This is a guest post by Audrey Champelli, a member of the Chicago Undercovered class that prioritizes reporting on Chicago’s South and West side communities.
Last week, our class took a trip to see “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” a documentary that broadened my understanding of the history of Chicago politics just in time for the midterm elections. The film was a testament to Harold Washington not only as the city’s first Black mayor, but also as a mayor who worked tirelessly to bring a sense of fairness to a government that had historically treated the South and West sides unfairly.
Watching the documentary, I was shocked by how little I knew about the history of the mayor’s office in Chicago, especially given how tumultuous the history turned out to be. I was shocked by the lack of subtlety in the racism Harold Washington faced both during his campaign and in office (especially for the first three years).
While the documentary appropriately painted this dark picture of the Democratic machine Washington stood in opposition of, it also highlighted many of his triumphs, such as his promise to clean up the Democratic machine. He told his voters that he would do away with the systems that allowed Democratic politicians to make their friends rich and powerful even at the expense of Chicago citizens, and he did. He fired people who were on government payroll but not working. He helped get aldermen elected who were truly representative of their constituencies (through fair redistricting). He dealt a blow to the city’s longstanding patronage system, making way for a diverse government body hired based on merit.
Though there are still many inequities in the city, and indeed some of Washington’s work was undone by the administrations the followed him after his death, his time in office had a profound effect on what people felt they could expect from their elected officials. It had a profound effect on what elected officials understood about their obligations to meet their constituencies’ expectations.
Harold Washington left this ideological mark on the city, but he left a physical mark as well. Besides his anti-corruption work, he was committed to ensuring that every neighborhood had good roads, and good parks, and strong infrastructure. Chicago still lives with an incredibly fond memory of a mayor that governed and provided services fairly, and it’s this memory that can continue to empower people to hold elected officials to that same standard.