Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Results Matter

I recently gotten into an inadvertent internet dispute with acclaimed author Rick Perlstein who i respect immensely.  He wrote a brief post about the late, great Mayor of Chicago Harold Washington.
He wasn't just Chicago's first black mayor. He was also probably the furthest left big-city mayor perhaps since Altgeld. And he got reelected. He died today in 1987. Read this, and don't believe the hype that Obama was paying all that much attention. If he were, he would have noticed that being nice doesn't really work in governing a jurisdiction on the verge of civil war.
If you're not from Chicago you probably have no idea who Harold Washington was, and if you are from there (and especially if you are a liberal activist reformer type like Perlstein) you are probably obsessed with him.  Harold Washington was a remarkable figure; he was a life long politician and reformer born in the old black neighborhoods of Chicago in the 20's, he served in World War II, worked in variety of positions and rose to serve in the Illinois State House and Senate, the US House of Representatives and finally became the first black Mayor of a major northern American city in 1983 when he was elected mayor of Chicago.  This final triumph was accomplished by a herculean effort to overthrow the last vestiges of the old Machine in Chicago that Harold put together through force of will and charisma that was composed of a new kind of political coalition of racial minorities, white liberals and disaffected people (sound familiar?) who swept him to power and then to re-election.  Tragically he died quite suddenly after that return to City Hall and the coalition that elected him would collapse into infighting and bickering to be ultimately succeeded by Richard M. Daley (Daley The Younger) son of Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of Harold's life long opponents.  He holds an honored place in the Pantheon of the social reform movements and liberal politics in Chicago and if you want to hear more about him, I'd suggest this great This American Life piece.  He then changed the city and ushered in a new era of collective action for the common good.

Right?  Well...not exactly...

Washington had spent his political life battling what he saw as a corrupt and racist political machine and while his term in office may have ultimately changed Chicago forever, it certainly didn't change it overnight for him.  In fact, many scholars and professional observes of the Chicago Machine saw its high point as probably 1960, with a steady decline afterwards that truly went downhill during the 70's.  In addition, his election was hardly some Roman triumph, he won a complicated three way primary against then incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley with only 37% of the vote.  Traditionally the Democratic primary is the determiner of who is mayor in Chicago, but a huge number of white Democrats and powerful politicians revolted to back a Republican in the general election.  It was an ugly and racially charged race that saw Harold win, but with only 3.7%, something unheard of in general elections in Chicago for generations.  

And that was just the beginning.  Next came "The Council Wars."

Named by a comedian after the then popular Star Wars series, much of the old political guard in City Hall began an epic battle to stop Harold from doing, well anything.  Old leaders of the machine known as "The Eddies" composed of Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, Finance Chair Edward Burke and Parks Commissioner Edmund Kelly created a united anti-Harold front.  The Eddies were supported by other powerful politician figures in Chicago including Richard M. Daley, who was now the States Attorney, and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee wielded tremendous influence in Washington.  And while Harold had the votes to become mayor, they had the votes to control the city council.  Under Vrdolyak (what a great name for a bad guy!) they assembled a block of 28 white and one hispanic Aldermen and declared war on Harold's agenda.  They voted themselves all the committee chairs and voted down all of Harold's policies and appropriations to fund his programs.  Chicago is not like New York where the Mayor has over the years and by state law accumulated considerable executive authority (Mayor Bloomberg runs the New York City Schools) or Minneapolis where it assumed that a Mayor must bargain with the City Council (as R.T. Rybak did masterfully with the Viking Stadium Deal) to get their way, it's suppose to be a place where the Mayor rules the City Council with an iron fist.  But now it wasn't.  Now it was gridlock with the Mayor having to rule through his veto powers and seeking other means of enacting his policies than the "ram it through" model that many of his predecessors and successors (including current Mayor Rahm Emmanuel) enjoyed.  Many Chicago residents and even journalists where simply baffled by this.  Doesn't the mayor always get his way?  Not from 1983 to 1986 he don't.

In the end, in his own way, Harold again triumphed over his opponents.  He and his supporters ultimately went to Federal Court to get the gerrymandered ward lines drawn after 1980 census redrawn and special elections called.  Candidates promising to support Harold beat several of The Eddies' Aldermen and others defected deciding to work with the Mayor rather than oppose him.  Harold was re-elected and got a working, although as slim as they get, majority of 25 to 25 Alderman, as he could cast then cast the tie breaking vote.  The dreaded Eddies then fell from power with Vrdolyak even becoming a Republican.  It was Harold's shinning hour.  But within one month of that glorious election night, Harold tragically died on November 25th, 1987.

The world never got to see what a Harold's second term might have been, what he might have done for the City now that he could finally implement his policies and peruse his agenda.  Unfortunately the social trends in Chicago in the mid 1980's were not pretty.  The City continued to hemorrhage population.  Jobs left and business shut down (indeed during this period the closing of steel mills on Chicago far south side forced a coalition of local churches and nonprofits to decided to hire a community organizer to help deal with the aftermath, the man they hired was named Barack Obama).  Crime increased and the second longest track system of mass transit in the nation, Chicago's L, saw a huge drop in usage.  Of course these sorts of trends happened all over the country in major cities during this period and are not direct evidence of Harold being a poor political leader, indeed his policies might have prevented them, but we will never know.  Then again Harold's City was known in the mid 80's as "Beirut on the Lake."

I tried to express this reality, and my feelings about Harold Washington to Rick Perlstein in a comment that was perhaps too glib.  I wrote:
He may have been very liberal, but in all honesty he was a total flop when it came to enacting actual policies. He fought a five year war with the city council and his great accomplishment was changing the way the city allocates bonding funds for streets and alleys. Also the coalition that elected him collapsed within weeks of his death.
In retrospect I probably shouldn't have phrased it like that.  But at the same time I think I make a very important point: he was a very nice person, and a great man, a brilliant speaker and a symbol of racial change to millions of regular people.  But he did not succeed in office.  He did institute new ethics rules and eliminated some patronage and yes he did reform how the city allocated bonding funds for streets and alleys (before then the money largely followed racial lines, Harold made the distribution fair) but there's not much more.  There are many reasons for this but in my view any politician has to be ultimately judged on what they did do, not what they could have done or even represented in an abstract sense.  Stragley enough, Perlstein seemed to conceed my point about Harold's failure to enact concrete change outside of defeating Aldermen in elections in his response but thought that was wasn't important because:

that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with a literally evil cartel that held the city hostage rather than let a black man govern it.
I'd say that's a fair description of The Eddies.  I'd also say it's irrelevant.  The reality of politics is that all political leaders make mistakes and all have failures, to not have them would be simply inhuman.  In addition, they all have their opponents who can sometimes not be nice or fair or act in accordance with the common good, indeed I'd say that many of Obama's opponents are just as mean as Vrdolyak.  What defines a successful politician is what they accomplish in spite of those odds.  What defines an unsuccessful politician is how obstacles to their agenda prove too daunting to overcome and how events overtake them.  Jimmy Carter is a very moral and religious person, and has led a model post-Presidency, but he was not successful in office by any stretch.  He passed little legislation, antagonized his own party so much that it caused a massive primary revolt in the form of Ted Kennedy's candidacy and went on to be thrown out of office by historic margins.  He was not a successful President, even if he was a nice guy.  

Not to long ago Obama had a bit of a political failure during a certain presidential debate. The great Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes for the Atlantic, gave the president some tough love.
My point is this: I am sorry that the president finds debating before the public to be annoying. And I am very sorry that more Americans don't delve into the footnotes of position papers. And I am very sorry that Mitt Romney was mean to the moderator, and lied to the viewers. And I am especially sorry that Barack Obama was evidently shocked -- shocked! -- to find the party of poll-taxing, evolution-disputing, and climate-change denying engaging in such tactics.
But this is the war we have. And this president has signed up to lead the fight. I think he understands that. Over the past four years Obama has proven to be very slow, but very deadly. I doubt that's changed.
Obama of course faced all those problems and went on to adjust his strategy and win the next two debates.  And then win re-election.  That's what political success looks like.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful points. I guess ultimately our questions are unanswerable; tragedy mooted the argument.

  2. Oh my god. Rick Perlstein just commented on my stupid blog. Can I just say, like said above, that I think that comment I made was glib and could have been written much better? And I really am sorry if it upset anyone? I just wanted to raise points about Washington that I felt needed discussion. To be sure I think Harold Washington was a great man and a great politician in his own brilliant way.

    Here's and example, It's Washington doing a speech in 1986:

    He is talking about Polish Constitution Day, and how he makes it interesting, how he joshes with the crowd, bulls through the speech with his baritone voice (but still gives it very well) and announce the new program! That's Harold, after three years of racial themed war forced on him by the City Council here's Harold's guy talking about how many Polish American's are involved in city government in important positions. No matter what they say, Harold is still trying to be as he said in '83 "Fairer Than Fair" it's Harold extending the olive branch of peace to end racial gridlock and get on with the business of governing the nations third largest city.

    Rick is right, tragedy mooted the argument.