As a former big-city mayor, I’m endlessly intrigued by local politics and the personalities and events that shape them. Having served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, there are some issues that are common to all 1,400+ cities I represented, and some that are unique to one city alone.
As Chicago draws nearer to its mayoral runoff on April 4, Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson are navigating many of the same issues I confronted in New Orleans two decades ago, and many of the same issues facing the hundreds of communities, large and small, that we serve in the Urban League movement.
In meeting these challenges, I turn to the examples of my mentors — chief among them, the legendary Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. In the spring of my third year in law school, Washington had just defied a powerful local party machine to beat incumbent Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary. The impending general campaign against a popular liberal Republican promised to be historic, and I could not wait to be a part of it.
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I had already learned a lot from the historic mayoral campaigns of my father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial. Even though my father had years of grounding in the Black community through his work with the Urban League, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, my father knew he could not win without a diverse, multicultural coalition of support.
More importantly, he could not govern without a diverse, multicultural coalition of support.
It was this same broad-minded, forward-thinking approach that attracted me to Washington’s campaign, and kept me riveted to his example after I returned to law school and then launched my own career in public service.
Washington’s devotion to what I would later call the “gumbo” method of governance — the fusion of cultures that creates a masterpiece — did not endear him to everyone. Some of his Black supporters argued that if white mayors favored white citizens, why shouldn’t Washington favor Blacks?
Instead, as historian Gordon K. Mantler writes in the recently-released The Multiracial Promise: Harold Washington’s Chicago and the Democratic Struggle in Reagan’s America: ”The Washington moment and movement showed how Black, Latino, and progressive white activists, when working together, could reshape politics and policy in U.S. cities.”
Openness, ethics, transformation
As one of his first acts as mayor, Washington issued a Freedom of Information Act order, setting a tone for openness and transparency for which his tenure still is remembered. He bolstered the rights of renters with the Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance. He established the first “sanctuary city” in the Midwest, barring city departments from cooperating with federal immigration officials.
His executive order establishing an ethics code declared: “It is essential to the government that public officials be independent and impartial; that governmental decisions and policy be made through proper channels; that public office not be used for private gain; and that there be public confidence in the integrity of government.”
Washington’s historic campaigns dramatically transformed the electoral equation in Chicago, placing Blacks and Latinos at the very center of political power for the first time. But he went further than just finding a new way to be elected. He found a new way to govern. His all-too-short time in office dramatically transformed the workings of City Hall, shattering the walls of exclusion that kept people of color on the margins. His agenda for reform established a dynamic vision for the future that has endured even when some of his reforms did not.
It may be easy to forget Washington’s legacy after a congressional midterm election season when “dog-whistle” rhetoric gave way to overt racism like Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s explicit reference to Black Americans as “the people that do the crime.” It may be hard to see a way forward in an era where politicians, eager to weaponize racial grievance, stoop to mocking racial diversity and inclusion and twist the word “woke” into a term of derision.
But the politics of division is a recipe for disaster. It is a well-trodden road that can only take us back to where we’ve been before. And that’s nowhere we want to be.
The convergence of cultures in New Orleans transformed a humble fish stew into gumbo and the spirituals of the plantation into jazz. The same cultural alchemy transformed a humble Vienna sausage into the world’s greatest hot dog and the music of the Mississippi Delta into Chicago blues. Under Washington, it transformed a petty patronage machine staffed with cronies and ward heelers into a team of experts and visionaries.
The next mayor won’t take Chicago back to the days of Washington. But the next mayor must move forward with that same spirit of innovation and optimism, with faith that the convergence of cultures will produce something new, and better, than we’ve ever seen before.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002 and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Georgetown University Law Center.
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March 21, 2023 at 08:10PM