what's past is prologue

‘It’s a Racial Thing, Don’t Kid Yourself’: An Oral History of Chicago’s 1983 Mayoral Race

How Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor.

Chicago mayoral candidate Harold Washington shakes hands with during supporters during his 1983 general election campaign. Photo: AP/REX/Shutterstock
Chicago mayoral candidate Harold Washington shakes hands with during supporters during his 1983 general election campaign. Photo: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Race will be on the minds of Chicagoans as they head to the polls to cast their votes for mayor in the runoff election on Tuesday. But a historic outcome is a foregone conclusion: Either Lori Lightfoot or Toni Preckwinkle will become the city’s first black woman mayor.

History had no such assurances in 1983, when Chicago’s Democratic machine used racist appeals in an attempt to block Harold Washington from becoming the city’s first black mayor.

On the eve of that 1983 primary, the notorious Democratic boss, Alderman Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, told precinct captains, “It’s a racial thing, don’t kid yourself. I’m calling on you to save your city, to save your precinct. We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.”

In deep-blue Chicago, in which mayoral elections are often decided in the primary, 1983’s contest remained hot through the last days of the general. With Washington triumphant in the primary, Vrdolyak and other Democratic leaders abandoned their nominee for the Republican candidate, who trumpeted the dog-whistle slogan, “Bernie Epton … before it’s too late.” In the white ethnic wards, Epton supporters even wore simple all-white buttons to signal their core issue: the race of the man who would lead their city.

Tensions boiled over when Walter Mondale came to town to campaign with Washington at a Polish-Catholic church. A near riot erupted, with shouts of “nigger lover” being hurled at the de facto leader of the national Democratic Party. But according to Washington campaign insiders, the video of that ugly scene was all they needed to turn the election: It laid bare the extreme racism that had permeated the campaign to keep a black man from becoming mayor.

Here is how the people who worked to elect the first black mayor of Chicago remember it.

Marilyn Katz, media consultant for the 1983 Harold Washington campaign for Chicago mayor: On New Year’s Day, 1983, I go to my first meeting with the Harold Washington campaign for mayor and to my surprise in the room are essentially all the people I’d worked with in 1968. I’d been a part of SDS, an unindicted co-conspirator at the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I was a part of this coalition formed in the second half of the ’60s that included the Black Panthers and pretty much every progressive civil-rights person in the city. And now they’re all grown up. It was Bobby Rush, who co-founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, every Hispanic lakefront liberal, the white folks who worked with the Panthers. So it wasn’t just Washington being black that inspired Chicago’s Democratic machine to fight against us; it was that he was black and a leftist. And he was challenging power as it was held and exercised.

I had television experience, but I didn’t have any experience making political ads, so I called up my friend, Bill Zimmerman. We used to hang out in Los Angeles with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. Bill worked with Hayden on his campaigns. So he actually had a reel to show.

Bill Zimmerman, media consultant for the 1983 Washington campaign for Chicago mayor: When I got the call from Marilyn, I had just finished working on Toney Anaya’s 1982 campaign for governor of New Mexico. So I had experience working on campaigns where race was an issue. Toney is Hispanic, and there was enough anti-Hispanic racism in New Mexico to deny him the governorship. To deal with that, we made a schmaltzy 60-second spot about Toney and his wife sending their 18-year-old daughter off to college for the first time. The subtext was that Toney was married to an Anglo woman and Toney was a suburban homeowner, and we hoped that both of those facts would ease the racism among the white population. We ended up winning the campaign.

Jacky Grimshaw, precinct coordinator for the 1983 Washington campaign for Chicago mayor: From Day One on that ’83 campaign, race was an issue, and was an issue really going back to 1976, when Mayor Richard J. Daley died after more than 20 years in office. Wilson Frost, a black alderman, was president pro tempore of Chicago City Council. So he should have become acting mayor. But they literally locked him out of the mayor’s office while the council scrambled to anoint a white alderman. So there was this push to have a black candidate in the special election of 1977, which is when Harold first ran as a sitting state senator, but it was really just a protest run against the political establishment that insulted Frost. In 1983, with two years under his belt as a United States congressman, Harold was ready to mount a serious run for City Hall.

Though race was always in the background, our message was vote for the most qualified candidate, Harold Washington. We weren’t running a race-based campaign. But they were.

Zimmerman: In heavily Democratic Chicago, as in all big cities, the Democratic primary is the big prize. Back then, you wouldn’t have a runoff between the top two primary vote-getters like you do today. All you needed was a plurality. Since the other two candidates in the primary — incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Boss Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley — were white, the thinking in the Washington campaign was that in a city with a 40 percent black population, if Byrne and Richie Daley split the white vote, and Harold was able to turn out the black vote and capture some white votes from the upper-middle-class liberal community that lived on the north lakeshore, he could win.

So with the numbers that tight, we hired Pat Caddell, one of the leading Democratic pollsters at the time. He had worked for Jimmy Carter, and his assistant, Paul Maslin, would go on to help get Doug Jones elected U.S. senator from Alabama. When we got the results of the first poll back, it told me what I needed to know about how to do the advertising in the primary, because what the poll revealed to us was that as much as black citizens in the city would like to see a black mayor, they didn’t believe it could happen. We needed them to see Washington as viable. And in order to win, we needed to get more than 80 percent of the black vote.

Grimshaw: From 1955 to 1976 when he died, Daley’s share of the black vote had steadily declined, because of his mistreatment of Chicago’s black community, so we knew the son wasn’t going to take much of the black vote away from Washington.

Zimmerman: But we learned from our polling that Byrne was getting about 40 percent of the black vote. When we probed a little deeper about why black voters were supporting Byrne, we learned that their skepticism about the possibility of a black candidate being elected was leading them to the conclusion that they should support the least racist white candidate. In their perception, Richie, being the son of Boss Daly, was a bigger threat to the black community than Byrne, who had cultivated black voters. So being skeptical about Harold’s chances, they were supporting Byrne in order to keep Daley from winning the election.

Paul Maslin, pollster for the 1983 Washington campaign for Chicago mayor: Byrne was doing things like literally promising ham to people in the African-American community. Typical machine politics largesse. We ended up doing mocking ads on the radio: “Eat all the ham you want, and then vote for Harold.”

Zimmerman: Our main goal in the advertising, however, was to play up Harold as the most qualified candidate. We wanted to signal to both black voters and to white voters that he was a credible candidate for mayor. We showed him in official capacities, making statements about what he would do as mayor, and we made those statements directed to everybody, not just black voters. We tried to project an image of Harold as someone who could be everybody’s mayor, not just the black community’s mayor. In one commercial we intentionally showed him interacting with white elected officials in the city.

Grimshaw: Washington showed he was credible in the first debate, when he was clearly the smartest and most qualified person on the stage. Another thing about that debate was how it sparked a grassroots fundraising effort. Harold made it very clear that Byrne had an obscene amount of campaign money. So what was the reaction in the black community? They started this campaign where bars and mom-and-pop grocery stores across the black community would have barrels with signs on them saying, “Washingtons for Washington,” and people would drop into those barrels whatever amount of dollar bills or change they had. They would just come walking into our office with the proceeds. That’s when we knew it wasn’t just a campaign, but a movement.

And then there was the Washington rally at the UIC Pavillion. The arena holds 13,000 people and we had it filled to the rafters and it lasted all night. That rally was the talk of the town and reinforced that Harold had an interracial base of support that he could count on, versus Daley and Byrne, who were pretty much focused in the white community.

Katz: And that show of white support helped inspire the black voters. The black community needed the belief that this could happen. Harold’s white and Hispanic allies helped the black community believe he could win.

Zimmerman: That rally also led to a high level of racial polarization in the city because the white community was getting the idea that the black community was rising and some were frightened, and they reacted with a great deal of fear and anger.

Just to give you a personal example, the campaign had designed an oversize campaign button for people to wear. It was a big blue button about four inches in diameter, and blacks all over the city were wearing that button, and not just in the black community but wherever they went. As a white man, I was wearing it, and one day, walking down a street in the Loop, in downtown Chicago, an old blue-haired lady, seeing the button on my coat, literally stopped me on the street, spit on me, and called me “nigger lover.”

Grimshaw: I remember this one time, when Harold was doing a radio interview on Milt Rosenberg’s talk show. This guy called in and asked Harold if he’d like to replace the elevators in City Hall with vines. Harold didn’t quite understand what the guy was saying, and Milt did and kind of hung up on the guy, who had some other choice words.

Maslin: But it wasn’t just race that was playing a factor. It was also a real fear of the machine. When I was running phone banks, we realized that when black respondents have white people calling them, they think it’s the machine and they’re not gonna be honest. Remember, there’s a history here. You could get in trouble for telling someone, “I’m for Harold Washington not for Jane Byrne.” Could be a parking ticket or someone looking over your shoulder when you’re trying to deal with the city in some way. Or if you have a municipal job, you could be putting that at risk. So when we had black interviewers calling black respondents, Washington would be over 80 percent; when we had white interviewers calling black respondents, he’d only be at about 60 to 65 percent. When we switched to only using black interviewers to call black respondents, we started to gain more confidence.

Katz: Of course the machine was run by Alderman Eddie Vrdolyak.

Zimmerman: Who happened to be the leader of the most racist and conservative faction within the City Council.

Katz: We heard Vrdolyak was telling his precinct captains that anyone who lives north of Madison and votes for Washington is a race traitor. And then two days before the primary, racist remarks by Vrdolyak are exposed in the Tribune.

Michael Zielenziger, national correspondent with the Kansas City Star Times during the 1983 Chicago mayoral race: It was the Saturday before the primary, and I was in Chicago visiting my girlfriend, Diane Abt.

Diane Abt, reporter for CBS News Radio in Chicago during the 1983 Chicago mayoral race: I knew there was a meeting happening in Eddie Kelly’s ward, where all the precinct captains would meet ahead of the primary to get their marching orders on how they were going to get out the vote.

Zielenziger: While in Chicago, I was gonna write a story Sunday for Monday about the mayor’s race, so we went.

Abt: Initially, Kelly or one of his cohort said, “Oh, she’s a radio reporter, get her out of here.” But Roman Pucinski, who ran the 41st ward, said, “Oh no, she’s okay. Let her stay.”

Zielenziger: Roman knew me because I used to cover City Hall for the Chicago Sun Times. He knew Diane because she was still covering politics. Roman was a source of mine and he liked reporters.

Abt: I didn’t put a microphone up so that seemed okay. You can stay and listen. And we did, and were shocked by what we heard.

Zielenziger: They were threatened by a black mayor. This was a meeting of the precinct captains who were gonna get the vote out. And they were explaining how the race looked and that every vote was important. And then Eddie Vrdolyak, from the very ethnic and white southwest side, came in and said, “A vote for Daley is a vote for Washington. It’s a two-person race. It would be the worst day in the history of Chicago if your candidate was not elected. It’s a racial thing, don’t kid yourself. I’m calling on you to save your city, to save your precinct. We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.”

The minute he said it, it was like, “Holy shit, Diane’s here.” Vrdolyak knew me and Diane, so it was only after he had said what he said that he saw us and quickly evicted us.

Then the question is, what do we do with it?

Harold Washington supporters rally in Chicago. Photo: Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis via Getty Images

Abt: Because we knew it was explosive. But I was a radio reporter and didn’t have any tape. And Michael didn’t have a Sunday paper to publish in.

Zielenziger: The soonest I could have published it was Monday, which was only a day before the primary. I knew it was an important story, so I wanted it to come out ASAP. I ironically sent it to David Axelrod, who at the time was a reporter at the Tribune covering city politics.

Abt: When that quote appeared in the Sunday Tribune, it certainly hung heavy over the election. It was never said so plainly by an important political person like Vrdolyak. I’ve heard people say to me: That quote turned the election around, because it lifted the veil on the racism in the Democratic machine.

Katz: When it got out in the press that Vrdolyak was being so explicitly racist, that really helped raise our margins with black voters and helped bring more white liberals to our side.

Tom Coffey, adviser to Harold Washington in the 1983 mayoral race: Harold ends up winning the primary by a comfortable margin. Now during the primary, Jesse Jackson’s organization helped with the ground game. But Jackson agreed to stay in the background. But on primary night, Jackson takes the victory stage and holds it for an incredibly long time. Jackson, needless to say, was not popular with the white voters who were already uncomfortable with Harold. So Jackson upping his profile for the general helped exacerbate the racial divisions already forming in the primary.

Zimmerman: When Harold wins the primary, everybody assumes, “Okay, it’s all over.” Eighty percent of Chicago is registered Democratic. No Republican had won an election in the city in decades, so winning the primary was tantamount to winning the election. But we were shocked to discover that the Democratic power structure in the city was unwilling to support Harold, a sitting congressman at the time with a 20-year record in public office.

Maslin: The next day a group of us, not including the candidate, are thrown to the wolves for a press conference to talk about how we won the nomination and what happens now. There were a lot of questions about race, about Jesse Jackson taking the stage the night before. Part and parcel to the questions was: “You all have a problem with white voters in white wards who didn’t support Harold. Are you gonna take no prisoners or reach an accommodation?” I got the sense that this story isn’t over yet. He’s not mayor yet and there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s been awoken.

Zimmerman: Soon after the primary, Vrdolyak announces that he’s going to support Bernie Epton, the Republican candidate. He’s quickly joined by others, including Ed Burke, a powerful alderman from the southwest side. They explained their support of the opposing party’s candidate by demonizing Washington. They accused him of being a tax evader. They accused him of having been part of various shady real-estate deals. They painted a picture of Harold as a dishonest person supported by outsiders trying to overthrow the established order.

Katz: The racism in the Epton campaign was really ratcheted up when they hired the Republican media consultant, John Deardorff, who, leaving subtlety behind, produced negative spots that were tagged, “Bernard Epton … before it’s too late.” The message wasn’t lost on anyone in Chicago.

Maslin: They even had buttons that the whites were wearing in the northwest and southwest sides. The button was literally just an all-white button.

The fact that it’s a competitive race, mixed with the growing racial tensions, turns the race into a national story. It’s also an off-year election, so Chicago was already a bit of a play act involving presidential jockeying ahead of the ’84 election. Ted Kennedy backed Byrne in the primary in return for her support against Carter in ’80, and Walter Mondale was tied to the Daleys. But in the general, they both got behind Washington.

Katz: Mondale didn’t just back Washington, he showed up in Chicago to campaign with him. And that’s when it really got ugly.

Zimmerman: The idea was to have Mondale, the leading national Democratic figure at the time, campaign for Washington in the white neighborhoods, because everybody knows that the white vote now is going to determine the outcome of the race.

Maslin: With the phone banks and white voters, we now start seeing something similar to what we saw in the primary with black voters. When whites were calling whites, Washington’s support level was eight to ten points lower than when blacks were calling whites. With black interviewers, white respondents didn’t want to be seen as racist. You see this with Trump. So we tried as much as possible to have whites calling whites, so we were getting a true result, and we didn’t like what we were seeing.

Zimmerman: So we send Mondale and Washington up to St. Pascal’s Church on the northwest side, which is in a working-class Polish neighborhood, and that combination — Catholic, working-class, and Polish — leads to very conservative politics. We knew there would be significant opposition when we sent them up there. So if Harold did well in speaking to those parishioners it would play to his advantage, and if he didn’t do well because of racism it would also help us drive the message that the Epton campaign was fundamentally a racist campaign. What we didn’t know was how virulent it would be. It was a lion’s den.

Grimshaw: They were throwing things at Mondale.

Katz: It was a mob of young aggressive thugs yelling “nigger go home” at Washington and “nigger lover” at Mondale.

Maslin: There was violence in the air. In the wake of civil rights it was an alarming day. Here it is, the former vice-president of the United States, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination for ’84, in the most Democratic city in the country, getting good and yelled at.
We started to say to Harold, “You know, congressman, everyone’s talking about race but you.” Our numbers were sliding. If we started at 22 points with whites, it had fallen to 19 and was continuing to drop. If we fell below 17 we would lose. The trend was unmistakable that we were headed that way.

Zimmerman: Fortunately, a local CBS News crew was there, and they filmed the crowd reacting to Washington and Mondale. That created the strategic opening that we were trying to exploit, which was to make the case to white liberals that the campaign against Washington was so overtly racist that they would want nothing to do with it. With the footage from St. Pascal’s, we could make commercials that would effectively shame those white liberals into supporting Harold. We saw it as a last-ditch attempt to stop the erosion of white liberal support for Washington.

We made two commercials out of that St. Pascal’s footage. The first, called “Pledge,” starts tight on a 4-year-old white boy struggling through the first line of the Pledge of Allegiance as the camera pulls back to reveal him standing with other children. An abrupt cut takes the viewer to the near riot at St. Pascal’s. The spot then cuts back to a young black girl as the group of children continues to recite the pledge. After she delivers the next line, the St. Pascal’s footage repeats. The spot then returns to another child continuing the pledge, followed for a third time by the scene at St. Pascal’s. Finally, a somewhat older white boy finishes the pledge, the camera freezes on his face and the text, “Vote for Harold Washington,” appears on the screen.

The second spot, “Shame,” also relied on the footage from St. Pascal’s. It began with a series of well-known and emotionally evocative images that appeared onscreen one by one with ominous music in the background: the JFK assassination, the killing of Martin Luther King, a dead student at Kent State University. Over these powerful images, an announcer says, “There are moments in our country’s history of which all Americans are thoroughly and profoundly ashamed. One of those moments may be happening now, here in Chicago.” As the last sentence is delivered, the video cuts to the St. Pascal’s footage. The spot ends on a black screen with the text, “Vote for Harold Washington,” and the announcer saying, “When you vote on Tuesday, be sure it’s a vote you can be proud of.”

Maslin: With these commercials in hand, we scrap together a focus group. It’s 12 white liberals sitting around a table, and Zimmerman’s sitting right behind me. I go around the room and ask them about Washington, and they just vent. They’re angry at him for not paying his taxes, they’re worried that Jesse Jackson is gonna have too much influence. Now remember, these are white liberals and most of them are Jewish. They’re not anti-black, but there’s tension on the left between blacks and Jews.

On one hand the Jewish community gave a lot of support to the civil-rights movement; but on the other hand there’s a lot of resentment in the black community toward Jewish shopkeepers who they felt were profiting from them. Elijah Muhammad was based in Chicago. There’s a whole dynamic of the Middle East and Israel that gets played out here in terms of black nationalists and black Muslims. And this was around the time when Jesse made his “Hymietown” remark. It’s all an area of tension in this uneasy alliance between blacks and Jews. These Jewish liberals want to be sympathetic to the African-American candidate, but they’re troubled, and they appear to be buying the attack ads against Washington. They don’t want to vote for Bernie Epton, but they might stay home.

So they’re venting all this anger at Washington and finally Zimmerman tugs my sleeve and says, “Just show ’em the goddamn ads!”

So I show them “Pledge,” which ends powerfully on “with liberty and justice for all,” and these liberals who’d been bitching for 45 minutes just shut up. You could hear a pin drop. It was just dead silence for about 30 seconds. It was clear it had impact. You could sense them realizing that this was what it was all about. I then show them “Shame” and that gets a big reaction, too. We came out of that room and knew we had to at least get “Pledge” on the air ASAP.

Katz: We convene a meeting with the campaign leadership, including the finance committee, to convince them that we need to get these two spots on the air. Much to our surprise, the businessmen on the finance committee vehemently opposed us. Recounting their prior experiences supporting black candidates in local races that required carrying some white votes, they argued that whenever the issue of race or racism had been raised, it had always backfired. Their experiences in race-dominated Chicago had taught them never to discuss racism if a black candidate needed white votes to win an election. Countering their argument was not easy: Zimmerman, Maslin and I were white; everyone else in the room was black.

Zimmerman: We finally prevailed by proposing that we run the spots in combination with daily tracking polls. If the spots were damaging, we would quickly see it and have time to withdraw them. Reluctantly, the finance committee gave us permission to air “Pledge” on that basis, but forbid us from airing the more provocative “Shame.”

Katz: We sent “Pledge” to the TV stations and got it on the air with the election only eight days away. The results were immediate. Our tracking polls revealed that Washington’s decline among whites had been stopped. By the third day, it was on the increase, if only slowly.

Zimmerman: Early Friday morning, with only four days remaining before the election, the tracking poll indicated that Washington was not moving up fast enough to win. For the previous 48 hours, Katz and I had continually grilled the pollsters about the likely impact of “Shame” and had been told that everything in the available data indicated we should use it. The moment of truth had come. We knew there was a Friday noon deadline at the TV stations for locking down which spots would run over the weekend and on Monday.

Katz: The two of us agonized over what to do. For two hours Friday morning we weighed the pros and cons of the action we were considering. Chicago was on the verge of a historic change. Through sacrifice and hard work, organizers had mobilized the African-American community as never before. It would all be wasted if Washington failed to carry the election on Tuesday. The finance committee, a group lacking any meaningful experience in media-driven campaigns, was using its authority to block a necessary decision. Clearly, we had a contractual obligation to obey, but did we not also have a responsibility to the candidate to act in his best interests?

Zimmerman: Fully cognizant of the stakes, and fully aware of the moral ambiguity, we decided to risk defying the finance committee and put “Shame” on the air.

Maslin: The ad goes up and the campaign is like, “We didn’t authorize that.” But you can’t take it down because everyone’s closed for the weekend — that’s the way TV was back then. The ad’s gonna run into Monday. Some people are worried that it went too far and there’d be a backlash. Harold hears about it on Saturday at 11 o’clock at night and says, “Well, what can be done?” Tom Coffey says, “Nothing. The logs are closed. We can’t make a change until Monday morning.” Harold says, “Well, thank you. Goodnight.” In other words, don’t do anything, shut up, don’t say a word to the media. Because the question was, are we gonna disown the ad? We realized it doesn’t matter. Don’t say anything. Lo and behold, the message and the shift helped bring those whites in.

Zimmerman: And we win with 51.7 percent of the vote, and a 19-point share of the white vote.

Maslin: There’s a lesson in Harold’s decision not to disown that “Shame” ad that goes beyond that ’83 election.

The following year, I end up working for Gary Hart, who shocks Mondale in New Hampshire. Mondale has a tough time getting his footing back, which he finally does a few weeks later in Illinois. Now we were trying to win Illinois with white liberals from Chicago and whites from the Chicago suburbs by perpetuating the idea that Mondale and Vrdolyak were one and the same. So we made an ad that called out Vrdolyak by name: Here’s your choice, Mondale and Vrdolyak and the bosses; or Hart, who is independent and a new generation of leadership. Hart hated it. He didn’t want to attack Vrdolyak by name, so he disapproved the ad. My boss, Pat Caddell, countermanded Hart and green-lighted the ad on the Friday before the election.

Same situation as Harold. So that Saturday, Hart blows up with the media and declares, “I didn’t authorize the ad, we’re gonna take it down.”

Hart’s told you can’t take the ad down, the logs have closed for the weekend. So all of Chicago is seeing Hart on the news saying, “I’m gonna take this ad down,” and meanwhile the offending ad is running all Saturday and Sunday. He looked like a fool. Our numbers cratered. Not because of the ad itself. They cratered because Hart looked ridiculous. Voters are saying he looks weak, he can’t run his own campaign.

Who knows what would have happened if Hart let the ad run. Sure, Mondale lost the general to Reagan, and Hart may have lost, too. But if Hart’s the Democratic nominee in ’84, maybe he later avoids the tabloid reporters in the bushes and becomes Bill Clinton.

Zimmerman: Another important thing that happens after that ’83 election is a young reporter who had been covering the campaign for the Chicago Tribune calls me up for coffee. He wants to ask me how to pivot from journalism to working political campaigns. That reporter was David Axelrod.

And then, of course, Barack Obama starts working as a community organizer in Chicago around the time of the election. At one point he gets a haircut on the South Side right after Harold is elected. Black people are empowered; and the energy he felt in that room made him think for the first time about electoral politics as a route for himself.

An Oral History of the Election of Chicago’s 1st Black Mayor