Council Wars

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The Council Wars were a racially polarized political conflict in the city of Chicago from 1983-1986, centered on the Chicago City Council.

The term came from a satirical comedy sketch of the same name written and performed by comedian and journalist Aaron Freeman in 1983, using the good-v.-evil plot line of the film Star Wars as a device.

In 1983, U.S. Representative Harold Washington was elected Mayor of Chicago. Washington, who was black, was backed by reformist "independent" Democrats and dissident blacks. He had won the Democratic primary—the real contest in this overwhelmingly Democratic city—in a three-way contest against incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Byrne and Daley led rival factions of the white-dominated Democratic Party organization.

Though Washington won a plurality of the primary vote, "organization" Democrats won most of the 50 aldermanic seats in the City Council. Washington garnered the support of all 16 black aldermen, even those who had been organization supporters. He also had the support of four white reformers and one other white, Burton Natarus, who had been a loyal organization man, but whose 42nd Ward voted for Washington.

The other 29 aldermen (28 whites and 1 Hispanic) formed an opposition group led by "the Eddies": 10th Ward alderman Ed Vrdolyak and 14th Ward alderman Edward M. Burke. The "Vrdolyak 29" voted as a solid bloc. In the first session of the 1983-1987 term, the "Vrdolyak 29" voted themselves complete control of every Council committee. Over the next three years, they voted down all of the mayor's proposals and appropriations. They also voted down all of his appointments, which was purely symbolic, as the appointees could still serve as interim officeholders.

The Vrdolyak 29 had a majority of votes, but not enough to override Washington's veto, thus creating legislative gridlock. Chicago became known as "Beirut by the Lake." Some legislation was passed and city budgets were approved, but it was a drawn-out and ugly affair.

Council Wars ended in 1986. Washington's allies had sued the city in Federal court, claiming that the ward map drawn up after the 1980 Census had unfairly dispersed black and Hispanic voters. At that time, whites were about 40% of the city's population, blacks were also about 40%, and Hispanics were about 15%, but there were 33 white aldermen, only 16 blacks, and just 1 Hispanic.

In 1986, the court ruled in their favor, ordering modifications to the borders of seven wards, and also special elections in the modified wards. Washington's supporters gained three seats in the special elections, six weeks later the election of Luis Gutiérrez in the 26th ward run-off election gave Mayor Washington the 25th vote he needed to wrest control of the City Council. With the Council now split 25-25, the mayor could cast the deciding vote. A group of several remaining aldermen from the Vrdolyak 29, led by alderman Richard Mell, went to Washington to promise future cooperation. They claimed that their previous opposition had been forced on them by the Eddies. The mayor now had a clear majority of the Council.

Washington was re-elected in 1987. In the same election, several pro-Washington challengers defeated ex-29 incumbent aldermen. However, before he had long to enjoy his new power, Washington died of a heart attack. Reform alderman David Orr became interim Mayor. The Council then selected a permanent replacement to serve until a special election. They chose alderman Eugene Sawyer. He was black, and had sided with Washington in Council Wars, but before 1983 he had been a reliable Organization man. Most of his support in the Council came from the old Vrdolyak bloc.

Disposition of the Council 1983-86[edit]

Below is a list of aldermen from 1983. Pro-Washington aldermen are marked with a W; those in the Vrdolyak 29 are marked with a V; those who are still serving on the council (as of 6-9-2011) are marked with an asterisk.[1]

Ward Name Party Race Alliance
1 Fred Roti Democratic White V
2 Bobby Rush Democratic Black W
3 Tyrone Kenner Democratic Black W
4 Timothy C. Evans Democratic Black W
5 Lawrence Bloom Democratic White W
6 Eugene Sawyer Democratic Black W
7 William Beavers Democratic Black W
8 Marian Humes Democratic Black W
9 Perry Hutchinson Democratic Black W
10 Edward Vrdolyak Democratic White V
11 Patrick Huels Democratic White V
12 Aloysius Majerczyk Democratic White V
13 John Madrzyk Democratic White V
14 Edward M. Burke* Democratic White V
15 Frank Brady Democratic White V
16 Anna Langford Democratic Black W
17 Allan Streeter Democratic Black W
18 Robert Kellam Democratic White V
19 Michael Sheahan Democratic White V
20 Clifford Kelley Democratic Black W
21 Niles Sherman Democratic Black W
22 Frank Stemberk Democratic White V
23 William Krystyniak Democratic White V
24 William Henry Democratic Black W
25 Vito Marzullo Democratic White V
26 Michael Nardulli Democratic White V
27 Wallace Davis Democratic Black W
28 Ed Smith Democratic Black W
29 Danny K. Davis Democratic Black W
30 George Hagopian Democratic White V
31 Miguel Santiago Democratic Hispanic V
32 Theris Gabinski Democratic White V
33 Richard Mell Democratic White V
34 Wilson Frost Democratic Black W
35 Joseph Kotlarz Democratic White V
36 William Banks Democratic White V
37 Frank Damato Democratic White V
38 Thomas Cullerton Democratic White V
39 Anthony Laurino Democratic White V
40 Patrick J. O'Connor* Democratic White V
41 Roman Pucinski Democratic White V
42 Burton Natarus Democratic White W
43 Martin Oberman Democratic White W
44 Bernard Hansen Democratic White V
45 Gerald McLaughlin Democratic White V
46 Jerome M. Orbach Democratic White V
47 Eugene Schulter Democratic White V
48 Marion Volini Democratic White W
49 David Orr Democratic White W
50 Bernard Stone Democratic White V


  1. ^ Fremon, David K., "Chicago Politics, Ward by Ward", 1988, pp. 3-4
  •, [1] "Aaron Freeman". Accessed April 1, 2007.
  • Preston, Michael B., "The Election of Harold Washington: Black Voting Patterns in the 1983 Chicago Mayoral Race", Political Science and Politics, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 486–488
  • B. Secter & J. McCormick, "Obama Hits Chicago During 'Council Wars,'"[2], Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2007, accessed April 1, 2007.
  • Fremon, David K., "Chicago Politics, Ward by Ward", 1988, pp. 3–4