Area politicians comment on effect of mayor’s death

By Dave Duschene

The death of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington will have far-reaching consequences, according to some DeKalb-area politicians.

Washington, Chicago’s democratic mayor of five years, died Wednesday after suffering a massive heart attack in his office. DeKalb Mayor Greg Sparrow, who had last met with Washington at a conference in Chicago three weeks ago, said the city’s first black mayor was planning to visit DeKalb and Northern Illinois University in the near future.

“I had talked to him about the possibility of him coming to DeKalb, and he said, ‘I’d love to come,'” Sparrow said. “He had a lot of respect among the (democratic) mayors (who attended the conference). When he spoke, everybody shut up and listened. I had a lot of respect for him.”

The Chicago City Council now must select an acting mayor from within its ranks. The top candidates are speculated to be Timothy Evans of the 4th Ward and Eugene Sawyer of the 6th Ward.

During his term, Washington instituted what he called a “reform movement” by which he attempted to eliminate the patronage hiring system of past mayoral regimes. Upon the announcement of his death, speculation arose as to if such reform would continue.

State Sen. Patrick Welch, D-Peru, said, “I don’t think any of the (black aldermen) will be able to assert that sort of authority for quite some time. Not all of the black aldermen were in favor of reform.”

State Rep. John Countryman, R-DeKalb, said he expects a period of uncertainty in Chicago.

“I think it (the death) will have a fairly strong impact. There will be three or four years of instability and the city will probably be able to produce things like economic development,” Countryman said.

Sparrow disagreed. “I think he probably has left a line of succession that will allow a smoother transition to whoever becomes the new mayor.

“I hope there won’t be the kind of squabbling we had 11 years ago (when then-Mayor Richard Daley died),” Sparrow said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a democratic candidate in the 1988 presidential race, made a special trip to Chicago when he learned of Washington’s death. Jackson, who cut short his tour of the Middle East Thursday, met with aldermen over the weekend to advise them on the mayoral selection process.

Countryman said the aldermen should bypass Jackson’s advice and select the next mayor on their own.

“It seems to me that the problem ought to be solved between the 50 aldermen,” he said. “They need to bring in all the factions, black and white, and pick a candidate.”

Welch said Washington’s death was unfortunate because the mayor just had begun projecting his authority.

“He just recently started to show the authority the office could have. He was just beginning to flex his muscle politically.”

Welch said the impact of Washington’s death will be greatest on the black population.

“It’s difficult for white people to understand how blacks felt about Harold Washington. It’s a very difficult time for that population.”

Sparrow said, “He’s definitely going to be missed in Chicago and in the state of Illinois.”

Funeral services for Washington were held Monday at the Christ Universal Temple on Chicago’s South Side, and he was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery, also on the South Side.