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The lost Harold Washington files

Thirty years after Harold Washington’s death, a newly unearthed trove of documents reveals the early stages of his transformation into the insurgent who’d become the first (and still only) black man elected mayor of Chicago.

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Brochure from Harold Washington’s 1977 campaign for Chicago mayor
  • Brochure from Harold Washington’s 1977 campaign for Chicago mayor

Forty years ago, Steve Askin found himself with a front-row seat for Harold Washington's quixotic first campaign for the mayoralty of Chicago.

At the tender age of 23, Askin was Washington's deputy press secretary during the all-but-forgotten Democratic primary of the special mayoral election of 1977, which was held to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley. When the campaign ended with Washington's disappointing third-place finish, Askin packed into boxes everything from speeches and press releases he'd written to position papers and newspaper clippings. In the decades that followed, he carried those boxes from one home to another as he made his way from Chicago to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, Los Angeles, where for the last 30 or so years he's made his living as a researcher for the Service Employees International Union.

Earlier this year, he decided to bring those papers home, so to speak, donating them to the Harold Washington Library.

"I'm a pack rat—I held on to pretty much everything," Askin says. "It sat in my basement for a while, in my attic for a while. As I get older, I try to get rid of stuff. And then about six months ago, I was in Chicago and I visited the archives at the Harold Washington Library, and that's when I discovered they had almost no documentation from the '77 campaign. I realized that this stuff should not be sitting in my attic. It belongs to Chicago—it belongs to Chicago history."

The newly uncovered trove, now available for viewing in the library's special collections division, offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at the early stages of Washington's transformation into the insurgent who emerged victorious in 1983 as the first and still only black man elected mayor of Chicago, overcoming the hysteria and fear of white voters to beat the formidable Democratic machine. "It's a great contribution," HWL special collections librarian Morag Walsh says, "an important look at an election that we don't have a lot of information about."

Thirty years after Washington's death at age 65—he suffered a fatal heart attack in his City Hall office on November 25, 1987—he remains the city's most recognizable symbol of black political empowerment. But the man who emerges in Askin's files is flawed, uncertain, a tad too disorganized as he tries to figure out how to reach out to white and Latino voters and break out of the box that has confined so many black politicians in this town. The documents are, in one sense, a portal to the past; most are written on old-school manual typewriters with edits scrawled by hand, either Askin's or Washington's. But they're also, oddly, a blueprint for the future. For not all that much has changed in Chicago politics since that '77 campaign. The city's still mired in bigotry and autocracy and led by a mayor who's predisposed to hand over public funds to rich people who don't need them.

Clockwise from far left: Askin (center) with Washington; press alert announcing the release of Washington's "Red Squad" files; Washington's bill of rights for city workers; Red Squad reports written by undercover police spies
  • Clockwise from far left: Askin (center) with Washington; press alert announcing the release of Washington's "Red Squad" files; Washington's bill of rights for city workers; Red Squad reports written by undercover police spies

But instead of focusing on the present, let me take you back to 1975. Askin, who was raised in New York City, was just finishing his second year at the University of Chicago. Looking for a summer journalism job, he sent his resumé to just about every newspaper, large and small, around town. "I got one call back," he says.

It was from Gus Savage, the publisher of the Citizen Newspapers, a chain of south-side community papers, who was looking for a cub reporter.

"Gus said, 'Are you the white boy at the University of Chicago?' " Askin recalls. "Then he asked, 'Do you know you sent your resumé to a black newspaper?' " (In 1980, Savage would be elected congressman of the second congressional district on the city's far south side and begin a 12-year legislative career as a controversial and outspoken advocate for leftist and black nationalist causes.)

"Gus sent me out to write a story—like a test," Askin says. "I can't remember the story. Probably a high school sports event. He must have liked what I wrote, because he hired me."

Askin found himself covering south-side politicians, including Washington, then a 54-year-old state senator. "Harold was a mensch," Askin says. "He reached into many different directions, listening to many different voices, many different people."

Washington's south-side universe consisted of black nationalists, white Hyde Parkers, community activists, union leaders, mainstream Democratic politicians, ordinary working-class people—and eventually a twentysomething kid from the University of Chicago. In spring 1976, Askin dropped out of school to work for Washington as a legislative aide. (He'd eventually return to the U. of C. to earn a bachelors degree in civilization studies.)

Washington was then a virtual unknown on the north side and among white voters in general. But he was a growing force in south-side politics. The son of a Second Ward precinct captain, Washington graduated from DuSable High School and Roosevelt University and earned his law degree from Northwestern. His mentor was Third Ward alderman and eventual U.S. congressman Ralph Metcalfe, for whom he worked as an aide. Gradually, Washington worked his way up the ranks of Metcalfe's organization before being slated to run for state representative in 1964.


Harold Washington Library special collections archivist Morag Walsh


Then as now, Chicago was a one-party town. At that time it was controlled by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who was also the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

As a legislator, Washington earned a reputation as a maverick unafraid to champion bills, like one calling for civilian oversight boards. Mayor Daley made it clear he was displeased with Washington's independence. But Metcalfe supported Washington, so politically he remained unbeatable.

On December 20, 1976, Daley died of a heart attack. He'd been mayor for 21 years. The City Council named 11th Ward alderman Michael Bilandic as interim mayor. A special election was scheduled for April 19, 1977, to fill out the remaining two years of Daley's term. From the start, black activists were determined to run an independent candidate. Metcalfe was the obvious choice, but he turned them down to remain in Congress. As the next-most prominent independent black politician in Chicago, Washington was recruited. On February 19, 1977, he filed the signatures needed to launch his campaign, according to press clippings in the Askin files.

"During the past ten days, a group of concerned black and white Chicagoans organized a movement to draft me for mayor," Washington told reporters. "These facts, coupled with my own deep-seated desire to offer the voters of Chicago a positive alternative and new direction for the future today, lead me to accept humbly their draft."

Washington was running as an unabashed left-of- center populist. In his platform, he called for establishing "a fair rent commission" that "has the power to roll back unjust rent hikes," giving Chicago Housing Authority tenants a "larger role in the management of public housing," replacing "the head tax with a commuter tax," providing "tax incentives for new industries in high unemployment sections of the city," stopping "race and sex discrimination in city hiring," and "decentralizing the public schools." Washington also proposed creating "a citizen review board of police brutality complaints." Before the campaign was over, Washington vowed to fire police superintendent James Rochford and appoint new school board members who were more representative of the city (including parents of public school children). In many ways, Washington's ambitious platform would be viable for any progressive running today.

In Askin's files is a copy of a speech Washington gave when he released his policy initiatives.

"The fundamental issue in this campaign is the fact that 'the city that works' does not work for the overwhelming majority of its citizens," Washington said. "What I will work for as mayor is not a city that works for the few, but a working city for all. Not a city that works for the Loop, but a working city with working neighborhoods, working schools, working labor, and working capital—all working together for all the people and all the sections of Chicago."

Clockwise from left: letter from Sid Ordower, who handled outreach to ministers for Washington's '77 campaign; "Program for a Working City," in which Washington noted, "We are face to face with the question of the meaning and destiny of Chicago"; the state senator's newsletter to constituents
  • Clockwise from left: letter from Sid Ordower, who handled outreach to ministers for Washington's '77 campaign; "Program for a Working City," in which Washington noted, "We are face to face with the question of the meaning and destiny of Chicago"; the state senator's newsletter to constituents

As office letterhead in Askin's files reveal, Washington's campaign featured a who's who of black or independent politics in the 1970s. The precinct coordinator was Renault Robinson, a founder of what was then called the Afro-American Patrolmen's League, who'd won a discrimination lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. One of the precinct captains was Bobby Rush, who's been the congressman from the first congressional district since 1992. Back then he was evolving from a member of the Black Panthers to a mainstream politician. Another precinct coordinator was political strategist Jackie Grimshaw, who went on to play a crucial advisory role in Washington's 1983 election. Don Rose was the press secretary. He would go on to manage Jane Byrne's successful mayoral campaign in 1979. (And for many years he wrote for the Reader.) Outreach to ministers was overseen by Sid Ordower, a white gospel concert impresario. Many of the speeches and position papers were drafted by Lu Palmer, a well-known journalist, and Lerone Bennet Jr., a writer for Ebony and author of many books on black politics and social movements. The campaign manager was Savage, Askin's old newspaper boss.

"I was just a kid among these giants," Askin says. "The two people who had the greatest impression on me were Lu Palmer and Sid Ordower. I got to know them well. Sid hosted the Jubilee Showcase gospel show [on ABC 7]. Back then he was more recognizable than Harold. If Sid and Harold were walking down the street on the south side, Sid was the guy people recognized."

Palmer had walked away from a reporting job with the Chicago Daily News in 1973 to protest the way white editors watered down his articles on racial issues. "Lu was this wonderful, committed gentleman," Askin says. "I was this young, white kid. And Lu comes over to me and says, 'What can I do to help you succeed?' Here's this guy who's viewed as a firebrand black militant, basically viewed as anti-white. I didn't see a trace of that. He wanted to win. And he wanted me to succeed in my job."

Despite the talent in Washington's corner, the campaign had no chance. In a postelection memo that Askin wrote for Washington, he points out the campaign was woefully underfunded, with hardly any money to hire a staff to deal with the flood of calls and speaking requests. In the memo, Askin notes that phone messages got lost or went unanswered.

A few prominent white Hyde Park reformers—alderman Leon Despres and state rep Robert Mann among them—endorsed Washington. But to most white voters he might as well have come from a distant planet. Meanwhile Mayor Bilandic had the support of the Democratic Party, civic and corporate Chicago, and the mainstream newspapers. Even the black community was divided. Washington had strong support on the south side, but few ties to the west side. And only one black elected official—24th Ward alderman David Rhodes—dared to break from Bilandic to support Washington.

It didn't help that Washington had income tax problems, which the Askin files also shed some light on. In 1970, prosecutors charged Washington with failing to file his tax returns for four years (1964, '65, '67, and '69). The case was criminally prosecuted, and Washington wound up spending 40 days in Cook County Jail. He always maintained that what looked like tax evasion was actually an oversight, the by-product of a man consumed by politics as opposed to a crook trying to cheat the system. It does seem odd that prosecutors would file criminal charges for a relatively small matter—he owed about $500—that's usually settled with a civil suit. Washington and many of his supporters believed he was being punished for having opposed Mayor Daley and President Nixon; Washington once walked out of a speech given by Vice President Spiro Agnew to the Illinois General Assembly.

The tax issue also haunted the 1983 campaign, when Washington's opponents distributed his mugshot in an obvious attempt to scare white voters into believing that a vote for Washington was a vote for lawlessness and street crime.

Askin's dossier contains a copy of remarks Washington made at a March 28 press conference about the income tax issue, as well as copies of his income tax returns for 1970 through 1975 that were released to reporters. The paperwork shows Washington was a man of modest means who never made more than about $24,000 a year in the years covered.

"Judge me most of all on the positions I have taken on the issues in this campaign," Washington said at the press conference. "Judge me on my commitment to the building of a better future for our city and on the coalition I have brought together [to make] Chicago a city that works for all the people."

The 1977 campaign's contact list; Washington's responses to a Sun-Times editorial board questionnaire; Washington’s income tax return from 1972, released to the press as his failure to file for four years became a campaign issue
  • The 1977 campaign's contact list; Washington's responses to a Sun-Times editorial board questionnaire; Washington’s income tax return from 1972, released to the press as his failure to file for four years became a campaign issue

If there's a bombshell in the Askin files, it's the copies of reports filed by spies for the notorious "Red Squad," a secret investigative outfit of the Chicago Police Department that infiltrated many of the leftist and black activist groups in the 1960s and '70s. (Police spying goes on today; under Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, covert intelligence agents have collected information on everyone from anti-Olympic activists to Black Lives Matter organizers.) The files include reports written by undercover officers who were at the meetings where Washington spoke. For instance, there's an account written by an investigator named "E. Hill" of a November 11, 1973, meeting at Reverend Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH organization. According to Hill, the meeting was "attended by approximately 1,800 persons. The racial makeup was seventeen hundred (1700) blacks and one hundred (100) whites." Hill identified speakers by race and gender and summarized what they said. "Harold Washington told the audience that it took . . . five years to get [various] bills passed. He said that the signing of these bills into law represents pressure and when this pressure is used right, then you have power. Washington said that the people expect a lot from their representatives, but the representative is only as strong as the people he represents." How Washington got ahold of his Red Squad files remains a mystery to Askin.

The '77 election didn't end well for Washington. With roughly 11 percent of the vote, he came in behind Bilandic and 41st Ward alderman Roman Pucinski. But Washington had sown the seeds for the run in '83. The files include a speech he delivered to Hyde Parkers a few months after the race.

"For the first time in the history of Chicago, leaders from black, liberal, white, poor white, and Latino communities came together around a program for political reform and social change which addressed itself to the needs of all people who are ignored or stepped on by the Democratic machine," Washington said. "For the first time the leaders of the independent voters of Illinois who have often been viewed with suspicion in the black community indicated to people that they are willing to work for the election of a black political leader to a major citywide office."

In many ways he was telling his predominantly white audience that to achieve their progressive goals they'd have to learn to work in a coalition led in part by black people. "I want to remind you that only through a coalition can the independent voters of Illinois hope to achieve their very important goals for the future of Chicago: an end to political corruption and favoritism; a break from authoritarian, centralized control over people and their neighborhoods; the development of more human social policies to improve the lives of Chicagoans. And the only coalition which will be able to make those goals a reality is one which can also satisfy the aspirations of the city's largest ethnic community—the black community—for a fair share of political power."

And so Washington inched closer to his goal of becoming Chicago's mayor. In 1980, he was elected congressman of Illinois's first district. In summer '82, black activists radicalized by a series of controversial Byrne appointments at the Chicago Housing Authority and the Board of Education registered 50,000 new voters.

Running on a platform that was almost identical to the one from his '77 campaign, Washington won roughly 99 percent of the black vote, 75 percent of the Latino vote, and just enough whites to eke out a victory in a racially charged election over a Republican state rep named Bernie Epton.

With Washington's reelection in April 1987, he seemed to have put together an unbeatable coalition. But alas, he died just a few months into his second term.

In 1989, there was a special election to fill out Washington's term. Chicagoans, in their infinite wisdom, elected Richard M. Daley, a white, ill-tempered autocrat. And they've been basically reelecting that prototype ever since.

Ironically, Askin wasn't around for Washington's historic election victory. Hired by Washington as a congressional aide in 1981, Askin was in D.C. for most of the campaign. The files include some speeches Washington made as a congressman, but no records of his four and a half years as mayor. (The era is already well documented at the library; Washington's family donated his mayoral papers to the special collections division years ago.)

Askin is now 64 years old—ten years older than Washington was when they met in 1976. "Being a young white guy working under powerful and tremendously competent black leadership—that was the best thing that happened to me," Askin says. "I was lucky. I was really lucky."

The last time he saw Washington was in 1986. "We had a fairly serious conversation. He said his supporters liked him too much. He said that to stand up to the power structure in Chicago, he needed people in the streets angry at him because he was giving away too much. It was a weakness that people liked him instead of protesting his policies. He said he needed to be able to say to the economic powers of Chicago, 'I'd like to work with you, but I can't—look at these 10,000 people in the street.' "

In other words, if ordinary citizens don't demand change, it will never happen. It's basically the same point Washington made at Operation PUSH more than four decades ago, when he said "a representative is only as strong as the people he represents." And it's yet another example of why Washington remains so relevant to Chicago today.   v

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