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Don’t Forget, Politics Can Be Terrible

By all measures, Chicagoland politics is not as combative as it was 30 years ago.

It’s easy for us to forget how vicious politics was in the years following the death of Chicago Boss Richard J. Daley that Christmas season in 1976. Everyone was fighting for power after Daley’s death and it took decades before things calmed down.

But are they really calm?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. Many see that as a beginning of a new era for Chicago politics and for African Americans, but it wasn’t the first push for power by a black politician.

The first push for power was when Ald. Wilson Frost made a push to serve as acting mayor. He was the President Pro Tempore of the Chicago City Council, a position given to him to appease black voters, who were a growing core of the Machine vote. The ÒPresident Pro Tempore” literally means Òfor the time being” in Latin and is a title given to the person who takes the place of the council president, in this case, Daley.

Frost declared himself Chicago’s Acting Mayor and technically he was correct, making him Chicago’s first African American to serve in the position. But Chicago was still a very racial city in 1976 and 1977, and Daley’s Irish political survivors did all they could to keep Frost out, locking the doors to the mayor’s office, claiming they couldn’t find the keys.

They finally did find the keys two days later and put them in the hands of Finance Committee Chairman and Ald. Michael A. Bilandic, who two years later lost his bid for election to a former Daley aide, Commissioner Jane M. Byrne. I was there at his precinct captain rally at the Bismarck Hotel, where he compared himself to Jesus Christ and the besieged Shah of Iran Reza Pahlavi, who was being ousted by protesters in the Middle East.

Many people blamed Bilandic’s inept management of Chicago and the snow for his election loss to Byrne in February 1979, but in reality, Byrne won because black voters had not forgotten how Bilandic had stolen the job from Frost.

And they did not forget four years later after Byrne had snubbed them by appointing two avowed school segregationists to the School Board to strengthen her white vote in areas controlled by her new rival, the Boss’s son, Richard M. Daley.

Byrne made the younger Daley a martyr by attacking him after she dumped him and his allies as her Òreform” floor leaders in the City Council. She cut her deal with Ed Vrdolyak and the Òcabal of evil men” she had campaigned against, less than four months after she was sworn into office.

Washington fought an ugly campaign driven by Vrdolyak’s racism and the so-called ÒVrdolyak 29″ for four years until finally winning his second term in 1987. That fall, he died of a heart attack at Thanksgiving, blunting the inevitable rise of African American politics.

What happens in Chicago happens in the suburbs. Washington’s victory gave rise to minority candidacies rising in the suburbs. But his death muted those voices. Minority candidacies have never reached their pinnacle.

Now, 30 years later, Chicago remains a financial over-taxed mess plagued by street gang violence and a horrific crime wave.

Hope is a legacy that sometimes brings disappointment.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist. You may reach him at www.TheMediaOasis.com or on Twitter at @rayhanania)

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