When Ambitions Become Legacy

Clerk David Orr
November 30, 2007
News Article

In politics, it is natural to speculate about when life becomes history. Is it as soon as you look back on it? The next day, or the next year? Or is it when you've lost something? On rare occasion, we catch a glimpse of history as we live it.

Twenty years ago, when my friend Harold Washington asked me to become his Vice Mayor, I was honored. But I never expected to serve as Mayor upon his death. Those days were a fleeting period of mourning when Harold Washington's ambitions were transformed into his legacy.

Ironically, during his administration, many of Washington's contemporaries didn't recognize his stature. They were far slower to see it than today' s tourists from Munich or Dubuque, who find his name emblazoned on our grand public library. From Harold's inauguration in 1983 to six months before his death-20 years ago on November 25-half or more of the city council sought to undermine his pledge to reform Chicago.

The young man who evolved into Harold Washington-from precinct captain to Congressman to Mayor-became personally charismatic and fiercely visionary. By the time he took the helm of this city everyone around him felt him changing the world even as he passed through it.

Mayor Washington proved his greatness by succeeding despite his opponents. He defied business as usual with his veto. When he gained a workable council majority, he moved swiftly, appointing energetic policy-makers to boards and commissions. He made a commitment to improve all neighborhoods, and serve every race and ethnicity.

By the time Harold died and I briefly presided as mayor he had forced a shift in the political landscape. From thereon, candidates had to take a stand on poverty, civil rights and police brutality. Reporters had to school themselves in the city's racial geography. Contractors had to grapple with affirmative action.

It was terrible to lose such a tremendous leader and friend, but Harold ·survives in more than the brick and mortar monuments that bear his name. He lives on in more than the photos that capture his warmth.

Unprecedented numbers of African-Americans registered and voted because he inspired them. Generations of children have more opportunities than their parents, because of his work in Chicago and Congress. Local voters truly believe that government should serve people instead of special interests. Harold raised the bar for all of us. His legacy is broader than his smile, from higher expectations for politicians, to individual lives better lived.


David Orr,
Cook County Clerk