Budget brings truce to Chicago power war

Chicago's ongoing battle between a mayor bent on reform and a City Council majority bent on keeping patronage and the status quo intact is at last easing, on occasion, into a working truce.

The reason: strict necessity. Both sides find they have a stake in forward motion. The most important example to date in the eight-month-old administration of Mayor Harold Washington: the City Council's passage a few days ago of a compromise $1.9 billion budget for 1984.

Though Chicago taxpayers will have to shoulder the burden of $98 million in new taxes to help pay for it, both mayor and council had to give up cherished spending priorities.

Mayor Washington, calling it a ''tortuous'' give-and-take experience that ''no one should have to live through,'' pronounced it a ''magnificent first.'' Major opposition architect Edward Burke, chairman of the council's finance committee, called it an example of ''true democracy.'' Things were far easier, he admitted, in the ''old days'' (of boss-mayor Richard J. Daley), when aldermen took their ''instructions'' from the mayor.

Indeed, the political fireworks coming from City Hall these days are such a departure from the rubber-stamp activity of years past, and the Democratic infighting sounds so partisan, that a few Chicagoans have begun to speak longingly of the need for a more bipartisan approach to city government. They forget that there are no Republicans in sight.

Certainly most aldermen are working harder than in the past. Information is more widely available, and discussions are livelier.

''I think it's good to see a legislative body acting like one,'' says Elinor Elam, a Chicago League of Women Voters vice-president who sits in on City Council committee meetings. ''I've heard people speaking out on this budget whose voices I've never heard before. We talk about this horrible opposition, but we're just not used to the council questioning anything. I think it's healthy.''

''I've never been quite as pessimistic about all this as some others,'' notes City Council Parliamentarian Leon Despres, an independent alderman for 20 years from the same racially mixed Hyde Park neighborhood Harold Washington represented as a US congressman. ''I know that deadlocks between the legislative and executive branch are resolved because both sides have a stake in continuing what's going on. Each side would have suffered if the budget hadn't passed, so they compromised.''

''The majority isn't just going to pack it in and say, 'We go along, Harold,' '' says Larry Bennett, chairman of the political science department at DePaul University. ''But I do think a more cooperative relationship is likely and that we'll see more fluidity between the two factions.''

But a most difficult area may lie ahead: council approval of mayoral appointments to leadership posts of patronage-heavy agencies such as the Chicago Park District. The mayor will try to rally public opinion behind him, but ''compromise will be very difficult,'' Mr. Despres says.

Mayor Washington continues to insist that Edward R. Vrdolyak, leader of the 29-member City Council majority, must step down as leader of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. The mayor has been raising funds to back enough opposition Democratic ward committeemen candidates in the March 20 primary here to oust Mr. Vrdolyak.

But in some wards, several Washington allies are running. That could split votes in Vrdolyak's favor. Few expect the mayor to succeed.

''I don't think he can get enough votes to directly oust Vrdolyak, but he could possibly win enough in marginal wards to make Vdrolyak's situation untenable,'' says Mr. Despres. ''But it will take a lot of organization, some money, and a lot of excitement.''

Washington had hoped that Vrdolyak's recent admission that he had talked politics with top aides at the White House would help in the ouster effort. But, as Professor Bennett observes: ''Vrdolyak weathered it fairly successfully. His power isn't based on having an untarnished reputation, and his strong supporters won't be turned off because he's been playing ball with the Republicans.''

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