To mark the 10th anniversary of Richard J. Daley's death, Mayor Harold Washington attended a tribute to Chicago's long-serving mayor. To Washington's right is Daley's son, Richard M. Daley, Chicago's mayor from 1989 to 2011 | Source: Chicago Public Library
The People is our section for opinions on all things concerning Black Chicago. In this piece, veteran Chicago journalist and political commentator Monroe Anderson walks us through the history and effects of splitting the Black vote.

On the night of Feb. 22, 1983, during Harold Washington’s victory celebration, the Rev. Jesse Jackson commandeered the mic, shouting, “It’s our turn now.”

Jackson’s gleeful chant, broadcast on live TV the night of Washington’s mayoral primary win over Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, instantly turned almost all of Chicago’s dyed-in-the-wool white Democrats into Republicans overnight. What should have been a no-sweat general election turned into an electoral race war, with Washington beating Bernie Epton, a moderate and unknown Republican whose campaign slogan was, “Before it’s too late.”

After his April 29 swearing-in, Washington boasted that he was “going to be mayor for 20 years.” Few of us gave it a second thought because we were too engaged in the ongoing power struggle, also known as the “Council Wars,” that broke out on day one of Washington’s grip on the mayor’s gavel.

Foreshadowing what would happen 20 years later in Congress when Barack Obama became America’s first Black president, an obstructionist cabal of 28 white aldermen and one hispanic alderman made it their mission to make sure Chicago’s first Black mayor would be a one-termer. Led by “the Eddies,” aldermen Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke, these 29 aldermen (called the The Vrdolyak 29) voted in bloc to deny Washington’s efforts to appoint his own council committee chairs and commissioners to the city’s patronage-rich agencies such as the Chicago Transit Authority, the Park District and City Colleges. It was only after a successful lawsuit challenged the gerrymandered map of Chicago’s 50 aldermanic wards, resulting in a 25-25 draw in the council’s pro-Washington, anti-Washington aldermen, that the city’s first Black mayor could take control by casting the tie-winning vote on appointments.

That was three years into his first term.

Seven months into his second term, Washington died of a massive heart attack while sitting at his fifth floor City Hall desk.

The 20 years he aspired to be in office turned out to be just four and a half.

Although no one knew it at the time, “our turn” was over and out. Washington’s Black, hispanic and progressive white coalition died along with him.

I knew and understood the split very well. As a Chicago Tribune reporter, I had written a Nov. 8, 1982 column about it before Washington threw his hat in the ring for mayor. It was simple mathematics. Chicago was 40 percent Black, and 50 percent white. At the time, with two prominent white candidates running for office, Byrne and Daley, the white vote would split and Washington, the Black candidate, would win.

A white split is what put Washington in the mayor’s seat in 1983. After his death, the Black split was going to put – and keep – a white man in the mayor’s office.

Just days after Washington’s funeral, the City Council – by law – had to select an acting mayor from among its 50-member ranks. The Vrdolyak 29 was plotting to pull a power grab, but Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Committee George Dunne wisely told them, “no.” Dunne feared that replacing Washington with one of the white aldermen who tried to thwart Washington for much of his first time would result in riots. Washington’s successor had to be a Black alderman.

Their choice was Eugene Sawyer, the soft-spoken 6th Ward alderman who was well-liked by all. They also liked that Sawyer, unlike Washington, was no great orator or forceful personality. They figured that if Sawyer didn’t reignite Washington’s progressive coalition, they could run one of their own against Sawyer in the next election and take back the mayor’s gavel.

Meanwhile, aldermen Bobby Rush and Dorothy Tillman pushed Tim Evans to replace Washington, painting the 4th Ward alderman as more progressive than Sawyer and therefore more challenging to defeat.

Sawyer hadn’t been in office for more than a year before Evans’ splinter group sued for an early election on the grounds that voters should choose their own mayor. The court agreed. As it turned out, Daley was the The Vrdolyak 29’s candidate, and solidly backed by Chicago’s white community. Sawyer and Evans were the Washington 21 candidate, with each man backed by a portion of the Black community.

With a split in the Black vote, Daley won – and continued to win for nearly three consecutive decades.

Since Daley’s 1989 election, there has been a Black candidate vying for office in each mayoral election. The list of Great Black Hopes have been long, but never with a Black candidate with such a commanding personality and orator as Washington. There’s Danny Davis in 1991. Roland Burris, Joe Gardner, and Lawrence Redmond in 1995. Bobby Rush in 1999. Rev. Paul Jakes, Joseph McAfee, and Patricia McAllister in 2003. Dorothy Brown and William “Dock” Walls in 2007.

Four years after that, Carol Moseley Braun, Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, Roland Burris, Danny Davis again, and James Meeks jumped in the ring. Then Walls again, Amara Enyia, and Willie Wilson in 2015.

Now it’s 2019, and six of the 14 mayoral candidates are Black. There are some previous losers, and some new wannabees. If history repeats itself, the city’s Black voters will once again fail to unite in favor of the one Black candidate who could win. Right now, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle is leading in the early polling. By any measurement, she is no Harold Washington. She lacks his commanding oratory and his winning personality. But she is winning in the polls, closely followed by Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Bill Daley. All three have the sizable war chests.

For those who are really serious about ensuring that a Black candidate wins the office, then they’ll have to vote for Preckwinkle next month and – more than likely – again in the April run-off election.

Starting today with the early voting, we’ll see, once again, who’s turn it is now. Will it be yet another Daley? Will it be the Chicago hispanic community’s turn this time? Or will it be our turn now, again?

Veteran Chicago journalist Monroe Anderson is a political commentator. He covered Chicago City Hall when Harold Washington was mayor, and he was the Mayor’s Press Secretary to Mayor Eugene Sawyer. Learn more about his work here.

is a four-time Pulitzer-nominated journalist and was the press secretary of Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer. During the past four decades, Anderson has written signed, op-ed page columns for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Defender.