The Root Cities: Chicago's Political Power Brokers

In the first in a weeklong series profiling Chi-Town, The Root examines the rise and fall -- and rise -- of the city's black political machine, and the likelihood that the next mayor will be black.


The annals of black Chicago politics read like a political thriller, full of intrigue, backroom deals and untimely deaths. The mayoral race has been a pivotal factor in determining who holds political power in black Chicago since the 1987 death of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor. At that point, African-American politics became splintered over the fight to replace him, and the split persists to this day.

Two camps, each supporting a different alderman (the equivalent of city councilman), developed during that struggle: One wanted Eugene Sawyer, and another wanted his rival, Tim Evans. The City Council eventually voted for Sawyer, who served for 17 months before Richard M. Daley was elected. Daley used the situation to form coalitions among black leaders that would help keep him in office for 21 years.

With Daley stepping down this year, however, voters will be picking a new mayor when they head to the polls on Feb. 22. And black leaders are scrambling to get a black candidate elected. Nine African Americans are considering running: U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, U.S. Sen. Roland W. Burris, State Sen. Rickey R. Hendon, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, State Rep. Annazette Collins, Urban Prep Academy founder Tim King, William Walls, State Sen. James T. Meeks and Board of Review Commissioner Larry R. Rogers.

Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff and a former Illinois congressman, is another candidate in the crowded field. But as The Root recently reported, so far he has received a chilly reception from the black community.

The Rise of the First Black Mayor

The black electorate in Chicago has long been an important voting bloc. It currently makes up 437,547 -- or 33 percent -- of the 1.3 million likely voters, according to Labels & Lists, a voter-data agency. Whites make up 36 percent of the electorate. Still, it's not as strong as it was -- 40 percent -- when Washington was elected. The city's black population has decreased as African Americans have fled the city for the suburbs in the pursuit of upward mobility and a better life. Others have moved to other cities to look for jobs as the Great Recession continues to whipsaw the economy.

Washington knew how to work the electorate as well as the notoriously corrupt Democratic political machine. He rose through the ranks of that machine, from Democratic precinct captain to six terms in the Illinois House of Representatives to senator and then mayor. His election thrust Chicago onto the national political stage, inspiring hope among black voters and elected officials alike.

His election also revealed deeply entrenched racism within Chicago's political machine. Washington spent much of his time sparring with the predominantly white City Council to pass his budgets and other initiatives. "It was an interesting time for the city," says political blogger Monroe Anderson, a former journalist at Newsweek and the Chicago Tribune who was press secretary for Eugene Sawyer. "Washington spent his first four years engaged in the City Council wars."

With the national spotlight on the City of Big Shoulders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson seized the opportunity in 1984 to run for president, becoming the second African American to do so after Shirley Chisholm. But after the 1980s, the city's African-American politics became largely inactive because of the schism between Sawyer and Evans, and Daley worked both sides to his advantage.

"What happened after Washington's death is that two African-American camps were formed almost immediately and ripped each other's heads off," Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass recently wrote. "Sawyer, who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in his college days, was quickly portrayed by his rival, Ald. Tim Evans, 4th [Ward], as an Uncle Tom, a tool of the white guys. Evans, who'd spent his youth marching with his Chicago machine boss, was cast as the hero of the independents and progressives … in that emotionally charged vacuum after Washington's death, black politics was broken."