From "Big Bill" Thompson to Rahm Emanuel, Chicagoans have had more than their share of larger-than-life personalities as their city's leaders. Yet even among this august group Harold Washington stands out for his dramatic victories and tragic end. Winning office in 1983 after an unprecedented mobilization of the city's African American voters, as mayor Washington faced an unprecedented series of political clashes with the city council that frustrated his efforts to implement his progressive agenda. Though Washington overcame these difficulties and won a second term in 1987, he died just a few months later, leaving much of the promise of his mayoralty unfulfilled. Roger Biles underscores the tragedy of Washington's tenure in his biography of the mayor, one that charts his dramatic rise and stormy tenure.
In many ways politics was in Washington's blood. Born and raised in Chicago, his father was a minister and precinct captain in the local Democratic Party organization. Even before he left law school Washington joined the organization, working for a local alderman. Elected to the Illinois legislature, he walked a fine line between loyalty to the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley and a principled independence. His reputation was such that after Daley's death in 1976 local African Americans recruited him to run in the special mayoral election that followed, one which ended in his defeat. This did little to hamper his career, however, as Washington won election to the United States Congress in 1980, where he emerged quickly as a rising star in the House of Representatives.
As Biles notes, so promising was his future in the House that when he was approached to run again for the mayor's office in 1983 he set impossibly high conditions to do so. It was a testament to his stature that these were met, helping to pave the conditions for an unexpected victory in a three-way Democratic primary. Yet despite his historic win, from the start Washington faced opposition from a majority within the Democratic-dominated city council. Led by Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, the "Vrdolyak 29" prevented Washington from passing many of the measures he proposed during the election, and it was not until a federal judge forced a redistricting that led to the defeat of six of its members. The new council majority and Washington own reelection heralded the triumph of Washington's vision, his death from a heart attack just months after winning his second term brought many of his plans to a premature end.
Biles makes it clear that Washington's life was consumed with politics, and he has written a book that reflects this. His book concentrates almost entirely on Washington's political career and its context, passing over the details of his life before politics in a few pages. When it comes to politics, while Biles covers Washington's legislative career capably his main focus is on his time as mayor, which he addresses in considerable detail with analyses of Washington's reform proposals and the conflicts that characterized the "Council Wars" of Washington's first term. The juxtaposition underscores the sense at the end of the book of a mayoralty that ended before it could really begin, making for a biography that doubles as politically tragedy. It's a work that should be read by anyone with an interest in Washington's career or the dramatic politics of America's third-largest city.