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Chicago Mayoral Struggle: Mourning Becomes Chaos

December 02, 1987|BOB SECTER and WENDY LEOPOLD | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — Politicians dropped all pretense of mourning over Mayor Harold Washington on Tuesday as open, potentially violent trench warfare broke out between City Council factions trying to seize control of the late mayor's office.

Only a day after the funeral of the city's first black mayor, thousands of demonstrators packed City Hall corridors and the streets outside, trying to block a vote engineered by black Alderman Eugene Sawyer aimed at installing himself as acting mayor.

The wrangling continued into today. Though he claimed to have as many as 33 of the council's 50 members in his pocket, Sawyer, visibly shaken by the intensity of the crowd, walked out of the chamber minutes before the council was scheduled to vote, delaying proceedings for hours. Supporters said he felt intimidated.

Shortly before midnight he returned but the two sides battled over parliamentary rulings on whether it was even proper to be considering a mayoral vote.

Although the City Hall atmosphere seemed more appropriate for "Wrestlemania" than parliamentary deliberations, Alderman Timothy Evans, Sawyer's chief rival for the mayor's post, denied that the demonstrations amounted to mob rule.

"I see residents exercising their constitutional right to be heard," said Evans, who is also black. "They're here to see their aldermen follow their wishes."

For hours after Sawyer's walkout, his backers tried to talk him into returning and claiming his prize.

The demonstrators, who on Monday had been urged on by Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, were supporting Evans, who as Washington's floor leader, claims to be his heir-apparent.

Although Sawyer also was a Washington supporter, the demonstrators complained that his support on the council was too heavily weighted with white aldermen tied to the old Democratic political machine that Washington toppled.

Sawyer had wanted a quick vote to avoid any erosion in his support, and any delay could only help Evans. He spent all of Tuesday trying to erect parliamentary and other roadblocks to a Sawyer vote.

Evans supporters burned up the telephone lines to black community leaders trying to whip up grass-roots support. Meanwhile, several black Sawyer allies said they had come under intense pressure from angry constituents and called for a delay in the vote.

Many black aldermen in the pro-Sawyer camp said they had received death threats, among them Anna Langford, whose neighborhood ward office came under siege from demonstrators carrying signs calling for her ouster.

"I see the city polarized to the point where there could be violence," she said.

At City Hall, the demonstrators carried signs reading "No Deals" and shouted that black aldermen who backed Sawyer were little more than "Uncle Toms."

Uniformed and plainclothes police officers jammed the cramped visitors' section of the council chambers and spectators who were allowed in had to pass through metal detectors.

The threat of violence and continued stalemate sent Evans and Sawyer into a closed meeting as they tried to negotiate a way to resolve their differences and defuse the tense situation.

But Alderman Danny Davis, an Evans supporter and a potential compromise candidate, said neither Evans nor Sawyer seemed willing to back down. "Everybody is playing hardball," Davis said. "Politics in Chicago is hardball."

Adding confusion to an already chaotic situation, a liberal civic group filed suit in state court late Tuesday seeking an injunction to block the council from meeting to elect a new mayor. However, a judge deferred hearings on the suit until today.

Washington's fatal heart attack last week shocked both his allies and opponents who, in classic Chicago fashion, bemoaned his absence from the political scene and then immediately began calculating how to take advantage of it.

The most immediate effect was a growing political split in the black community, which had unified around the charismatic Washington.

Evans, who was closer to Washington than Sawyer was, seemed to be the early favorite to succeed the mayor. But Sawyer spent the weekend crafting a growing coalition of both black and white support.

Evans and his backers, including Jackson, sought to portray the struggle as a fight between liberal reformers and old-time political hacks out to bring back the good old days of cronyism and patronage. Sawyer supporters denied the contention, insisting that their man was ahead because he was more popular and more capable.

"He's a better choice because he's got a majority of the vote," said Alderman Edward Burke, one of the Washington administration's most bitter white foes. "We need a candidate who has the good will of at least a majority of the members of the body."

Cook County Democratic Chairman George Dunne, a white Washington ally, answered bluntly when asked to explain why he and others were backing Sawyer. "Bill Shakespeare once said that people think along lines that are most advantageous to them," he said. "This is one of those situations."

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