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Chicago: succession and reform

CHICAGO is a town that feels things deeply. The wind blows in hard from the Great Plains, and down across Lake Michigan. The people work hard: Office workers in this capital of the Midwest are expected to arrive an hour earlier in the morning than their counterparts in the Big Apple. Racism still keeps some of Chicago's blue-collar suburbs totally white; the drive through south Chicago's depressed neighborhoods, mile after mile, can sink your heart. It has its glitzy merchandise mile, its intellectual enclaves, the tallest building in the world. It is not given to understatement. So it should come as no surprise that Chicagoans have reacted with some emotional upheaval to the loss of their mayor, Harold Washington, and have named his successor, Eugene Sawyer, amid City Council tumult.

Mr. Sawyer, already in trouble for having 16 relatives on the city payroll to the tune of $540,000 a year, may fare no better than did Mayor Richard Daley's successor, Michael Bilandic, whose leadership was buried by City Hall inaction after a bitter blizzard. Daley's political machine had already been losing its grip on the city's power factions. The city's largest co-opted group had been its black population - which former Congressman Harold Washington eventually led to the top rung of the City Hall roost.

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Black leadership has not ruined the vibrant city. Far from it. And in a city where the ``minority'' community of blacks and Hispanics is actually the majority, the leadership shift may have saved much grief. And in an ironic sense, Chicago politics is colorblind. It recognizes power and influence more than color. It advances talent that can win its way.

So the Sawyer mayoralty, the result of City Council deals, does not necessarily imply a black or reformist succession from Mayor Washington. Sawyer's coalition must stand the test of fire in the City Council chamber, a call for an early election, and sooner or later a democratic referendum at the polls.

Washington got Chicago started on basic reforms. He gave representation to the previously disenfranchised. He backed minority hiring and contract quotas for women, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled. With contracting the new form of patronage, he called for better budget practices and accountability.

But as the 4 a.m. deal on Sawyer indicates, the larger task of reforming the character of Chicago politics lies ahead.

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