Harold Washington’s legacy provided touchstones for progressive politics

Harold Washington

Photo by Arthur Grace/ZUMAPRESS.com

Harold Washington became mayor of Chicago in 1983 with the help of a multi-racial coalition of progressives. He died in 1987.

Thirty years after the death of Harold Washington, his brief administration is remembered as a kind of “Camelot” for Chicago progressives–a shining moment when so much seemed possible.

Washington often promised us he would be mayor for 20 years. But he served only 4 ½ years before his death  on Nov. 25, 1987, a few months into his second term.  He faced extreme political constraints while in office, including vicious opposition by white aldermen and drastic cuts to federal funding for cities during the Reagan administration.

Still, many of Washington’s accomplishments remain as touchstones. He instituted a Freedom of Information Act order in his first days in office. He passed an ethics ordinance and the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance, giving renters stronger rights, after he gained control of City Council in 1985.  He opened up the city’s budget process to public scrutiny, although Mayor Rahm Emanuel has backtracked on that.  He gave collective bargaining rights to city workers. He barred city departments from cooperating with federal immigration officials, making Chicago the first “sanctuary city” in the Midwest.

Under Washington, city services were for the first time distributed equitably among communities. City contracts were opened up to those who had been excluded, through set-asides for minority and women-owned businesses. Patronage hiring and firing was ended and many more city jobs were opened to blacks and Latinos.

But Washington’s most visionary objectives were just getting off the ground when he died and his political coalition shattered. Chief among these goals was balanced development: redirecting resources from downtown to neglected neighborhoods  and making jobs for those who need them most central to economic development policy. Community groups were able to give their input on housing, commercial development and plant closings.  And one initiative required businesses receiving city subsidies to give residents the first shot at jobs.

In several cases, Washington forced accountability on developers or corporations.  When Hasbro announced the closing of a West Side toy factory, five years after getting a $1 million subsidy and promising to create jobs, Washington forced the company to delay the closing and assist workers with re-employment. It was a small victory, but a significant shift in the city’s stance. And after advocates for the homeless protested the demolition of single-room occupancy hotels to build the luxury Presidential Towers in the West Loop, Washington required the developer to donate $5 million to a new fund that became  the Low Income Housing Trust Fund. Today, the fund subsidizes the rent of over 20,000 Chicagoans.

A city’s tools for job creation are limited, and Washington chose to start by keeping existing industrial jobs here.  When residential development began encroaching on manufacturers along the Clybourn Corridor, he created “planned manufacturing districts.” That program has helped keep good-paying industrial jobs in the city for three decades. Rahm Emanuel is now dismantling the most successful districts.

“If Harold had lived, we would have had much more balanced growth,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who was a Washington ally in the City Council 30 years ago.

Photo by William Camargo

A campaign button from Harold Washington’s first mayoral election is a souvenir of a historic moment.

One of Washington’s significant departures from the norm set by other Chicago mayors was his refusal to support a 1992 World’s Fair, notes DePaul University political scientist Larry Bennett, one of the editors of “Neoliberal Chicago.”  The plan to host a World’s Fair was Mayor Jane Byrne’s version of “the one big thing that’s going to solve all our problems,” Bennett said.  Mayor Richard M. Daley’s version was the 2016 Olympics proposal. Now, Emanuel’s version is an Amazon headquarters, which Bennett thinks will cost more than it’s worth and quite possibly create more problems than solutions.  And many of the jobs created would likely to go to non-Chicagoans, and certainly not to low-income black and Latino residents.

Washington involved community groups in policy-making and held budget hearings in neighborhoods, reflecting a commitment to bottom-up governance that stands in stark contrast to subsequent administrations. Other initiatives that were just getting started under Washington do the same. A citizens’ schools task force he launched shortly before his death later led to the creation of elected local school councils. His two successors each closed dozens of neighborhood schools with councils, and opened dozens of privately-run charter schools without them. As a proponent of a strong public sector, it’s unlikely that Washington would have gone along with this school privatization.

In the police department, he established weekly community forums held by district commanders and senior citizen councils in all police districts. Those programs sowed the seeds of community policing, or CAPS.  Daley formally initiated CAPS but then turned it into a public relations project for his administration. Emanuel made community policing a favorite talking point during his first term, but defunded the program.

Washington was never in a position to enact the civilian police review agency that he had proposed. But he opened two satellite offices of the department’s Office of Professional Standards “in order to ease people’s fear of reporting police misconduct,” according to his 1985 mid-term report.

There’s also good reason to believe the city wouldn’t be in its current fiscal situation had Washington lived.  His was the most fiscally responsible administration in decades.  He inherited a huge deficit but balanced the budget and raised the city’s credit rating, which has declined under Emanuel.  And Emanuel just passed yet another budget with steep increases in taxes and fees, largely to pay off pension debt accumulated under Daley.

As I’ve pointed out, TIF diversions under Daley significantly outpaced the city’s pension obligations, and Daley’s love affair with tax increment financing began at the same time that he started shorting the pensions. I agree with Orr that Washington would have been much more transparent and judicious with the TIF program. TIF diversions have totaled $6 billion dollars since the program began, and they’ve gone “to help the wealthiest of the wealthy,” Orr said. That would not have been Washington’s approach.

In addition, Washington constantly hammered on the responsibility of state and federal government to do more to help cities.  He was absolutely right.  And once he’d consolidated his position here, he would most certainly have prioritized progressive tax reform in Springfield – something neither Daley nor Emanuel has done anything to advance.

He was also a vocal proponent of reforming the federal budget to shift military spending to social needs. That’s a crucial change if we are create a humane society, and no one in power today talks about it.

Washington died not long after winning control of the City Council and re-election.  Had he lived, we would quite likely be in far better shape than we are today.

The question his legacy poses is, can we get back on track? The anti-Trump movement is one of many indications that there is room for Washington’s style of progressive populist politics today.