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Why Chicago Has Nonpartisan Mayoral Elections

White Democrats changed the rules to block Harold Washington’s re-election, mimicking Southern laws meant to keep black candidates out of office.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

If Chicago’s nonpartisan system of elections had been in place in 1983, Harold Washington would not have become mayor, and American history might look very different.

Washington won a three-way Democratic primary against Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, with 36 percent of the vote. That was good enough to put him in the April general election against Republican Bernard Epton, an obscure ex-legislator from Hyde Park.

Under the current arrangement, though, Washington would have been forced into a runoff against Byrne, the second-place finisher. Considering that Washington only won 51 percent against Epton, who ran under the slogan “before it’s too late” and whose sole vote-getter was his white face, he would have certainly lost to Byrne, the incumbent mayor.

Had Washington lost, a young Columbia University graduate named Barack Obama might not have been inspired to move to Chicago to work as a $10,000-a-year community organizer.

In 1986, white Democratic committeemen began plotting to change the system, to block Washington’s re-election. (Most Southern states hold runoff elections, to prevent black candidates from winning due to a divided white vote. The ward bosses figured it would work in Chicago, too.)

In 1995, they finally got their wish. During the two years the Republicans controlled all branches of government in Springfield, the General Assembly passed a law making mayoral elections nonpartisan.

The two-party system had become an embarrassment to Republicans. Their nominee that year was Ray Wardingley, whose day job was performing at children’s birthday parties as “Spanky the Clown.”

Spanky got 2.8 percent against Daley. The last Republican elected mayor of Chicago was Big Bill Thompson, in 1927.

The bill’s authors argued that the switch would save $2.4 million a year, by not requiring a citywide general election. But Cook County Clerk David Orr, who had briefly served as mayor after Washington’s death, called it “a blatant racist attempt to hurt the black vote.”

The Harold Washington Party, a third party formed to advance black political aspirations after Washington’s death, called nonpartisan elections “a voting rights violation.”

“We think we can make a case in federal court that white Democrats and white Republicans have come together with a scheme to prevent African-Americans of the Harold Washington Party from becoming mayor,” party spokesman Bruce Cosby told the Tribune.

Today, Chicago’s fear of a black mayor isn’t what it used to be. One reason is that Washington ran a fair and competent administration, never fulfilling white voters’ fears that he would turn the city into another Detroit or Cleveland

This year, the front runner in most election polls is Toni Preckwinkle. Nobody seems hysterical about the idea of a black woman on the Fifth Floor of City Hall.

Nonetheless, based on a recent Sun-Times poll, the runoff system would do to Preckwinkle exactly what its detractors feared: snatch victory from a black candidate who won the first round, and hand it to a white candidate.

The poll has Preckwinkle leading the field with 12.7 percent, just ahead of Bill Daley at 12.1 percent. But the poll also found Daley leading Preckwinkle in a runoff, 40.1 percent to 38.2 percent. Whether that result has more to do with Preckwinkle’s race, or with her connections to indicted Ald. Ed Burke, the poll didn’t measure.

Back in the 1980s, Richard M. Daley tacitly supported the white committeemen’s plan for nonpartisan elections, because he thought it would help him win a rematch with Washington. In the 1990s, he had no objection to the Republican bill that made it a reality.

Daley ran in three mayoral elections under the new system, and never faced a runoff, because he won more than 50 percent of the vote every time. But as things stand now, the change he sought could help push his brother past a black challenger and into the mayor’s office.

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