unlike any Chicago had known. The infusion of black talent into City Hall was one overt difference. Suddenly blacks held positions of power. The city's top lawyer was black, and so was Washington's chief of staff and his press secretary.

One glaring oversight was a paucity of Latinos, but the presence of even a few in positions of power put Washington above previous mayors. It was also a slight that Washington would address with time. Another quick-glance difference was the increased presence of women in management positions. Women inside the mayor's office complained of the sexism of a 60-year-old man who was constantly flirting with his female aides, telling them they looked sexy in a particular dress, or commenting on their backside after they left the office. But by 1987, when Washington would run for reelection, just under 40 percent of the city's commissioners and deputy commissioners were women. The city's two top financial officers were black women.

The changes embraced more than the race or sex of his appointees. Washington hired people who were never before welcome on the premises, let alone offered positions at City Hall. These were people excluded from power not only in Chicago but in just about any government in the country. The corporation counsel was James Montgomery, a civil rights lawyer renowned for his role as the lead trial attorney in the $1.9 million judgment against Chicago and Cook County for the 1969 raid that left Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead. A legal aid attorney, Marilyn Johnson, headed the corporation counsel's housing prosecution division; another top lawyer, Matt Piers, was active in the National Lawyers Guild. This lawyer's most celebrated case was a suit against the police department's so-called red squad, which monitored community groups that the machine identified as "subversive." Now, among his other duties, he would defend the police department he had previously sued. In an interview, Quentin Young, Washington's choice for president of the Board of Health, referred to a favorite political cartoon from the Daily Worker to make a point.

At best the machine had ignored community groups that didn't play by its rules; as the red squad suit showed, it often employed Chicago's police department to disrupt or destroy them. In contrast, Joe Gardner, the director of the city's Department of Neighborhoods, was a community organizer who'd worked for one of the groups the red squad infiltrated. Jane Byrne broke with Chicago tradition, at least for a blink of the eye, when she appointed ex-cop Renault Robinson, who'd successfully sued the police department, to the board that monitors the CHA. Washington named Robinson to head the agency.

Of course, politics isn't just appointments. It's also money.

Washington could get petty in his treatment of white constituents, such as the time he held up the money for a soccer field in Ed Vrdolyak's Tenth Ward for no reason except leverage against a foe. Yet five of the six wards receiving over $1.5 million in the administration's first community development spending plan were represented by aldermen aligned with Vrdolyak against him. The state suggested that Calumet, a depressed community in Vrdolyak's ward, be designated an enterprise zone. And rather than put his clout behind Lawndale, a black community that several community activists were pushing as an alternative site, Washington stuck by Calumet, which he believed better prepared for the potential investments.

As Rivlin points out, it was a difficult process, and some of the blame for the backsliding after his death can be laid with Washington, but he faced almost impossible odds, having been elected with only 18% of the white vote in 1983; in primary polling Washington ran behind Jane Byrne and Richard Daley in areas of the city with large or majority white populations (the lakefront, the Northwest, and the white-majority south side). Washington was also aided by an enormous GOTV effort in 1983, while voter registration was bungled by the Dukakis organization in 1988. Don Rose and James Andrews argue in Restoration 1989 of the latter: "Not only did the registration fiasco cause Dukakis to lose Illinois, it ultimately caused the loss of a black mayor in Chicago."

After Washington died, his nascent and not particularly well-balanced coalition fell apart, in large part due to a complex split in the African-American bloc between his potential successors, Eugene Sawyer and Tim Evans. Evans was also a polarizing figure among reformers, as detailed in two 1989 features by Doug Cassel, "Is Tim Evans For Real?" and "The Movement's Next Move." Daley succeeded Sawyer, and the rest is history.

None of which is to take away from the younger Daley's felicity in reaching across racial, ethnic, and, not unimportantly, sexual-orientation lines to build an unstoppably large coalition of voters. He inherited—and perhaps improved on—Harold Washington's strategies, but his advantage as a white politician can't be discounted when discussing his success at implementing them. It's undeniably good that Daley bridged explicit and ugly racial divides in Chicago politics, but the reasons behind his ability to do so should give us reasons to be skeptical, and concerned.

Earlier this year, Eric Zorn put together a timeline of Daley's infamous "white/wet/what mayor" quote and its aftermath:

In a tape of a television newscast provided by the Sawyer campaign to some Chicago news outlets Thursday, it appears that Daley says, "You want a white mayor to sit down with everybody." But it is not certain from the tape whether Daley used the word "white" or simply misspoke while trying to find another word.

"It was my standard stump speech," Daley said when questioned about the comment and Sawyer's criticism. "I'm not maybe the best speaker in town, but I have never used the word."

What did he say? No man will ever know, and if there's anybody who can use the stumbling-over-his-words excuse with some plausibility, it's Richard M. Daley. So maybe he didn't say "you want a white mayor." Was it a slip? Perhaps it was the city's Freudian slip.

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