Chicago Is About to Elect Its First Black Female Mayor

With a runoff election scheduled, NPR reports that the next mayor of Chicago will be “a self-described political outsider who has never run for office or a longtime city alderman and chair of the county’s Democratic Party.” But both are black women, which is a first for the city.

Chicago had its first female mayor in Jane Byrne — who was also the first female mayor of any large city in the United States — when she was elected in 1979. Her immediate successor was Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago. This American Life, which is Chicago-based, did a story on the difficult campaign.

The city’s black population makes up nearly a third of the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Black residents started filling up neighborhoods in the city in droves after the Civil War. Yet it took a century to gain representation in the mayor’s seat. This is in part because the city — while heavily Democratic (a Republican hasn’t been mayor since the ’30s) — often has a highly contested Democratic primary. But whoever wins the Democratic primary generally goes on to win the general election by a wide margin.

Washington and Byrne battled it out in the 1983 and 1987 primaries. But interestingly, after beating the incumbent Byrne in a heavily rigged primary, Washington had a very difficult general election and won by a narrow margin. Much of the Democratic political machinery was thrown over to the Republican side, as it turns out electing someone white was more important than electing a Democrat. Not being part of the Democratic establishment then (in addition to not having the “right” skin color) gave Washington the same kind of uphill battle Bernie Sanders faced, despite popular (though fractured) support.

We’ve come a long way since 1983. Or at least we came a long way from 1983 to 2016 and then, arguably, went part of the way backward again. But either way, it continues to be incredibly important to have representation for politically disenfranchised groups — as black Chicagoans were for most of the 20th century — especially at a time when democracy seems to be under heavy attack in the country at large. The importance of combating voter suppression, exposing election fraud by Republicans, preventing racist violence and violence against women and having a diverse slate of representative voices is difficult to overstate.

Jane Byrne was an inclusive and progressive mayor, making inroads for labor rights, gay rights, black rights and women’s rights from the inside. Harold Washington was more of a disrupter, challenging a political system that was becoming less and less democratic and directly calling out racism during his time working in state, federal and municipal government.

With respect to the current Chicago election, the choice between a political outsider and the Democrat from a political establishment that has been changing internally is a tough one. And it’s not dissimilar to the question of whether Byrne’s or Washington’s approach was more needed at the time. Chicago has a decision to make between two smart, qualified people. But the good news is that either choice will provide the city with a voice and perspective that its residents — and the country — need more of.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Foundation

30 comments

Sabrina Degasperi
Sabrina Degasperi1 months ago

As a woman I'm happy for her.

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Toni W
Toni W1 months ago

TYFS

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Toni W
Toni W1 months ago

TYFS

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Sherry K
Sherry K2 months ago

Noted

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Shirley S
Shirley S2 months ago

Whomever is elected it is to be hoped that she has the capacity to clean up Chicago's crime.

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Alea C
Alea C2 months ago

If I were a Chicago voter I'd vote for the outsider.

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Belinda Lang
Belinda Lang2 months ago

I hope whoever becomes the mayor of Chicago does a good job. Chicago really needs help.

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Margaret F
Margaret F2 months ago

"...electing someone white was more important than electing a Democrat." No justification on that statement (regarding Mayor Washington). And bringing Bernie Sanders into the mix seems odd to me.

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Loredana V
Loredana V2 months ago

I do hope she is a good Mayor: it doesn't matter the colour of your skin, or your gender, if you are not a good person.
Good luck.

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pam w
pam w2 months ago

Good luck to them all!

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