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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 vs. 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.
Regular 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 Alderman Ed Vrdolyak and Alderman Edward M. Burke, together known as "the Eddies". 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 passed the mayor's budgets, but voted down all of the mayor's proposals. They also voted down all of his appointments, so the appointees served 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", a reference to the Lebanese Civil War of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, Washington's allies 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 gave the mayor 25 supportive aldermen. 25 Votes in the city council do not suffice to pass legislation, but allow the mayor to cast a deciding 26th vote. A group of several remaining aldermen from the Vrdolyak 29, including 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 majority of the city council now aligned with the mayor and Council Wars ended.
Washington was re-elected in 1987 and, in the same election, several pro-Washington challengers defeated incumbent opposition aldermen. Washington died of a heart attack later that year. Alderman David Orr became interim Mayor. The council then selected a permanent replacement to serve until a special election. They chose Alderman Eugene Sawyer, a Regular Democrat who sided with Mayor Washington during Council Wars. He was elected by a coalition of former Vrdolyak 29 and original pro-Washington aldermen as well as new aldermen.
Disposition of the Council 1983-86
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 July 2016) are marked with an asterisk.
|4||Timothy C. Evans||Democratic||Black||W|
|14||Edward M. Burke*||Democratic||White||V|
|29||Danny K. Davis||Democratic||Black||W|
|40||Patrick J. O'Connor*||Democratic||White||V|
|43||Martin J. Oberman||Democratic||White||W|
|46||Jerome M. Orbach||Democratic||White||V|
- Answers.com, Aaron Freeman. Accessed April 1, 2007.
- B. Secter & J. McCormick, Obama Hits Chicago During 'Council Wars,', Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2007, 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
- Fremon, David K., "Chicago Politics, Ward by Ward", 1988, pp. 3–4