Reform-minded Chicago mayor finds the going tough in City Council

Will Chicago Mayor Harold Washington become the political reformer he wants to be? The current consensus of most political experts here: maybe but probably not.

The reason: Few with power willingly part with it. In order to make many of the changes he promised, the mayor needs a majority behind him on the 50-member City Council. But a large number of aldermen would lose clout if they agree to the mayor's reforms.

''I don't look for a great deal of reform,'' says Dr. Milton Rakove, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. ''Maybe you're going to get rid of the old Chicago machine but you're not going to get rid of politics. It just shifts to a different level. . . . There are a lot of private industry as well as city jobs at stake.''

Indeed, Chicago Alderman Mattias (Paddy) Bauler's explanation of the 1955 election defeat of reform candidate Mayor Martin Kennelly - who had tried to promote the civil service system for city jobs - appears to be as timely as ever. ''Chicago ain't ready for reform yet,'' he said.

But one difference in 1983 is that this city's first black mayor, who vowed throughout his campaign to end political patronage and other ''abuses'' of city government, won the election.

In his spellbinding inauguration speech less than two weeks ago, Washington drew the most enthusiastic audience response when he pledged to cut city jobs and spending back to ''sinew and bone'' and put a freeze on salaries and new hiring.

But that was three days before the majority of the City Council, led by Cook Country Democratic chairman and alderman Edward (Fast Eddie) Vrdolyak, tried to take matters into their own hands. By working the phones beforehand, he forged a coalition of 29 aldermen who voted (in what the mayor insists was an illegal ''rump'' session) to appoint themselves chairmen of 29 council committees and to strengthen the powers of chairmen and committee majorities. Though seven blacks recently held council leadership positions, the Vrdolyak majority voted only three blacks to minor chairmanships.

In a series of stormy meetings since, variously adjourned, vetoed, and otherwise legally challenged by the mayor, the City Council's ''Old Guard'' held to its case. It staged a threatrical display of yelling and shouting that many observers have now come to look on as normal for the Windy City's peculiarly blustery brand of politics. At one point aldermen, anticipating that the lights and microphones might be shut off as a silencing move, showed up with candles and bullhorns.

As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko puts it: ''When it comes to craziness in local politics, we're No. 1.''

The show of shows going on in City Hall over the last week and a half can actually trace its roots to Washington's direct, no-nonsense approach in going after reform. Another factor was his failure to move earlier and more successfully to recruit the five extra votes (beyond the 21 he knew he could count on) needed for a voting majority. Many political analysts here say he underestimated his need for smooth workings with the City Council.

At a ''unity'' breakfast with fellow Democrats after his April 12 election, Washington flatly told Mr. Vrdolyak that he could not continue to chair the council's powerful Building and Zoning Committee or remain the council's president protem. As Vrdolyak told it later, that news was tantamount to a declaration of ''war'' and an attempt by a mayor who would be ''king'' to take away his ''dignity'' and ''manhood.'' He opted to fight back. If the mayor could do this to him, he reasoned with his colleagues, why not the others?

Representatives of both factions are now trying to negotiate a compromise that at least may increase the number of black committee chairmen. Everyone here is confident that some kind of deal will be struck. But many political observers remain concerned that the racial overtones involved in the split (all blacks have sided with Washington and the majority includes 28 whites and one Hispanic) could further polarize the city. Some also are concerned that any continuing power struggle at the top could lead to compromises that might jeopardize the financial health of the city. Some argue that such power struggles led to Cleveland's default in 1978.

Dr. Michael Preston, a University of Illinois political scientist who teaches a seminar on Chicago politics, is one of the few political observers who say Washington's push for reform has not necessarily been lost in the current council fracas.

''I think it's still possible to have reform - but not tomorrow,'' he says. ''This was a humiliating early loss for Washington but he knew he had to fight, rather than give in like (former Mayor) Jane Byrne, if he wanted to survive. . . . Confrontation can also be positive and he can use this situation politically to improve his image.''

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