New Name, Old Game
FOR YEARS, local politicians have urged Chicago voters to "vote early and often," Political corruption, especially on election day, has become a tradition in the Windy City. Familiar images abound--the elderly or the infirmed dragged from morning homes to the polling booths, "street people" personally accompanied by volunteers to cast a vote, registration lists mysteriously changing names. The Democratic political machine built by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley survived by these methods, enlarging the patronage army that could guarantee votes from the apparatus itself and from the community at large.
Last week, a Black Congressman, Harold Washington won the Democratic Mayoral primary, upsetting two "machine-singed" politicians--incumbent mayor Jane M. Byrne and the late mayor's son, Cook County Stated attorney, Richard M. Daley. Washington campaigned on an anti-machine crusade, and -sure to beat his Republican opponent on April 12--he will carry that cry into the mayor's office. But that does not mean that the legendary Chicago machine has come to a halt. Washington, while winning an important battle, is just beginning his struggle for power.
Chicago has always been a city of ethnic neighborhoods. Politicians have naturally capitalized on these divisions, building power bases along these lines. The Irish, Polish, Black, and Latino communities have vied for political clout, which has ultimately remained in the hands of the first two, more organized groups.
Washington's victory required unsettling this order, and it represents a significant surge in Black political power and unity in Chicago. This, however, is not such a radical departure as it might appear to the nation. Chicago politics seems to be in a new ballgame, but the rules are still the same.
Washington and his supporters succeded in cleverly out-Daleying Daley and Byrne. A machine's lifeblood is votes--getting registered voters to vote, and non-registered voters t register. With a massive voter registration campaign backed by Operation PUSH's Rev. Jesse Jackson and Black community leaders. Washington's troops dramatically increased the bloc of Black voters. In the 1979 Democratic primary, 24 percent of Chicago voters were Black. In last Tuesday's primary, the number of Black voters rose to 31 percent.
This clearly benefited Washington, who reaped 80 percent of the Black vote, while Byrne and Daley split the white vote. Washington's tactics were strictly of the old-fashioned machine type. The twist in this story is that the machine failed to practice its own teachings. Byrne, who won in 1979 with heavy Black support, alienated this major constituency during her term. One key incident which Black leaders single out as an example of her lack of concern was her decision to select white appointees to a board overseeing predominantly Black housing projects.
IN ADDITION, to activating a new constituency, Washington has pledged a new government. He has vowed to destroy the patronage system, currently estimates at 45,000 employees, and to force the city, for the first time, to separate political loyalties from city jobs. But when the victory celebrations are over, and the real business of governing begins, Washington will face a city unaccustomed to political change. As one city councilor put it in the '20s, "this town ain't ready for reform." The existing power structures will still be there, and the cronice and lackeys of Byrne and Daley have yet to leave town. Like any reformer, Washington must face an opposition that resists changing the status quo, one which has suited them so well.
This may force Washington, despite earlier promises, to work with the remnants of Richard J. Daley's machine. Elections do not run on compromises, but city governments do. In order to units all of Chicago's ethnic and racial communities, Washington might be tempted to deal with "the boys in city hall." The machine has been wounded by his victory, but Washington would be foolish to believe that loyalties to Byrne or the Daley family will just die away. Indeed, should Washington take this approach, the transition from Byrne and the traditional Irish power base to Washington's newly strong Black support may go smoothly for all concerned.
It might be best to consider some recent Chicago history. In 1979, an upstart city commissioner for consumer sales, Jane Byrne, challenged Daley's successor, Mayor Michael A. Bilandic. Thanks to a winter blizzard that paralyzed city services and embarrassed the Bilandic administration, Byrne upset Bilandic in the Democratic primary, defeated the Republican candidate, and became Chicago's first woman mayor. They said the machine was dead, and Jane Byrne had killed it.
Once in city hall, Byrne quickly changed her campaign views. The machine politicians she had once denounced as "the evil cabal" soon became her allies and confidants. Byrne embraced their support, and went on to consolidate her power in the Cook Country Democratic Committee. June Byrne had not killed the machine, she merely added a new chapter to its history.
Ultimately, her compromises and association with the "cabal" lost Byrne the support of Chicago voters, especially the Black bloc.
All of this should be of some interest to Harold Washington. Should he work with the machine, he endangers his political integrity, and insults the faith of the voters who brought him into office. Should he remain aloof and independent, he risks an inefficient government that cannot enforce the changes that it desires.
Harold Washington's victory challenges the strength of big-city political machines. The expectations will follow Washington into office, and may force him to adopt new strategies and policies. But his success stems in part from successfully adopting machine methods. It remains to be seen how Washington will react to the problems he will encounter, but whether he decides to redefine the rules of the political game or not, it will boil down to him using the old machine, or subverting is with his new populist one.
The Machine is dead. Long live the machine.