Recently, Chicagoans — at least some of them — went to the polls and unceremoniously rejected incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first Black woman and openly gay chief executive. Lightfoot was a historic but polarizing figure, who promised change, but then achieved little of it while guiding the nation’s third-largest city through the pandemic, gun violence and a battered economy.
While Chicago’s mayoral race is officially nonpartisan, the results of last week’s mayoral election have resulted in a runoff that will take place on April 4 featuring two candidates who, though both registered Democrats, differ starkly along racial, ideological and generational lines.
The contest pits the campaign’s sole White candidate, Paul Vallas, a more conservative former schools chief endorsed by the police union, against Brandon Johnson, a Black county commissioner and former teacher and union activist who has staked out progressive positions well to the left of Vallas. The media is portraying the matchup as a proxy for national politics over crime. And, in at least some circles, it has prompted comparisons to the riveting 1983 campaign when Rep. Harold Washington became the city’s first Black mayor.
But while there are certainly historical parallels between now and the 1980s, locally and nationally, the comparison risks misrepresenting how Washington won, the national implications of that victory and the inherent fragility of his, and most, electoral and governing coalitions.
In the spring of 1983, Washington rode a multiracial groundswell of support informed by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to victory over not just the incumbent mayor, Jane Byrne (whose mayoralty was historic in its own right), but also a young, future mayor, Richard M. Daley, and a fairly liberal, little-known Republican legislator, Bernie Epton.
To win, Washington withstood remarkably racist rhetoric by his opponents, Democratic and Republican, and a fierce backlash by normally reliable Democratic White ethnic voters who turned out in droves to try to deny a Black man the mayor’s seat “before it’s too late.” The charismatic Washington overcame their opposition through a fierce ground game, registering more than 100,000 new voters and building a new Democratic coalition of nearly unanimous Black support, three-quarters of Latino voters and just enough liberal White voters, often referred to as “Lakefront Liberals.”
Washington’s victory has since been mythologized in many ways, certainly in Chicago, as ushering in a brief golden era of democracy in the city and a model for urban political coalitions across the nation. Undoubtedly, it reflected what was electorally possible in the 1980s, inspiring the Rev. Jesse Jackson to run for president in 1984 under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition, and demonstrating the limits of the “Reagan Revolution.” It previewed what the Democratic Party could — and, at times, has — become, especially in the 21st century.