Chicago's old guard makes a comeback

Chicago's political future is starting to look a lot like its past. In a raucous City Council meeting that stretched into Wednesday morning, aldermen elected one of their own - Eugene Sawyer - as the city's acting mayor. Although Mr. Sawyer promises to continue the reform policies of Mayor Harold Washington, who died suddenly last Wednesday, it is not at all clear he will do so.

``We can only assume at this point that we're harking back to the old ways of doing business,'' says Don Rose, a political consultant who worked for Mayor Washington.

Some 5,000 demonstrators who flocked to City Hall Tuesday protested what they saw as a return to patronage and machine-style politics. During the council meeting, many demonstrators carried signs saying ``No deals,'' chanted against Sawyer, and waved dollar bills and threw coins, shouting ``How much, Sawyer? How much?''

The arduous meeting brought out an emotional side of Chicago politics not seen since Mayor Washington, the city's first black mayor, came to power in 1983. At least 10 aldermen reported receiving death threats this week. One reportedly wore a bullet-proof vest at the council meeting. A cordon of police separated the City Council members from the gallery of spectators.

Emotions are running high among would-be reformers because Sawyer is arousing suspicions of cronyism. He has long-standing ties to old-line Democrats.

Although he is the longest-serving black alderman and moved quickly to support Washington in 1983, Sawyer has never severed his first political ties.

In the voting this week, for example, 23 white aldermen supported Sawyer. Many of them had been opponents of Mayor Washington. All but six black aldermen and all four Hispanic aldermen voted instead for another black alderman, Timothy Evans. Mr. Evans had served as Washington's floor leader in the City Council.

Not all political observers, however, paint the scene in such black-and-white hues.

``It's more complicated than that,'' says Paul Green, director of the public policy institute at Governors State University in suburban Chicago. Both Evans and Sawyer started as organization Democrats, as did Washington. Thus, Sawyer may simply be representing a more conservative black view within Chicago, rather than caving in to white ethnic politicians, Mr. Green adds.

In any case, the City Council's final 29-19 vote in favor of Sawyer suggests difficult times ahead for the new mayor.

Political observers say Sawyer must at the same time maintain his coalition of support and gain the support of most black voters.

``For Eugene Sawyer to become successful, he's going to have to become very popular,'' Green says. ``Don't underestimate him. He's a survivor.''

This is almost certainly his biggest test. Already the Chicago Sun-Times has dug into his background, finding that Sawyer put 16 relatives and political supporters on public payrolls, including one of his three children. The newspaper said the patronage amounted to at least $542,226 a year.

During the intense 6-hour council meeting, with alderman and demonstrators shouting at various points, Sawyer's knees buckled and he had to be assisted out of the chambers. When he returned after more than an hour's recess, the former schoolteacher sat quietly and said very little except to vote.

``I'm not sure he's got that much strength,'' says Mr. Rose, who believes Sawyer may not have the political power to control the machine Democrats in his new coalition.

``I guess I might be a little bit soft-spoken,'' Sawyer told reporters when asked to compare himself to Washington. But ``I care about the city as he did.... When Harold Washington proclaimed the machine is dead, he was speaking the absolute truth.''

There remains a possibility that the proceedings leading to Sawyer's election will be challenged in court, but City Council parliamentarian Leon Despres says that possibility now seems remote.

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