The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago’s mayoral election feels like 1983 all over again — but it isn’t

Decades of failed promises have left voters apathetic or pessimistic

Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, left, and former Chicago Public Schools chief executive, Paul Vallas. (Erin Hooley/AP; Nam Y. Huh/AP)
6 min

Recently, Chicagoans — at least some of them — went to the polls and unceremoniously rejected incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first Black woman and openly gay chief executive. Lightfoot was a historic but polarizing figure, who promised change, but then achieved little of it while guiding the nation’s third-largest city through the pandemic, gun violence and a battered economy.

While Chicago’s mayoral race is officially nonpartisan, the results of last week’s mayoral election have resulted in a runoff that will take place on April 4 featuring two candidates who, though both registered Democrats, differ starkly along racial, ideological and generational lines.

The contest pits the campaign’s sole White candidate, Paul Vallas, a more conservative former schools chief endorsed by the police union, against Brandon Johnson, a Black county commissioner and former teacher and union activist who has staked out progressive positions well to the left of Vallas. The media is portraying the matchup as a proxy for national politics over crime. And, in at least some circles, it has prompted comparisons to the riveting 1983 campaign when Rep. Harold Washington became the city’s first Black mayor.

But while there are certainly historical parallels between now and the 1980s, locally and nationally, the comparison risks misrepresenting how Washington won, the national implications of that victory and the inherent fragility of his, and most, electoral and governing coalitions.

In the spring of 1983, Washington rode a multiracial groundswell of support informed by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to victory over not just the incumbent mayor, Jane Byrne (whose mayoralty was historic in its own right), but also a young, future mayor, Richard M. Daley, and a fairly liberal, little-known Republican legislator, Bernie Epton.

To win, Washington withstood remarkably racist rhetoric by his opponents, Democratic and Republican, and a fierce backlash by normally reliable Democratic White ethnic voters who turned out in droves to try to deny a Black man the mayor’s seat “before it’s too late.” The charismatic Washington overcame their opposition through a fierce ground game, registering more than 100,000 new voters and building a new Democratic coalition of nearly unanimous Black support, three-quarters of Latino voters and just enough liberal White voters, often referred to as “Lakefront Liberals.”

Washington’s victory has since been mythologized in many ways, certainly in Chicago, as ushering in a brief golden era of democracy in the city and a model for urban political coalitions across the nation. Undoubtedly, it reflected what was electorally possible in the 1980s, inspiring the Rev. Jesse Jackson to run for president in 1984 under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition, and demonstrating the limits of the “Reagan Revolution.” It previewed what the Democratic Party could — and, at times, has — become, especially in the 21st century.

Washington also spearheaded some policy gains. He successfully instituted affirmative action in jobs and contracts for African Americans and Latinos. His administration opened up the city in significant ways, from freedom of information policies to budget hearings and neighborhood participation in development.

It curbed the kinds of patronage that led to the corruption Chicago was long known for. And, perhaps ironically, the city’s first Black mayor empowered Latino neighborhoods and voters by championing not just affirmative action, but also Latino-majority council districts and the protection and dignity of undocumented workers. In fact, he stressed the dignity of all Chicagoans as central to his governing philosophy.

Yet, despite the historic nature of Washington’s victory, governing overall proved far more fraught, his coalition far more fragile and racism far more insidious of an obstacle to achieving most of his policy goals.

For instance, Washington struggled to change the institutions that most affected the lives of working-class, predominantly Black and Latino Chicagoans. Neither the Chicago Police Department nor the Chicago Housing Authority, even with Black leadership, improved much during his tenure. In fact, Washington’s administration reluctantly embraced the “War on Drugs,” fueled skepticism of the AIDS crisis and eventually gave in to many downtown development projects pursued by a conservative business establishment.

One reason for the slow progress was the recalcitrance from the City Council’s White majority, which tried to thwart Washington’s policies and appointments at every turn. The “Council Wars,” as the local media called them, demonstrated the lengths to which White Democrats tried to hold onto power.

Facing this opposition, along with Ronald Reagan administration attacks on urban spending and the continued loss of jobs through deindustrialization, the mayor operated with a small margin for error, until his untimely death from a heart attack six months into his second term. Many “what ifs” remain about what he would have accomplished if he had lived and governed for 20 years, as he often predicted. Instead, Washington’s multiracial democratic experiment faded.

And that brings us back to 2023. Chicago is a very different place now. The city that Johnson and Vallas want to lead is smaller, more unequal and by some measures even more segregated than it was 40 years ago. The city is ever more awash with guns, closed school buildings and empty storefronts. Perhaps most striking, less than 35 percent of registered Chicagoans — about 500,000 people — voted in the first mayoral round, roughly half of the percentage who voted in 1983 and again in 1987.

It’s possible that more people will show up to vote on April 4 with such a stark choice. Cozying up to Donald Trump supporters, Vallas has promised to “take the handcuffs off” the notorious Chicago police to fight crime and corruption. In contrast, Johnson has vowed to restore a Black-Latino coalition and raise taxes to fund schools and other programs to tackle the root causes of violence, as well as stop Black and White flight from the city. Both have a core of support who see their candidate as the antidote to the city’s challenges, if not a return to a more hopeful moment — for Vallas, the 1990s under Richard Daley, for Johnson, the 1980s under Harold Washington.

But trend lines since the ’90s, sadly, are not promising; whoever wins will probably do so with support from just a small minority of registered voters. Having seen promises of reform go unfulfilled time and time again — even by the most well-intentioned, charismatic and popular figures — the majority of Chicagoans may end up making their voices heard by staying home.