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Council Wars

 

 

 

Council Wars

Within hours after Mayor Harold Washington had concluded his swearing-in speech in April 1983, one of the most dramatic moments in the city's history segued from thunderous applause and triumphant music at Navy Pier to the bitter realities of City Hall.

“Council Wars,” which exacted havoc throughout most of the first term of Chicago's first African American mayor, pitted Mayor Washington against the “Vrdolyak 29,” sobriquet for the all-white Chicago City Council's majority bloc, led by Alderman Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak of the Tenth Ward and Edward Burke of the Fourteenth.

Despite its reputation as a “boss-dominated” city, Chicago's governing structure is that of “strong council, weak mayor.” The Vrdolyak 29 blocked the mayor's replacements of council committee chairs and appointments to the patronage-heavy Park District, Chicago Transit Authority, Board of Education, City Colleges, and other key agencies.

Washington struck back by using the mayoral power of executive order to cut the city's payroll from an estimated 40,000 down to less than 30,000, erase the city deficit, balance the budget, and broaden freedom of information “as public policy.” Chicago's bond rating leaped upward, enabling the mayor to push through a $100 million bond issue and the employment of Community Development Block Grants to resurface and repair five miles of city streets in each of the 50 wards. He also moved to improve housing for the poor, after-school and food pantry programs for the homeless, police-community relations, equity in Tax Increment Financing (TIF), and city economic planning.

Council Wars ended in May 1986, when federal court-ordered special elections were completed in seven wards, remapped to reflect Chicago's black and Hispanic population growths. Washington supporters on the city council increased from 21 to 25—a tie with the 25 left from the Vrdolyak 29. With the mayor's tie-breaking vote activated, the council, on May 9, 1986, approved 25 mayoral appointments to 14 boards and departments.