Edward R. (Fast Eddie) Vrdolyak is the kind of character who makes Chicago politics legendary.
He has been called "an ambulance chaser" and the leader of an "evil cabal of men."
But in recent weeks Vrdolyak (pronounced Ver-DOE-lee-ack) has risen above the ranks of the wheeler-dealers to become this city's most powerful white politician, and, in the process, turning into almost a folk hero in some ethnic areas.
He has done so by engineering a City Council rebellion against Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago's first black chief executive, that has paralyzed the new mayor's administration before it could get off the ground. The fight is so bitter that both sides went to court to resolve their differences.
Racial politics are a part of it. Vrdolyak and his 28 supporters all are white. All 16 blacks on the council, along with five white liberals, support Washington.
But the battle really is over the egos and ambitions of Vrdolyak and Washington and political power--control of the council in terms of committee chairmanships, which Vrdolyak's supporters seized from Washington with their working majority, and resistance to Washington's pledges to eliminate the traditional patronage system.
Vrdolyak, a millionaire, and his allies apparently fear they will be frozen out of the lucrative contracts, zoning deals and patronage that grease the city's political system.
Few know how to play power politics, Chicago-style, better than Vrdolyak, 45.
Tough, smart and smooth-talking, he grew up above his father's saloon in a gritty neighborhood on the city's south side, worked part time as a steelworker while at the University of Chicago law school and studied for the priesthood for three years.
Instead, Vrdolyak became a lawyer specializing in personal injury cases. He earned the nickname "Fast Eddie" for the brash shrewdness that marked his rapid rise through the ranks of the Chicago Democratic machine. He is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, a post once held by the late mayor Richard M. Daley.
He still lives in his old neighorhood in a home that is palatial compared with the aging nearby bungalows. Complete with a swimming pool and a tennis court, it reportedly was built with cut-rate labor and material supplied by contractors who did business with the city. One donated 30,000 used bricks as a "housewarming" gift, according to Chicago newspapers.
To his friends, Vrdolyak is charming and capable, a guy who can get things done. To his detractors, he is greedy and ruthless.
He had a brush with the law, but was not convicted. In his law school days he and six fellow steelworkers were accused of beating a boiler plant owner. All were acquitted on charges of assault to commit murder and conspiracy to commit assault. In 1972 he denied accusations of soliciting legal cases after a major train wreck. In March he agreed to pay $73,643 in back income taxes.
Relations between Vrdolyak and Washington had been cool throughout the campaign. Vrdolyak had supported then-Mayor Jane M. Byrne in the primary. As party chairman, he endorsed Washington, but some of his lieutenants worked for Republican nominee Bernard E. Epton.
Vrdolyak said he was surprised by Washington's words after the election.
"There was the mayor, this new guy on the block, telling me I'm out," he told The Chicago Sun-Times. "So I say to myself, 'I thought this guy was just mayor, but he thinks he's the king.' So I had a choice: either I become a nobody in politics, or I fight. Win or lose, I don't end up a nobody, because I'm fighting. And I'm fighting because I think I'm right. I'm fighting because the mayor just can't come in and move people in and out."
The Chicago City Council has not been one of the world's great deliberative bodies. Long dominated by machine politicians, it normally has been little more than a rubber stamp for Democratic mayors.
But these days tensions are so high that Vrdolyak has worn a bulletproof vest during council meetings. Council members asked a doctor and a nurse to attend a session May 11. "Normally, there's only one of us, but today's there's a greater possibility of heart attack or fist fight," the doctor said.
With his boyishly handsome looks and natty suits, Vrdolyak struts like a peacock among the mud hens on the chamber floor. He is constantly moving, shouting, rallying followers.
Vrdolyak fashioned his coalition by appealing to the self-interests of white aldermen. He was helped by suggestions by Washington aides that Vrdolyak and several other long-time committee chairmen would be dropped from their posts, and by the mayor's inaugural speech pledge to end political "business as usual."
The weekend after the inauguration Vrdolyak brought aldermen together with a team of lawyers and accountants to let each know what was at stake.
"Eddie kept them meeting every day, having breakfasts and lunches. Each day he'd come up with a new button to pass out. One day there was a 'Free the Vrdolyak 29' button, the next day a 'New Guard' one," recalled Victor DeGradia, a Vrdolyak friend. "The group is like a club now."
The club has held firm through four stormy council meetings. It offered a reorganization plan to create 29 council committees and give almost everyone in the coalition some kind of a leadership job. Washington countered with a plan calling for 27 chairmanships, 13 going to his supporters.
First attracting attention as a spokesman for anti-busing groups, Vrdolyak was elected 10th Ward committeeman in 1967, a post that is still represents his power base. Four years later he was elected to the City Council, ousting his former mentor.
He challenged the machine again in 1974, running unsuccessfully for county assessor, a move that would have ended the career of most politicians here.
After Daley died the ambitious Vrdolyak jockeyed for power against Daley's successor, Michael Bilandic, who eventually forgave him. His influence grew so much that when Byrne ran against Bilandic she called Vrdolyak the leader of an "evil cabal" of men corrupting the city. But Byrne, like Bilandic and Daley, brought him back into the fold and helped elect him Democratic county chairman. This leads some observers to believe that he and Washington will strike a deal eventually, with Vrdolyak continuing as a powerful insider.