Council Wars (5-16-1983)

The new mayor and the city council were preparing for war—one against the other.

A month ago, Harold Washington had been elected Mayor of Chicago.  He was the first African-American to hold the office.  He was also a reform Democrat who’d beaten the party regulars.

Washington had tried to purge three council kingpins from their leadership positions.  One of the three, Ed Vrdolyak, assembled a coalition of 29 aldermen and fought back.  The Vrdolyak 29—all party regulars and all white—took control of the council.  Then they shut out the mayor’s allies from all important committee chairs.

This was something new.  The council had been a rubber stamp for whomever was mayor.  But these aldermen didn’t want to take orders from a reformer—or maybe some of them didn’t want to take orders from a black man.  Whatever the case, today the mayor and his foes were in court.

Judge James Murray of the Circuit Court had been called in after the stormy May 2 council meeting.  Now he ruled that the council could make committee assignments in any manner it wished.  On the other hand, the mayor could veto funding for the council.

Murray said that court cases would not solve the conflict.  The two sides had to work out their differences around the bargaining table.  They had to reach a compromise.

The Vrdolyak 29 seemed pleased by the judge’s ruling.  They hinted they’d be willing to share a bit of power with the mayor’s aldermen.  The mayor himself had no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, Washington was putting his brand on the office of mayor.  During the campaign he’d made an issue of Mayor Jane Byrne’s $30,000 Cadillac limousine.  Now he exiled the “vulgar” Caddy to storage and said he’d bring it out only for special occasions.  His everyday car would be an Oldsmobile.

The mayor and the Vrdolyak 29 would continue their battle—the newspapers called it Council Wars.  In 1987 Washington defeated Vrdolyak in the mayoral election, and finally achieved a council majority.  But before the year was over, Washington was dead from a heart attack.

—30—

 

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