On the stage of a South Side union hall, in the shadows of the angriest, most afflicted ghetto this city can offer, Harold Washington's uphill campaign for mayor was afire. The warmup act, Rev. Jesse Jackson, was providing the steam.
His voice rising and falling in the staccato of his preacher's profession, the uptempo rhythms of a gospel organ behind him, Jackson, sweat beading his forehead, worked the crowd relentlessly, using climaxes of song and the chantlike flow of rhetoric to extort, exhort and inspire, building a fever in the crowd of 600 -- primarily black women.
"Break the bind, punch nine" Jackson yelled, referring to Washington's position on the Democratic primary ballot.
"Break the bind, punch nine," the women roared, their energy aglow.
"This little finger of mine," the crowd began, as if spontaneously, chanting, jumping and clapping in frenzy, "is punching number nine."
It seemed more religious than political, this black gospel rally. Suddenly Jackson grew quiet and asked for a show of hands.
"How many of you," he asked, his voice sedate and somber, the organ now quiet, "are working a polling place on Tuesday?"
A sea of hands rose, defiant. These excited, committed, hardened, downtrodden women, who had experienced the backhand of northern racism, were speaking in an eloquent silence. At this rally, they were having a ball, but those 600 hands, lingering in the air for just that moment, represented an unprecedented new force in a city that has displaced and oppressed blacks for generations, a force that was beyond rhetoric and passion, which recognized that to achieve political victory you have to be organized as well as passionate, unified as well as concerned. In the final analysis, everyone in that room seemed to know instinctively, you must deliver.
In one sense it was old politics -- very old-fashioned politics. But in its fervor -- in its tone less that of a campaign than a movement -- it was a convincing challenge to the conventional wisdom that elections reliably turn on pollsters, media buyers, sophisticated consultants, blow-dried haircuts and the raw power of money. It confounded national political candidates who based endorsement strategies on what they thought they knew about traditional bloc vote patterns -- especially black vote patterns. And in Chicago it produced a new kind of winner.
Nine months ago, not even Harold Washington could have predicted that a mature movement of committed blacks and concerned progressive whites could capture the Democratic primary in this city of 1.6 million registered voters.
"With the power of registration," he said then, "a coalition with white liberals can be formed. Without it, what's the use of talking?"
Why indeed? The race did seem hopeless until Chicago's blacks went out and quietly changed the arithmetic. Unheralded by the local press and with almost no money, grassroots organizers in the black community, joined by some donated legal talent, forced the city to allow mobile voter registration in the city's black and ethnic neighborhoods. Then they convinced more than 200,000 new voters to register.
"You couldn't even call it a coalition," said one of Mayor Byrne's aides describing the effort, which lacked both leaders and structure. "It was just a force in the community. It was all word of mouth and small organizations."
To political journalists, Washington's victory is a remarkably good news story.
Not because racism is dead -- it isn't. Washington still must defeat a white Republican in April in a contest that may be close.
Not because the winner will have an easy time delivering on his promises. How exactly can the mayor of a declining urban center with a declining tax base singledhandedly bring more jobs?
Not because Harold Washington is a visionary or a superman. The jury is still out on his ability to run a city.
No, the good news is that the primary victory of Harold Washington suggests that politics need not be glib and gutless.
High tech hype doesn't guarantee victory. Street smarts, block-by-block organization, issues, coalition building and yes, even some old-fashioned passion can still win some elections, and pollsters be damned.
"This electorate cannot be bought and sold," as Harold Washington told a black audience two nights before his stunning win. "There is ironic justice," he said, eyes beaming, "that Mayor Byrne spent $9 million on this campaign and now is broke. We've made her spend every last dime."
On the streets, the little people acted and worked -- in neighborhoods where blacks had no tradition of trooping to the polls. But Washington could never have won the primary without the four key lakefront wards, where most of the white liberals live. Washington received 20 percent of their vote.
"I can't really explain what is it," said one white who worked in the Washington mayoral campaign, "but things are different. People aren't splitting up against one another the way they used to."