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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 demonstrators, who on Monday had been urged on by Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, were supporting Alderman Timothy Evans, who is also black and who, as Washington's floor leader, claims to be the mayor's 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 was pressing for a quick vote before his support could erode, but Evans, believing that a delay could shift momentum his way, was 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, at least two black Sawyer allies said they had come under intense pressure from angry constituents and called for a delay in the vote.

One of them, Alderman Anna Langford, said she had received several telephoned death threats. "I see the city polarized to the point where there could be violence," she said. About 100 demonstrators marched on her neighborhood ward office carrying signs reading: "Evans for Mayor, Out With Langford."

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

Spectators allowed into the cramped visitors' section of the council chambers were required to pass through metal detectors, and purses and packages were being X-rayed.

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

'Playing Hardball'

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."

Chicago political scientist Paul Green, an expert in the city's mayoral politics, said Evans' strategy amounted to little more than a calculated appeal to emotionalism to make up for organizational shortcomings.

"They got outworked, they got out-hustled, they got out-counted," Green said of the Evans forces. "It's sour grape politics. When you see you're being out-counted, you take it from the realities of politics to the emotion."

Underlying the struggle for the mayor's post was a tug-of-war for the jobs, contracts and clout that go with the powerful post. Before Washington was first elected in 1983, blacks complained that white political leaders denied them their fair share of the spoils.

'Common Goals'

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