oral history / power

‘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.
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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.”
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