Harold Washington is elected mayor
Photo: Anne Cusack/Chicago Tribune

April 12, 1983

“When I woke up the next morning, it seemed like the most beautiful day of my life.” Such was the post–Election Day sentiment of a South Side barber named Smitty, quoted in Dreams From My Father, the book by a certain future president who’d cited Washington’s historic victory as his inspiration for moving to the city.

To call the narrow win a surprise is to understate what a monumental change it signaled. Unlike his predecessor, Jane Byrne, a Richard J. Daley protégée trying to run as an outsider, the 60-year-old U.S. congressman from Hyde Park could credibly point to his election as a rebuke of the Democratic machine in this notoriously segregated city, where his supporters registered 130,000 new voters. “It ceased being a campaign,” Washington’s press secretary, Grayson Mitchell, recalled in Salim Muwakkil’s book Harold! “It became a movement.”

Many of Washington’s initial reform efforts were obstructed by white aldermen in the racially tinged standoff known as the Council Wars, and yet in his first four months, he pushed through laws and made executive orders that dramatically increased transparency at City Hall. He died from a heart attack seven months into his second term, leaving his progressive agenda unfinished — but city government forever changed. “For the first time, blacks and Latinos had positions at City Hall,” Rev. Jesse Jackson said in this magazine in 2017. “Judges could get elected without losing their judicial integrity. People got contracts who never got contracts for business before. And he was not returning fire against whites.’ ” In the years since, majorities of white Chicagoans have voted for Black politicians, including for Obama and the current mayor, Lori Lightfoot. It was Washington who led the way.

From the Archives

October 1983 issue
Photo: Michael Zajakowski

Five months after Washington’s historic victory, the magazine devoted its October 1983 cover story to his tumultuous early days in office, with political reporter David Moberg assessing the mayor’s bold attempts at sweeping away the old patronage system.

“Many Chicagoans, even those sympathetic to Washington, do not realize how seriously he takes his mission as a reformer. They scoff at the notion that a political leader might be more interested in public policy that distributes benefits fairly than in private deals for his friends. Washington just wants to throw the whites out, they say, and put his friends (blacks) in. But the evidence of the first 100 days of the Washington Administration is that the Mayor has stuck to his campaign promises and moved steadily … to break the mold of Chicago politics.”