By Chinta Strausberg
It was a family affair late Tuesday, April 12, night at the Mayor Washington Legacy Centennial gala held at the Harold Washington Library, in honor of the late mayor’s 100th birthday. Five hundred diverse supporters showed their love for the late mayor, with expressions of thanks for uniting and grooming so many ethnic groups for Chicago’s raw and sometimes brazen politics.
“Mayor Washington was loved 35 years ago, and he was loved last night,” said Loisteen Walker, who, along with Sasha Daltonn, produced the celebration.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised Mayor Washington’s legacy of reforming Chicago politics, including hiring women of different ethnic backgrounds and granting contracts to those who had been traditionally locked out. She said Mayor Washington has transformed the city and that she intends to continue his unfinished business of being fair to all communities.
To show their continued love for Mayor Washington, State Senator Mattie Hunter (D-3rd) surprised the audience when she held up a huge $400,000 check she donated to build a full-size statue of the popular mayor that will be erected either on the State Capitol grounds or inside of the Springfield building.
“The money will go to the Harold Washington Legacy Committee or we may decide to give it to the Landmarks and Statues Committee in Springfield,” said Senator Hunter. She said someone from the state will have to bid out for an artist to produce the statue of Mayor Washington.
When Josie Childs, president of the Mayor Harold Washington Committee, asked Senator Hunter to do something for Mayor Washington’s 100th birthday, the senator decided to use some of her capital money to build a statue honoring the late mayor.
Senator Hunter, who was one of Mayor Washington’s political staffers, said she was on the small, secret strategy committee she credits with Mayor Washington’s victory. “It was a secret strategy committee that controlled that election from the beginning to the end.” She worked for the late Vince Bakeman, who was the executive officer and president of the Human Resources Development Institute (HRDI). “I was a part of the polling group.” Echoing what Peggy Montes, who chaired Mayor Washington’s Women’s Commission, in that he was the first mayor to convene such a body. “Mayor Washington gave a lot of different groups opportunities we are seeing now. Had it not been for him and his vision and leadership, a lot of this stuff would not have happened.”
The centennial celebration for Mayor Washington’s 100th birthday was held on the same day he won the historic mayoral race in 1983. His actual birthday is Friday, April 15. The celebration was hosted by Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot and First Lady Amy Eshleman, in partnership with the Mayor Harold Washington Legacy Committee headed by Josie Childs, who is president. The honorary co-chairs were Governor J.B. Pritzker, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
The late mayor served in both the Illinois House of Representatives and the Illinois Senate from 1965-1976 and the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981 to 1983 in the First District before being elected as Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983.
Governor Pritzker gave Mayor Washington accolades, along with a $10,000 check towards the $100,000 the Harold Washington Legacy Committee has asked Roosevelt University to establish for student scholarships.
It was an evening where members of Mayor Washington’s City Council 21 bloc hugged, high five’d and took pictures of each other while sharing memories and laughter of the days when they battled with racial strife—legislatively and legally—for political control during the City Council Wars.
In those days, it was the Vrdolyak 29 versus the Washington 29 bloc, until April 1986 when court-ordered special elections were approved giving the mayor a 25-25 tie with Mayor Washington as the tiebreaker. Elated to see his former aldermanic seat mates were Cook County Chief Judge of the Circuit Court and former 4th Ward alderman, Judge Timothy C. Evans; former Congressman Luis Gutierrez, then-alderman of the 26th Ward; U.S. Representative Bobby L. Rush, then-alderman of the 2nd Ward; U.S. Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, then-alderman of the 22nd Ward; and others, including Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd), who was not a part of the 21 bloc.
Judge Evans told the Chicago Crusader, “The city will never forget Harold Washington. He was the first African-American mayor the city has ever known, but he was the best mayor the city has ever known.”
Congressman Rush spoke fondly of Mayor Washington saying, “I was elected alderman on the same day Harold was elected. He had a profound change on my life.” He is proud to be sitting in the same seat then-Congressman Washington sat in D.C. “I remember him saying being a congressman was the best job he ever had, and I agree with him.” Congressman Rush is retiring from Congress after serving more than three decades.
Gutierrez told the Chicago Crusader that Mayor Washington “brought people together, different nationalities. I came here to say thank you, Harold. You took me out of obscurity. There is nothing wrong with driving a cab. It is a decent way to earn a living. That is what I was doing. I don’t know what you saw in me, my future, my leadership, but you did, and you gave me an opportunity. Without you, I would never have been in the City Council. You authenticated me,” Gutierrez said of Mayor Washington’s belief in him. “That transformed my life. I would never have gotten to Congress.”
He reflected on the day when reporters asked Mayor Washington’s reaction to the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund suing the city of Chicago because Latinos did not have enough (aldermanic) seats. “What do you have to say about that?” Gutierrez said, “Mayor Washington so beautifully and poetically in one word, ‘Guilty.’ Wow, what power he could say that.
“In the Latino community, we said we had a mayor who could see us. We are no longer invisible,” reflected Gutierrez. “He wanted us to have our rightful place in leadership.” In 1987, Gutierrez said he won election and so did the mayor. In 1983, Mayor Washington received 15 percent of the vote in the 26th Ward, and in 1987, he received 60 percent when he was elected.
“We all stand on the shoulders of Mayor Washington. Remember when we had one Latino alderman? Well, today we have 12. You (Mayor Washington) opened the doors for so many of us.”
Congressman Garcia said Mayor Washington will always be remembered for reaching out to and taking care of the neighborhoods and because of his leadership, Hispanics were no longer left out of leadership. “The coalition he built helped to transform this city. He leveled the playing field. That is his legacy we commemorate on this anniversary,” he said.
Others present who worked with Mayor Washington were Reverend Walter “Slim” Coleman, who said, “We worked very hard on voter registration. We registered 45,000 new voters in three weeks. We worked with Harold on a lot of issues. He brought out the best of us. He taught us how to win, and I miss him.”
Former U.S. Senator Roland Burris told of how some people wanted him to run for mayor when Mayor Washington initially refused to run. He, too, called Mayor Washington one of the city’s best mayors who transformed politics. He and Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. praised Mayor Washington for “dancing on the grave of patronage.” “He got rid of that system,” said Reverend Jackson, “and that was a good thing for everyone.”