Six months in office, Chicago mayor gets '99% of what I want'
He works at the late Mayor Richard J. Daley's huge mahogany desk on the fifth floor of Chicago's City Hall. But he'll tell you right off that any similarity between him and the former mayor ends right there.
''Our goals are different - our styles are different,'' insists Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
Indeed, this mayor - the first black to hold the city's top elected position and now six months into his new job - was determined from the start to make radical changes in Chicago's machine politics, which has prevailed here for half a century, including the Daley era.
During his mayoral campaign, Mr. Washington - though a former machine Democrat himself - declared open war on the local Democratic organization's entrenched practice of rewarding loyal vote-getters and contributors with plum jobs and contracts. His goal: a more open, evenhanded government.
Taking a seat in one of the dark-red velvet chairs in front of the Daley desk , the broad-shouldered mayor, looking trim in a deep-gray suit, explains to a visitor why he thinks reform was so essential and assesses the progress so far.
He says that despite his much-publicized battle with Edward Vrdolyak, the Cook County Democratic chairman and City Council majority leader, most business has been moving smoothly.
''The impression that the city has been brought to a halt because of the fight is totally erroneous,'' the mayor says. ''I've got 99.9 percent of everything I've wanted passed. Period.''
The only drawbacks, he says, have been some slowing down of council proceedings and delay in confirming some of his appointments. ''But it hasn't stopped anything because the people are working anyway,'' he adds.
He has managed to engineer some of what he's wanted by exercising his veto power. Can he think of any reform he wants in his four-year term that could be effectively blocked by the majority opposition? ''Not one.''
Like his father before him, Washington started his career in the machine politics of Chicago's Democratic Third Ward.
''It never occurred to me not to be in politics, government, or law - those are the things I was just born into. . . . So it followed . . . that when I got out of school (Northwestern University Law School), I went into ward politics,'' he says.
In time he was elected to the Illinois Legislature. But he says he gradually became disenchanted with the party structure and its patronage system and formally left it in 1975 - working as an independent Democrat.
''I felt the patronage system was discriminatory, overexpensive, and ruthlessly applied,'' he says. ''And there wasn't any room for growth, development, or dissension. Too much control was exercised against (minority) communities such as mine, which needed more political Lebensraum.''
He was elected to Congress twice before deciding to tackle the closed system head-on in a run for mayor. He defeated former Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County state's attorney Richard M. Daley, son of former Mayor Daley, in the Democratic primary last February. But in what he viewed as a largely racial general-election fight, he managed only a narrow victory in the spring over Republican challenger Bernard Epton. Usually, Democratic candidates for mayor in Chicago have won easily.
Washington finds the rigors of his new executive job a sharp contrast to his duties as legislator.
''There's a more rigid timetable,'' he says. ''In Congress you might make 30 to 40 decisions a day. Here you make that many an hour.''
Though often described as a loner and a very private person, the mayor exudes his own special brand of charm and insists that he enjoys the ''people part'' of his job the most. ''That's the real life and juice of political activity,'' he says.
Yet, in the course of his six-day workweek of 16- to 18-hour days, he doesn't appear to have lost sight of his campaign goals. The mayor has moved to make the city budget review and approval process much more open. And by an executive order, he opened most other city business and documents to greater public scrutiny.
Shortly after Washington's election, the last of a series of court decisions on the Michael Shakman case - forbidding hiring and firing of city employees for political reasons - was handed down. Applauding the decision, he promptly told city workers that political activity and contributions were no longer job requirements and that any pressure along such lines from superiors should be reported. He said promotions would be earned by merit rather than by political or family connections.
''We want to put things on an institutionalized, open, fair standard,'' he says. ''I'm not a goody-goody guy, and this is not a goody-goody government. All we're saying is that political favoritism taken to ridiculous extremes has got to stop. Patronage is dead. It's gone. Chicago is finally in the 20th century in terms of employing and promoting people.''
The courts also upheld the mayor's decision to lay off several hundred city workers to help reduce the deficit he inherited.
The mayor also claims to have made large strides in achieving a fairer distribution of city services and benefits, ranging from economic development help to garbage collection, in long-neglected city neighborhoods.
Clearly the next ''reform'' on the mayor's agenda is finding some way, if he can, to divorce Edward Vrdolyak from his current job as head of the Cook County Democratic Party. The feisty alderman, a millionaire lawyer who specializes in personal-injury cases and acquired the nickname ''Fast Eddie'' in some circles for his smooth ability to get things done, intends to run for reelection as chairman next spring. But public opinion is increasingly going Washington's way, according to the polls, and the mayor is making a major effort to get enough committeemen elected who are sympathetic to his cause.
He insists it is not Mr. Vrdolyak's strident opposition in the council which bothers him.
''That's standard operating procedure for every mayor and city council in the country and the way things should be,'' he says.
But he adds that he does object when the noise turns to obstructionism for its own sake. He cites two reasons he says Vrdolyak must go as head of the party. First, he argues that the alderman has quietly supported Republicans, including Mr. Epton, in the mayoral election, and as such is ''disloyal'' to the Democratic Party. Second, the mayor also accuses Vrdolyak of fostering divisive racial feelings in the city. Before the primary, Washington says, Vrdolyak urged white voters to keep the city racially stable by supporting Mrs. Byrne; and since the election, the alderman has accused him of trying to run whites out of the city.
Washington calls the latter charge a ''categorical lie,'' while Vrdolyak denies that he is disloyal to the party or is a racist. The mayor expects that if Vrdolyak loses his party leadership position, his influence in the council will decline accordingly.
''He'd be over in the corner playing his marbles - you wouldn't hear from him anymore,'' insists the mayor.
Washington also admits that his differences with Vrdolyak, whose committee recently endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale, are holding up his own endorsement of a candidate.
''I would not join the (Cook County) Democratic Party leadership to endorse Mr. Mondale at this time when the party leadership is being led by Mr. Vrdolyak, '' he says. ''How can I even remotely walk with a man who has attempted to foment racism in this city and who takes an oath to support his party and doesn't? I cannot do that.''
On the other hand, he does not think a Jesse L. Jackson run would be successful.
''The most important thing in 1984 is not to run a black presidential candidate, but to defeat Mr. Reagan,'' he says.
Asked how he assesses the current racial climate in Chicago, he says he thinks it is healthy that racism here has at least been brought to the surface. ''It can be dealt with that way. I'm satisfied it will improve,'' he says.
Many have accused the mayor of being too stubborn and unwilling to compromise as he pushes for political reform. ''When critics say 'negotiate,' they mean 'give up,' '' he says. ''That's what Mayor Byrne did and why she's not here now. That's not going to happen with me. I take my vows seriously.''