Mayor Harold Washington walked out of his second City Council meeting in a week today after delivering an impassioned plea for "lowering the rhetoric" and for unity.
He said he was leaving because he felt the call for the meeting was illegal.
This set off what amounted to a rambunctious legislative filibuster by the council's pro-Washington minority. Washington's opponents, led by Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak, angrily complained that majority rule was being ignored.
"This is not communist China. This is not Russia. This is not Poland," a red-faced Vrdolyak yelled.
"Is this the way to bring the city together? Is this the way you want to organize the council?" he continued. "You're afraid of the truth. And the truth in America is that 29 votes are more than 21 votes."
Vrdolyak's forces control 29 of the council's 50 votes, and after Washington walked out of his first council meeting last Monday the majority reorganized the council, placing black members in control of only three of 29 committees.
The meeting today was specially called to approve the minutes of the Monday session. The Vrdolyak forces apparently were unprepared for the fight pro-Washington forces put up.
Washington appeared in the packed council chambers for only about five minutes, then left after shaking hands with each council member.
"This is not a law school exercise, to see which side can raise the most objections," he said. "There is no valid purpose to fanning the flames of disunity and dissension."
Washington supporters then tied up the council in a parliamentary knot for two hours. At one point two aldermen were restrained from getting into a fist fight; at another, a black alderman called a white colleague anti-Semitic for wanting to hold the meeting on the Jewish sabbath.
The fury ended only when Washington suporters left, declaring that the session was over because neither they nor their opponents could muster a two-thirds majority. Vrdolyak's forces, maintaining that only a simple majority was needed, then approved the minutes of the Monday meeting.
After the session, a smiling Vrdolyak claimed victory, saying, "We feel we have everything resolved." Another council meeting is scheduled for next Wednesday.
Late Friday Washington went to court to try to bar consideration of the disputed minutes. But Judge Joseph M. Wosik refused to intervene, saying courts "are too often used as scapegoats" in arguments between branches of government.
Washington, inaugurated only a week ago, has had the briefest of political honeymoons.
Machine politicians have recast themselves as reformers. They have taken to quoting Thomas Jefferson and complaining about abuses of power. They have printed up "New Guard" buttons, drafted ordinances opening city records and contract bidding to the public and proclaimed their independence from the mayor.
The showdown chiefly has been black against white.
It is a blatant fight over power. It began a week after Washington's election, when the new mayor held a unity breakfast and told Vrdolyak and his allies that they weren't going to be part of the new leadership team in City Hall. "I knew it would be war," Vrdolyak said later.
But the fight broke into the open this week with what is now called "mutiny Monday." Washington, lacking votes to elect his supporters to council posts, adjourned and walked out of his first council meeting after two seconds.
A rump group led by Vrdolyak promptly reconvened the meeting and reorganized the City Council.
The struggle has embarrassed business leaders and editorial writers, but in Sunday issues of the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Mike Royko advised everyone simply to sit back and enjoy it:
"It's an entertaining show, if you don't take it too seriously. Our baseball teams are staggering. New York is bigger, and maybe Los Angeles too. But, by God, when it comes to craziness in local politics, we're number one, and can prance around holding up one finger. I mean the fore finger, not the middle one. On the other hand, the middle one might have more Chicago style to it."