Stressing that he was never "just a black candidate," Mayor-elect Harold Washington has vowed to lead Chicago into a new era of equality and fair government.
In an interview Friday, Washington expressed confidence that whites will accept his reforms--in everything from city jobs and city contracts to neighborhood expenditures and the selection of a new police superintendent--once they realize how unfair past ways have been.
The scarred veteran of gritty ward politics said he is "shocked" by his overnight transformation into a national symbol of hope for blacks and reformers.
"You can look in the mirror, preen yourself on it, or go ahead and get the work done," he said. "I guess I better not think about it. I will lead."
Washington will be inaugurated April 29, the first black to head the nation's second-largest city since it was founded on swampland beside Lake Michigan 150 years ago.
Perhaps his most urgent task will be to heal the wounds from a bitter mayoral campaign in which Washington won almost solid support from blacks while thousands of white Democrats swung their votes to Republican Bernard E. Epton and nearly gave him the election.
"I wasn't just a black candidate," said Washington, 61, a congressman and former state legislator. "I was a person who came out of the black experience, who gave voice to reform--for which many people before this election obviously thought Chicago wasn't ready.
"Reform simply means bringing in people who weren't involved before--whether you're talking about jobs for women, blacks, Hispanics, or equal opportunity for business, city contracts, or whether you're talking about balancing expenditures for the neighborhoods to stimulate local interest in development there. You're talking about the feeling that there is an imbalance in city services, such as street repairs, sanitation, parks."
As Washington sees his reformer's mission, fairness means nothing more than insuring that the same amount of city resources is spent in black as in white neighborhoods. He is confident that whites who oppose him will calm down once they see the essential inequality of the way things are done now.
"The way to stem the fears of those whites who think the 'blacks just want to get even' is to be fair," he said. "And if they the whites will look at how it's distributed, they won't have a quarrel.
"I was asked time and again during the campaign what I could do to convince them that I'm not anti-white. I'm going to do what I've been doing all my life--be fair. And show it. Now, a lot of people ask more from their government than just being fair but they're not entitled to it."
The city employs about 41,000 people. Washington reiterated his campaign pledge to use retirement and other forms of attrition to open these jobs to minorities.
"We're not going to fire anybody," he said. "We're constrained by law from that anyway. But with attrition, you're talking about redressing some longstanding inequalities with qualified people.
"On city contracts, you're not talking about black versus white, but about a few vested interests against everybody. So when a white person says, 'You're just taking contracts from whites and giving them to blacks,' I say, 'Whoa, you aren't getting any yourself and won't get any without me, so what are you talking about?'
"What I'm saying is that there are a lot of misconceptions out there, and one does have a responsibility to make known what the real facts are and act on that. And people don't want to recognize that."
Police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek will resign when Washington takes office, and the incoming mayor is well aware that such senior appointments will go a long way to setting the tone of the opening months of his four-year tenure.
"It's not good for black or white people to look at the mayor's cabinet and see all white people," he said. "That's bad. It's not good. It's going to be changed.
"With reform, you don't solve the economic problem of Chicago, but you certainly create a better climate for business. And in the process, you establish the one thing that a leader simply must have: credibility. Once that's done--that's power."
Washington's days are crammed with meetings, telephone calls and strategy sessions as he prepares to take over from Mayor Jane M. Byrne and begin the complex political jousting with the all-Democratic city council. Some of the most powerful of the 50 members opposed Washington covertly or overtly in both the Feb. 22 primary and the general election.
Aside from the fact that he is black, they are not sympathetic to Washington's avowed plans to destroy the patronage system which gives ward leaders wide municipal hiring and firing power.
Washington apparently has a working majority going into office, but little is certain because 18 council members are retiring. Beyond that, Washington must be seen to solve the serious problems ahead if he is to fill the role model thrust upon him--and which he now welcomes.
The city is in bad financial shape because the prolonged recession has cut revenues. Vital municipal and regional rapid transit systems are nearly bankrupt. The school system is $100 million in debt. The federal government says the Byrne administration misused more than $10 million in community development grants and demands repayment. A state income tax increase to help Chicago, as well as deficit-ridden Illinois, pay bills faces heavy sledding in the legislature.
Washington will need the cooperation of many aldermen and their legislative allies in Springfield if he is to master these problems.
Chicago has been sued for race discrimination in police hiring and promotion, for race discrimination in its park services, for race discrimination in the school system. Its police are before the courts for discriminatory "sweeps" that allegedly threw 500,000 blacks and Hispanics in jail in the past three years for the offense of being on the sidewalk when the police came by.
Blacks are about 40 percent of Chicago's 3.2 million population and black unemployment is about 20 percent. Among working-age youths, it soars in some places to 80 percent or more. Crime is high among black juveniles. Ninety percent of the police youth division's arrests are of blacks. Ninety percent of the officers making the "collars" are white, says a policeman.
In the past 20 years, there have been riots, marches, demonstrations, boycotts and more lawsuits as blacks struggled with their city. They say they want social and economic justice and they backed Washington more than 9 to 1 as part of that search.
The interview was at the well-appointed 1st Congressional District office that Washington will give up when he is sworn in. A special election will be called to fill the seat he won in 1980 as a candidate who had split with the Daley machine.
The small, modern building, owned by the Black Muslims, is in the 7800 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue. The potholed street is a main thoroughfare in the heart of black Chicago, almost 10 miles by car from City Hall, and an unknown, but compelling distance in simple human terms from downtown as well.
While he talked, Washington hastily munched a sandwich and spooned thick soup from a paper cup. He is a man in a great hurry, working 12- and 14-hour days without a break, divorced and a workaholic.
Every line on the telephone console stayed lit during his conversation with a visitor. Many people have questions and the answers, if there are any, seem long overdue.
Is there going to be a new era in Chicago, the mayor-elect was asked as the interview ended.
"It better be," he answered as he prepared to leave for a meeting downtown, in the other world he soon will command.