We Have Runoff Elections Because of the 1983 Mayoral Race

Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle are posed to make Chicago history as one of them will become Chicago’s second elected African American mayor, second woman mayor, and first African American woman mayor. The two candidates will face off in a runoff election on April 2. If Lightfoot wins, she will also be Chicago’s first openly gay mayor.

In 1983, reluctant outsider candidate Harold Washington achieved the impossible when he defeated incumbent mayor Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary, a victory that relied on record numbers of new African American voters and a two-way split of the white vote between Byrne and then State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley. In a city that hadn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1927, Washington narrowly beat white candidate Bernard Epton 51-48, becoming the first African American mayor of Chicago.

Washington’s time as mayor was one of the most contentious in Chicago history, as he faced continual opposition from “the Eddies” (Burke and Vyrdolyak) and their contingent of 29 aldermen in the City Council that held the city in gridlock by opposing anything the mayor wanted.

In the 1980s, Chicago still used a traditional primary/general election structure for all elections. Here, the general election is usually a formality, with Democrats winning 70+ percent of the vote. After Washington’s election, the white power base in the city council began plotting to prevent Washington’s re-election, adopting a technique used to suppress black candidates in the South: runoffs. Using a runoff system, the final election would almost certainly be between two Democrats, and African-Americans wouldn’t produce a large enough voting block to outnumber white voters. The system was enacted by the Illinois General Assembly in 1995. Read more about this saga of Chicago history in Chicago Magazine.

Here’s a look back at Washington’s historic election in 1983.

In a segment from Bill Statmet’s documentary, “Chicago Politics: A Theatre of Power,” he captures the excitement of Washington’s first campaign for office, when the vote was split between the three Democratic candidates: incumbent Jane Byrne, then State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, and U.S. Representative Washington.

You can watch the full documentary on Media Burn

Washington’s policies spoke to African Americans, who turned out in record numbers to vote. In this clip, Marion Stamps talks at Cabrini-Green about the importance of voting for Washington. 

This is one of Washington’s many ads that aired before the Democratic primary. Many of the ads, not just Washington’s, attacked the other candidates integrity and policies. This ad in particular criticizes Chicago’s broken political machine. 

His campaign ads continued into the general election as Washington was attacked by Republican candidate Bernard Epton. This ad features Studs Terkel combatting that negativity and telling voters why Washington is the right choice for Chicago. 

View more of the political ads from the 1983 mayoral race on Media Burn.



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