Chicago Mayor still struggles to tame a rebellious City Council

Has City Council resistance to the political reform efforts of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington forced ''the city that works'' to become ''a city on hold''? Not yet. Services continue. Hundreds of routine items are voted on without controversy at each City Council meeting. ''It only appears to be a stalemate - the government is actually functioning pretty well,'' says independent Alderman Martin Oberman. And in the mayor's more than five months in office, he has managed to score some reform victories.

Though his cabinet appointments have been slow in coming, and slow in netting City Council approval, none has been blocked. And the courts this fall upheld the mayor's firing of 734 city employees (out of a work force of 41,000) for budget reasons. Numerous studies have long agreed that the city is overstaffed. Mayor Washington, the city's first black mayor, has also limited the size of his campaign contributions from those doing business with the city and has opened up the decisionmaking process in several areas by executive order.

''Many of the things that were wrong with this government - the secrecy, the sweetheart deals, the contracts - were wrong because of the way the executive branch was run,'' notes Mr. Oberman, who has backed several of the mayor's moves so far.

Some political observers credit the mayor's challenge to the City Council majority, led by Cook County Democratic chairman Edward Vrdolyak, with prompting aldermen to take a new interest in policy issues. During the late Richard J. Daley's reign, they say, many aldermen simply rubber-stamped the mayor's decisions.

''There's more concern about broader issues than there used to be,'' says University of Illinois political scientist Michael Preston. ''It slows the process down, but it's also more open to scrutiny than it has been.''

''There's been a real about-face in attitude - some who have been sitting on their hands are asking questions,'' adds Larry Bennett, chairman of DePaul University's political science department.

Still, the guerrilla warfare between the Washington and Vrdolyak forces has been growing more intense. It has touched issues from the smallest procedural point to whether or not both Democrats will support the same presidential candidate. Though leading candidate Walter Mondale is expected to get the nod of the Cook County Democratic Committee this week, Mayor Washington, who expects to be a delegate at the party convention in 1984, has warned that anyone with Mr. Vrdolyak's support risks losing the mayor's support. Mr. Washington, who quietly has been removing some of Vrdolyak's closer allies from city departments, insists that the council leader, whom he accuses of fomenting ''racism,'' must be stripped of his party leadership post if city blacks are ever again to support the local Democratic Party.

Some political observers here are concerned that if the two camps cannot be brought together to work for the city's common good, Chicagoans could be in for four years of little forward legislative progress and limited business investment.

Recently, the city's bond rating was lowered to a triple B-plus from an A-minus by Standard & Poor's Corporation. And the bickering between Mayor Washington and Mr. Vrdolyak, who worked hard against the mayor's election, has left some business leaders, particularly those outside the city, in a quandary as to who really is in charge.

Many of the issues tackled so far by the City Council have been procedural. One of the earliest substantive tests as to whether or not the two sides can work together will come later this year when the mayor submits - and the council must approve - a 1984 city budget. ''That will be Washington's first major hurdle in getting something done,'' notes DePaul's Dr. Bennett.

What are the prospects for a working rapport? Most veteran observers of Chicago politics say both sides are dug in and that neither is likely to give up without a struggle.

''In my judgment, the differences are really irreconcilable because they're fighting for something very basic: power,'' notes Louis Masotti, director of Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs. ''Vrdolyak represents the last vestige of the (famed Chicago political) machine, and I can't imagine why he would capitulate.''

Still, Dr. Masotti says he thinks there is a possibility that the mayor, who has been gaining support in white and Hispanic areas of the city, according to recent polls, could muster enough sympathy from candidates running for alderman in the March 20 Democratic ward committeeman primary to oust Vrdolyak as party chairman.

Though few fault the mayor's political strategy in his efforts to try to gain control of the City Council, there are those who fault his choice of words. Washington's manner is direct and ranges from serious to facetious - and reporters don't always know which is which. Among other things, he accuses Vrdolyak of ''breathing fire and racism'' into the city, and of being a ''scurrilous, low-life . . . barroom brawler.''

''I don't think there's any question but that Vrdolyak made Washington's election harder than it would have been . . . so he doesn't really need to paint him as the devil,'' Bennett notes.

''I can't criticize the substance of what Washington is doing,'' says Alderman Oberman. ''If I have any concern, it's that the rhetoric could be toned down. It might have a calming effect.''

In the meantime, however, the mayor has earned kudos for the steps he has taken to end a city political system in which votes have long been controlled with patronage (jobs) serving as the reward and power base.

''I think he's made some strides, but there hasn't been substantial progress, '' notes Illinois's Dr. Preston. ''Patronage, as we have known it in Chicago, is now being held in abeyance. It's being modified, and I'm not sure yet what will take its place.''

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