“I believed in Harold Washington,” recalled Jose “Cha-Cha” Jimenez, the one-time Puerto Rican youth gang leader and grassroots activist in Chicago. “His whole theme of neighborhoods first was in line with what we believed in.…It fit right in with our philosophy. So I just started organizing.”
Thirty-one years ago this week—and appropriately, during Black History Month—South Side Congressman Harold Washington won the Democratic primary for mayor in Chicago in what often has been celebrated as the peak of black political power in the city. But the experiences of Cha-Cha Jimenez and many other Latinos suggest how Washington’s success was more than simply a black symbol or victory. Rather, his 1983 campaign represented a painstakingly difficult, but ultimately successful effort at progressive multiracial coalition in a city that had seen similar experiments in the 1960s and 1970s, only to see them come up short.
Normally, winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to victory, but given the city’s caustic racial politics, ethnic whites shed their loyalty to the Democratic Party and voted for a white Republican, making the April general election the closest in generations. To win, Washington and his campaign team spent six more weeks of hard-fought grassroots organizing to put together a coalition of blacks, whites, and Latinos, including an unprecedented effort to mobilize the city’s marginalized populations. Voter registration efforts in 1982 and early 1983 netted more than 100,000 new voters, many of whom were unemployed, on public aid, or in some of the city’s poorest and most destitute black and Latino precincts. In the general election, Washington won by just 46,250 votes, with Latinos providing 43,286 to him alone.
Latinos did not put Washington over the top by themselves. And yet their role in the coalition that elected him—and then led to more neighborhood-friendly governance in his four-plus years as mayor—represented a key stepping stone to greater Latino political power in the years to come. Washington supported the lawsuit that led to the creation of several new Latino-centric aldermanic districts in 1986 and then the eventual formation of the first predominantly Latino congressional district in the Midwest, currently held by Luis Gutierrez. In 1987, Washington also endorsed Gloria Chevere for city clerk, although she lost.
Admittedly, the administration was slow to hire many Latinos. Rudy Lozano, a key Washington ally and early supporter in Pilsen, tragically died in June 1983; he had been rumored to be a top choice for deputy mayor, in what would have been the highest position held by a Latino in the city’s history up to that point. Others, such as Jimenez, did not get positions with the new administration, yet he described Washington as open to their concerns. “When we wanted to talk with him, we could,” Jimenez recalled. Eventually, the new mayor endorsed the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, which, led by Cuban-American Nena Torres, became a powerful voice on policy and hiring. It advised the mayor to oppose a planned World’s Fair in 1992 because of the predicted negative impact it would have on the Near West and South Sides of the city, including Pilsen. And, based on the commission’s recommendation, the mayor opposed changing the makeup of the School Board in a way that would have reduced Latino representation.
Washington also addressed other issues that had initially attracted Latinos to his candidacy. “He did two things in Congress: one, he had supported immigration reform,” recalled Torres, “ … and he was one of the leading critics of the war in Central America.” As mayor, Washington declared Chicago a sanctuary city for refugees fleeing the Cold War proxy wars waged by President Ronald Reagan in Guatemala, El Salvador, and other parts of Latin America. In his rhetoric, Washington routinely linked the violence in Latin America with racial lynchings at home, calling them “the international environment in which race hatred spreads.” Washington also was quick to pledge assistance to survivors of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City.
The tentative black-brown coalition that emerged in support of Washington’s candidacy and then his administration quickly fell apart in the wake of his death two days after Thanksgiving 1987. Whether this cooperation would have continued is difficult to say. Historically, African American and Latino priorities overlapped but also remained distinct, making coalition possible only if both parties agreed to set aside their differences on other issues. The election of Harold Washington in 1983 rightfully can be called the climax of black political power in Chicago. But it also represented a triumph for Latinos and an alternative progressive vision for the 1980s. Such lessons about the complexity of coalition-building and multiracial cooperation bear remembering as a new generation comes of age in Chicago.
Gordon Mantler. Teaches writing and history at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. He is currently working on a new project on the multiracial coalition that elected Harold Washington as mayor in 1983.
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