Chicago's battle for power -- an insider's analysis

Is ''the city that works'' in any danger of becoming the city that doesn't? The intense power struggle between Chicago City Council supporters of Mayor Harold Washington and an opposition majority of 29 aldermen may look as if it had pushed the city to the brink of chaos.

Actually, everything from long-scheduled pothole repairs to garbage pickup continues largely as usual.

''Washington can keep the city government operating - there's no question about that,'' insists Chicago lawyer Leon Desprey. Indeed, he says that once a compromise between the mayor and the council majority, led by Cook County Democratic chairman Edward Vrdolyak, is reached and meetings resume, 95 percent of that body's agenda will also be routine.

This assessment comes from a respected 20-year veteran of City Council politics (he was an independent alderman from a racially mixed Hyde Park ward during most of the years the late Richard J. Daley was mayor). Mr. Desprey now watches council proceedings from the somewhat more detached position of council parliamentarian.

Desprey says that the power the council wields in some areas (such as city contracts, zoning, and concessions) is considerable. And he says that Mayor Washington is sure to have a hard time making some of his intended reforms.

The mayor has said he wants to put an end to the lucrative political patronage system that has long dominated politics in this city. That issue is at the heart of the Vdrolyak-Washington fight.

Desprey says the mayor may find it tough to get council approval of his appointees to independent boards, such as the park district and the school board.

''Mayor Daley always kept a tight machine majority on those boards,'' says the former alderman.

Still, he says he thinks the city will be ''very much improved'' in the course of the Washington years but that the united opposition of the Vrdolyak majority may slow the speed of change.

''They're going to make it hard for him, but he's not going to cave in,'' says Desprey. ''I don't think Washington will be a weak mayor. He's slow to act, but I think there's no question about his character and his basic strength.''

Desprey, who has been present during the stormy council meetings of the last three weeks, argues that the mayor ''did what he had to do'' in trying to adjourn meetings and veto the majority action even though a circuit court ruled this week that the mayor's parliamentary maneuverings were illegal.

''Washington had to have time to make the issue more visible and explain his position,'' asserts Desprey. He says the mayor had been too preoccupied by the campaign to round up a City Council majority himself before Vrdolyak unveiled his reorganization plan May 2. ''If the plan had been voted in while the mayor was presiding, Washington would have looked like a real loser.''

As Desprey sees it, there are two key avenues for mayoral action that can effectively skirt the opposition majority in the council. The mayor has strong executive power in some areas including appointment of city department heads and in taking the initiative on city budget matters. He also could veto a number of measures without facing an override that would require 34 of the Council's 50 votes.

''Vetoing can be a very good way of correcting bad policy - we're just not used to it,'' insists Desprey, who notes that one-time Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison sent more than 100 veto messages to the City Council.

Still, Desprey concedes there is a ''great deal at stake'' in the current battle for city government.

''There's an enormous amount of privilege involved,'' he says. ''The motive of the Vrdolyak forces is not race but control of a very rich source of income.''

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