The Obama Reelection Playbook: Lessons From Harold Washington

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He had defied expectations and won an election by registering scores of new voters inspired by the possibility of electing a black leader.

In office, he tried to govern above the fray but faced bruising opposition that brought his agenda to a halt. And as he prepared for reelection, he took a more oppositional stance, and with the help of guy named David Axelrod, he focused his campaign pitch on winning over white voters — the ones he’d failed to convince in his first historic election.

It was 25 years ago in Chicago, and the candidate was named Harold Washington.

A young Barack Obama was watching. He had arrived in 1985 and was working as a community organizer. “I originally moved to Chicago in part because of the inspiration of Mayor Washington’s campaign,” then-candidate Obama said in 2008. “I'll never forget how he reached out to everyone — black, brown and white — to build a coalition for change. He wasn't part of the insider crowd. He wasn't somebody who the establishment immediately embraced.”

The parallels between Washington’s historic campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor were often noted as Obama began his bid for the presidency. But four years later, the lessons of how Harold Washington governed, confronted legislative gridlock, and remade his pitch to voters are equally striking.

Washington’s Unexpected Victory – and Immediate Backlash

In 1983, Harold Washington won the Democratic nomination after telling his supporters he'd only run if they registered 100,000 new voters. They did it, and he beat an incumbent mayor and the son of a longtime mayor with 36 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

In Chicago, the Democratic primary was usually the decisive race for the mayor's office, but Washington faced a close election against Republican challenger Bernie Epton, who stoked racial resentments with campaign slogans that included "Epton for Mayor: Before It's Too Late." Washington edged out a victory in 1983 by three points.

“It was a movement. It was an incredibly exciting moment in Chicago,” described Edward McClelland, author of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President. “People in progressive Chicago still talk about it as their greatest victory ever against the conservatives and against the machine."

After the election, though, the energy that propelled Washington into office was immediately blunted by fierce and organized opposition on the city council. During his first two years in office, Washington and the majority opposition traded vetoes and blocked votes in a standoff that would be deemed the "Council Wars."

“It was a racial battle and it was a neighborhood battle," said McClelland. "They were used to getting more city services than black neighborhoods, and they were afraid that Washington was going to take city services away from their neighborhoods. It was about race and it was about resources.”

For Washington, a former state lawmaker and congressman who had campaigned on bringing all of Chicago together, the gridlock forced a change in strategy.

“He was a legislator all of his life, and he was all about compromise, and he was all about collegial deal-making and accommodation,” remembered Alton Miller, Harold Washington’s press secretary. “When he realized that that was never going to work, he took off the gloves and his fortunes changed immediately.”

Ultimately, Miller came to see these policy fights and Washington's political campaigns as one and the same.

"The campaign was just a continuation of Council Wars, and Council Wars was itself the after effect of the '83 election," he said. "The racial element of the campaign struggle flowed into the denial of that victory for the next four years, and then it gets tested again four years later."

Gloves Off

In the second half of his first term, Washington confronted his opposition directly, like in this fiery exchange with his chief opponent Edward Vrdolyak on local Chicago news in 1986.

Washington also changed the rules mid-game. In 1986, a year before his reelection, Washington won a federal lawsuit that required that Chicago’s council districts be redrawn, and Washington won the votes he needed in new council elections, effectively ending the Council Wars.

“The parallels with Obama are striking there,” Miller said. The team of advisors who had backed Washington's unexpected victory “were so happy to have him in that office that they thought he’d be able to float above the fight and have surrogates do the fighting for him." The dynamics changed when Washington "realized that if he kept doing that, he might keep them happy, but he wasn’t going to achieve his agenda.”

All the while, Washington and his team were sensitive to the delicate dynamics of confrontation in a racially charged environment.

“He had just an instinct about how an angry black man reads in the media and how important it is to avoid that stereotype of the angry black man,” Miller said. His countermeasure was a pointed rebuttal with a broad smile. It was disarming, and Miller added, it also helped deflect the vitriol. “A smile means you didn’t touch me, you didn’t hurt me, even if it hurt like hell."

Campaigning for Reelection

By the time Harold Washington was back on the ballot before voters, he had consolidated his power base and was moving his agenda through the city council. But the change in his legislative fortunes did not shift the racial lines in the electoral math. Washington won reelection in 1987 with more white support than in his first campaign, but he still didn't crack 25 percent of the white vote.

“Chicagoans once again voted for one of their own kind Tuesday,” the Chicago Tribune declared in its coverage of the 1987 Democratic primary. “Most of the whites voted for the white candidate, former Mayor Jane Byrne, and just about all the blacks stuck with Washington.”

The story was similar in the general election a few weeks later, when Washington won with 53 percent of the vote. A New York Times exit poll of general election voters found that only five percent said race was a consideration in how they voted, but 60 percent said it was ''the biggest reason people voted against'' their candidate.

For Washington, who would die of a massive heart attack within the year, his reelection was not the sweeping victory he’d hoped for.

"It gave him pause, that after everything he had been through and all that he had done to establish his credibility," Miller said, "it still came down to do you want to reelect the black guy or reelect that angry white guy? That’s a gross oversimplification, but on a bad day, that’s how he thought about it."

David Axelrod, who was hired to as a media consultant on the campaign, remembered a similar wistfulness when he told the mayor that he’d won twenty percent of the white vote after the campaign had focused most of its attention on white neighborhoods.

"He kind of smiled wanly," Axelrod recalled to The Nation in 2007, "and said, 'Ain't it a bitch to be a black man in the land of the free and the home of the brave,' and then he went out to give one of the most joyous and rollicking and brilliant press conferences I'd ever seen."

The Lessons for 2012

The national electorate in 2012 is very different from the racial binaries of 1980's Chicago. In 2008, Barack Obama lost white voters with 43 percent to John McCain's 55 percent, but his campaign was buoyed by Latinos, Asians and African Americans' record share of the electorate.

“Chicago is not necessarily a microcosm of the United States of America, and we’re dealing with candidates who don’t necessarily appeal to the same sort of constituencies,” said Kareem Crayton, a professor of law and political scientist at the University of North Carolina who studies race and voting. “Even though the country as a whole is becoming more non-white, there are still significant numbers of white voters in states that really matter.”

And as both Obama and Republicans try to win over those decisive white voters in key states, the fate of Harold Washington’s opponents serves as a cautionary tale. Washington's paradigm-shifting administration ignited passionate opposition against him, but that emotion did not lead to organization.

“As far as controlling the entire government, Harold Washington was a in a stronger position than Obama is, but as far as the disarray of their opposition, it's pretty similar,” said Edward McClelland. “The fact of him being mayor unhinged a lot of people, and I think you can say the same about Obama.”

In 2012, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul continue to stoke suspicion of Mitt Romney’s ability to represent the base of their party, even as the delegate math and the closing ranks of the GOP establishment make his nomination look increasingly inevitable.

Twenty-five years ago, Harold Washington's main rivals in Chicago were a former mayor trying to get back into office and a Democratic council leader who ran on his own Illinois Solidarity Party ticket. They were not political allies.

“There were different white factions fighting for the control of the machine," McClelland said. "And as they fought, Harold Washington swooped it and took it himself. He left them no prize to squabble over.”