CHICAGO — This city dressed its Thanksgiving in black crepe, eulogies and political intrigue Thursday as government leaders publicly mourned the late Mayor Harold Washington, who suffered a fatal heart attack Wednesday, but privately began jockeying to replace him.
Alderman David Orr, vice mayor under Washington, was sworn in as interim mayor in a private City Hall ceremony. But Orr predicted the full 50-member City Council will pick a permanent successor from its ranks next week, possibly as early as Tuesday.
Orr took himself out of the running, but other aldermen said they expect several candidates from the council to wrestle for the post. The most highly touted contender is powerful Finance Committee Chairman Timothy Evans, a close political ally of Washington, first black mayor of this racially polarized city. Evans is black also.
Won't Discuss Plans
Evans refused to discuss his political plans until after Washington's funeral, scheduled for Monday. "I'm not naive, I recognize people have been speculating all along," he said, adding that for him to feed the speculation would be disrespectful to Washington's memory. "Turkey and dressing and all the trimmings go down very difficult today," Evans said.
He spoke to reporters in the City Council chambers after Orr and other officials held a press conference there to outline plans for Washington's funeral and memorial, as well as to clear up confusion over the procedure for picking his replacement.
Black and purple mourning crepe hung from the wall behind the dais and also was draped over the presiding officer's chair, which Washington occupied when he conducted City Council meetings. Outside the building, city, state and federal flags flew at half-staff and a billboard-size poster of the late mayor had been hastily tacked to the side of a nearby elevated train platform.
Laws on Succession
Officials said Wednesday that state and city laws on mayoral succession appear to conflict and they are not sure precisely how Washington's successor is to be picked or for how long a term. Orr said Thursday, however, that city attorneys determined he is to serve as a caretaker until the council, by majority vote, designates one of its own members to serve as acting mayor. That replacement, Orr said, will serve only until the next scheduled citywide election in April, 1989, rather than fill the remainder of Washington's term to April, 1991.
Although the scenario Orr outlined seems clear-cut, it may not prove so simple in a city known for the ferocity of its political infighting.
"Chicago is a unique city, probably one of the most political cities in the country," Alderman Richard Mell said. "Until we had the Bears (the city's championship football team), politics was the No. 1 game in town."
A Case in Point
Mell himself is a case in point. During most of Washington's first term, which began in 1983, Mell was part of a majority faction of white City Council members who stymied many of the mayor's programs and appointments. But Mell and several other former Washington opponents became loyalists last April after Washington won reelection and appeared to take control of the council as well.
Whether Mell and other recent converts will try to reassert their independence in Washington's absence is a question that looms large over the mayoral selection process. Mell refused Thursday to rule out the possibility that he might run for acting mayor, although he conceded that any black candidate "has odds-on possibilities."
Under questioning by reporters, Orr also acknowledged the potential of another wrinkle in the replacement process. He said it is technically possible for him as interim mayor to fill an aldermanic vacancy, should someone on the council suddenly resign. That new person could then become eligible to be chosen as acting mayor.
Orr called such a turn of events extremely unlikely but said it is one way that council leaders could bring an outsider into the mayor's job, should they be unable to agree on a replacement among themselves.
"I don't have any doubt that my colleagues will come up with someone to serve as acting mayor very quickly," Orr said.