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A look back: Mayor Harold Washington discusses gay rights
by Tracy Baim.
2010-12-01

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The following interview with Mayor Harold Washington ran in the Sept. 4, 1986 edition of Windy City Times. We're running it now as part of the Windy City Times' 25th anniversary year, and also as a look-back at Washington's response to gay issues as Mayor Richard M. Daley serves his last term. Our 2010 interview with Mayor Daley ran in last week's Windy City Times. Washington was re-elected to a second term in 1987, but he died Nov. 25, 1987. Ald. David Orr replaced him short-term, and then Ald. Eugene Sawyer was selected by the City Council to serve as mayor until an election could be held in 1989. Sawyer lost that primary election to Richard M. Daley, who went on to win the general election that spring.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington is approaching his first re-election campaign. Given the highly charged atmosphere of Chicago politics, the race has already begun to heat up. He will be facing former Mayor Jane Byrne and possibly State's Attorney Richard Daley. As during the last election, racial issues will be a major factor in this campaign. In fact, racial motives are already being claimed in the push for a November referendum on a non-partisan election.

Washington's record shows his long-time support of gay and lesbian rights and rights for all people, and he has supported such legislation not only in the City Council but in other legislative bodies. However, despite his position as Mayor and despite having 25 of 50 aldermen on "his" side of the City Council, the non-discrimination based on "sexual orientation" amendment to the city's Human Rights Code failed 30-18 ( two absent ) on July 29. Sixteen of the "yes" votes were from Washington's 25 aldermen.

In an interview with Windy City Times Aug. 21, Washington discussed his views of gay and lesbian civil rights, why the rights ordinance failed, AIDS funding, gay and lesbian political clout, and his campaign for re-election as mayor.

Washington seemed at ease and matter-of-fact in discussing his policies on civil rights. However, the interview took place during the intense battle over the non-partisan election bid, and his mind seemed pinned on that issue—angered at what he calls a racist attempt to removing him from office. Washington, the man, supports civil rights. Washington, the Mayor, said he can promise us nothing, but that he will work toward obtaining civil rights for all people.

Following are excerpts from his interview with Windy City Times.

Windy City Times: Why do you think the ordinance failed July 29?

Harold Washington: I'm not being facetious, it just didn't have enough votes.

WCT: Do you think it would have passed earlier in the month had Joseph Cardinal Bernardin not released his statement [ opposing the legislation ] ?

Washington: My guess is that based upon a non-scientific head count, it was close to passage. At that point I couldn't guarantee ... there were some swing votes in there. Clearly, the Cardinal's position had something to do with the attrition.

WCT: What were some of the reasons you couldn't pull in line all 25 of "your" aldermen in support of the ordinance? What were some of the reasons some of them did not come forward in support?

Washington: To be very blunt about it, it was never the most popular legislation that came down the pike and many of the 25 in our group were borderline cases in the first place. As you probably know, there's a strong opposition to civil rights for gays in the black community and a small segment of the religious community, and that was visited upon some of the members. There was a hodgepodge of reasons. What were there, 18 votes ... and 16 came from our side.

WCT: What did you say to some of the aldermen on your side between July 9 [ the original date the ordinance was set for vote. but one day after Bernardin's letter on the bill ] and July 29? What were some of your lobbying techniques? Did you actively try to get passage?

Washington: I said I'd bring down Thor on their heads if they didn't vote for it. I used every technique one could use on those matters ... depending upon the person. There are some issues on which you can bring pressure and some you cannot. It's a question of judgment on which you judge to do that, and I feel it was not one to do that.

WCT: For example, on unpopular taxes, there's a way to bring people in line, but on moral issues ... .

Washington: You can make that distinction, it may not be on that line. It depends on what issue, it depends on the vulnerability of particular aldermen, the strength of opposition or support in his ward, his own proclivities, how he feels about those, his commitment to civil rights, there's a whole varied checklist of things. It's not a simple matter to say he did it for this reason or that reason. That's the art of legislation. When you get right down to it it's very difficult to explain a position or write a treatise. We did what we could.

WCT: After it failed, you said this was not your bill, that the aldermen voted their conscience. Can you explain?

Washington: It was not my legislation, it had been around for what, 10 years? No, I was not the author of it, but I supported it. When I say one voted their conscience, that's a phrase that covers a gamut of motivations which you cannot articulate, which I've been trying to explain.

WCT: With the exception of Ald. Marlene Carter, the aldermen on your side who did not vote for the ordinance were people who were in office before you were elected, and that may have influenced some of the votes.

Washington: I'd hadn't heard about that ... give me some names.

WCT: Wilson Frost, Marion Humes and others that may have been aligned with [ Mayor Jane ] Byrne before you came into office.

Washington: I never made that distinction. I never analyzed it that way. The newer aldermen, people like the black aldermen, they're inclined to support it because they come with a certain sort of, shall we say, progressive stripe. They may not be hung up on civil rights.

WCT: What about Marlene Carter?

Washington: I couldn't speak for Marlene Carter.

WCT: Have you talked to any of the aldermen since the vote, specifically Carter?

Washington: As to why they didn't vote? No, I haven't.

WCT: Do you consider this an important enough issue towards the next election to try to convince some of the people you support that this is an issue?

Washington: I consider every issue of civil rights important. It transcends this issue, it's a part of me. I didn't put on this coat because I am mayor. I consider myself one of the foremost authorities and proponents and advocates of civil rights in this country. I never made any distinction between groupings. Yes, it's a commitment to me.

WCT: Do you think that [ your support of gay and lesbian civil rights ] is going to hurt you in the next election?

Washington: Why should it?

WCT: Some people, for example at [ Ald. Ed Smith's ] 28th Ward meeting the week before the vote said they will work against anybody that supports the ordinance.

Washington: I'm not concerned about that. I think people in the main who support me are sophisticated enough not to judge me on the basis of one posture which they do not approve of. I doubt that very strongly.

WCT: What about some of the Evangelical ministers? Rev. Hiram Crawford ... .

Washington: ... Don't misgauge the vehemence of Rev. Crawford, and translate that to other ministers of the cloth.

WCT: In Ed Smith's ward, there were several Evangelical ministers [ who said they would be against anyone who would support gay rights ] ...

Washington: I know those men ...

WCT: You don't think it's going to influence the election at all?

Washington: I don't think it's going to be any major issue among those people who are inclined to support human rights.

WCT: On Cardinal Bernardin. What went on in the meeting you had with him before the vote? Was there any agreement as far as you supporting an amendment to the bill?

Washington: I don't want to go into my discussion with Cardinal Bernardin. Suffice to say his posture publicly was more or less same that he said to me.

WCT: What role do you perceive your gay and lesbian liaison, Kit Duffy, as serving in relation to your administration and the gay and lesbian community? Do you see that role expanding at all in the next few years?

Washington: Yes. There is a question of education, of one becoming more familiar with certain segments of the community. For example, I'm not an authority on Mexicans, or Puerto Ricans, gays and lesbians ... I'm not even an authority on black people. So I have liaisons who are constantly informing me as to just what should and should not be done in terms of various people's rights.

WCT: Are those volunteers? Is Kit Duffy a volunteer?

Washington: In the main, yes. [ Duffy's liaison role is entirely volunteer. ] I find those are the most valuable. Those who do it because of commitment are more inclined to do it, from where I'm sitting, with a degree of sincerity, than those who do it for pay. That may sound unfair. The question of gay rights and gay problems, of how police respond to known gays and lesbians within their own community, the arrogance and brutality, these kinds of things are disturbing. And they're subtle sometimes, you don't always see them. You need someone on top of these kinds of things. With the advent of AIDS and things of that nature, obviously one must be abreast of them, and you have to have someone who is aware of them. It's nothing unusual to effect a liaison with a particular constituency. We will continue to do that in the same sense that we brought in for the first time a Commission for Women. That was never done in the City of Chicago. I've known women all my life, and I consider myself an authority on women, but on a broader scale, I don't really understand the concerns of women. Same with Hispanics, we were the first to do that. We have an Asians task force. Our purpose is to reach out to alienated groups, for whatever reason it is, try to bring them involved with the government, under the protection of government, which includes ultimately civil rights.

WCT: On your Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues: Have you had much contact with them? What role do you see them as serving?

Washington: I suppose it's being ever-expanded. I don't have any day-to-day direct contact with them. I talk mainly with Duffy on matters of this ... .

WCT: On Duffy, what about the statement by [ Rev. James.P. ] Roache [ vicar general and moderator of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago ] asking you for an apology for Duffy on something that was said in a private session. Has something come of that?

Washington: I got the letter, belatedly, unfortunately, and the press approached me before I had seen the letter, and I thought they were joking at first ... I simply said I saw no reason why anyone should apologize for a statement made in private. Whether it's a member of the cloth or not. I'm not going to get embroiled in that, that's a personal matter. In the public life, if you're involved in a controversial matter and your feelings are hurt, you have to take care of it yourself.

WCT: Can you explain your Executive Order [ a reinforcement of a Byrne order which protected gays in city employment, but which Washington added enforcement capabilities to ] ? It was soon after you got into office, but it wasn't really made that public. What does it cover?

Washington: I don't recall all that. [ At this point, a Mayor's staff person agreed to get a copy of the Executive Order. ]

WCT: On AIDS funding. Can you explain how you view the disease in this city? Relative to other cities with similar numbers of AIDS cases per population, Chicago's economic reaction has been much smaller and much slower.

Washington: I understand we're third highest in terms of patient dollars. Some of those dollars are not obvious. For example, year before last it was $100,000, last year $200,000 ... but if you count the services over and above that it would go to a much higher bracket. But even at that, I understand we're about third. It may be a poor third ...

Our problem's not there [ with appropriations ] , our problem is very bluntly how to best utilize whatever dollars ... I must confess to you I'm not satisfied we know that answer … . We're going to try and find out. We're coming to a budgetary period now and we want to know some answers. It is a matter that needs to be addressed I think more forcefully, and we'll do that. In the area of counseling and prevention, I think we've at least broken the ice. We're reassessing the whole thing right now.

WCT: What do you think are some of the best ways to spend money on AIDS? Are you at all familiar with the issue?

Washington: Yes, I'm familiar with the issue … . But I'm not an authority … . Education, research, direct services provided, it depends and varies with the neighborhood you're talking about. In certain parts of the Hispanic and black communities it's a tragic, tragic sight. And because the institutions therein, the economics therein, it's more difficult to provide services for such people no matter what the cause or what the problem. Suffice to say we're reassessing this whole business. I'm not satisfied ... that anybody really knows how to go about this problem. I don't have the slightest idea, and I'd like for somebody to tell me, what is the real role of the city ... in terms of dollars, in terms of commitment. We want to be involved in part of the solution to the problem. But I haven't seen anybody who knew; everybody I've talked to is somewhat vague, all haughty when you don't understand as much about the problem as they do. There seems to be some resentment on the part of those who have a strong commitment to AIDS, and those who are trying to learn. It doesn't turn me off, but it does upset me. I would be delighted if someone could direct me. Or my staff.

WCT: As far as with Jane Byrne. Do you think having the vote taken July 29 has helped you in relation to Jane Byrne's campaign? As far as having an actual vote taken during your administration.

Washington: Oh, comparisons can be odious, but whenever you compare me to Jane Byrne, I'm gonna pick up some votes. I mean, the lady lacks substance ... .

WCT: On the ordinance, she did not come up with any stance ...

Washington: You're not surprised are you? [ Laughter. ]

WCT: Do you think that means you may pick up votes in the gay community?

Washington: I couldn't speak [ for the gay community ] ... I wouldn't presume upon the gay community insofar as their political views are concerned. Insofar as the constituency, obviously I wish to appeal to them as a public servant, to represent them as I do other constituencies. Where I stand right now [ with gays and lesbians ] I don't really know.

WCT: In your campaign for mayor, do you think one of things you can promise is passage of gay and lesbian civil rights?

Washington: As far as passage of it? No, I wouldn't lie. I don't do things like that. I tell people I will work toward, I will do my best ... I don't tell anyone I will pass something that I don't know I can do that. I'm candid to a fault ... but it pays. That's where you establish credibility, and that's where you avoid the contradictions that politicians fall into.

WCT: Do you think there are other things you can do differently [ next time ] as far as making passage more possible?

Washington: It's possible, yes. We have to reassess this whole business of why it didn't pass. It's not going to be easy. There seems to be a national trend against civil rights matters for the protections of gays and lesbians. We need to look at others cities. We need to think hard about the role of the various religious organizations and their opposition to it; it's not going to be simple. We need to take a hard look at it and renew our attempts to get it passed.

WCT: In 1985 at the Gay and Lesbian Pride Rally, you had said that one of the major blockages to getting the ordinance passed was the Vrdolyak "29" [ block of aldermen ] because you couldn't get anything through. … And then this past Gay and Lesbian Pride Rally, you said you were going to work 100 percent behind it and it appears that there might be a much more solid chance, because you had a majority, with your vote. What do you say to the people you told in 1985 that Vrdolyak was the main obstacle to it? What was the main obstacle this time?

Washington: [ In 1985 ] Vrdolyak wasn't the obstacle, the 29 was. That's still true. They only provided two votes. Two votes, one from [ Jerry ] Orbach and one from [ Bernie ] Hansen, for obvious reasons [ they have heavily gay wards ] . If you look at the make-up of the wards from whence the others come, you can draw your own conclusions as to why you got no support. You have a tough job. The mayor's not going to wave a magic wand with all of his I power and drive and commitment and get it passed. It's going to be a tough, tough job.

WCT: You had said [ before the July 29 vote ] that you possibly agreed to amendments to the bill. Is that true?

Washington: To say I agreed to amendments, no, that's not true. What I did say is that the Cardinal had raised an issue which had to be dealt with, that it might well be the area of accommodation, which could get it passed, or some such euphemism.

WCT: Do you think an amendment, with a religious exemption, might have created a two-tiered system of civil rights ... that gays and lesbians would still not have full civil rights?

Washington: No, the amendment didn't go to exempting anything, it went to explaining, clarifying what the ordinance did.

WCT: One of the proposed amendments exempted the church.

Washington: No, I was not addressing that [ amendment ] .

WCT: Getting to the personal attacks leveled at you by the Chicago Tribune ... what was your reaction to those? [ The Tribune, in an article and an editorial, reported "innuendos" which questioned the mayor's sexual orientation. ]

Washington: Attacks? Would you testify to that, that they were attacks?

WCT: I would say that they were attacks. I wouldn't say that they were negative necessarily, but they were done in the light of being an attack. Of course I wouldn't consider sexual orientation an attack. What was your reaction to that? We considered it an attack because they were doing it in a negative light. We don't consider anybody's sexual orientation negative, but the way they were doing it ...

Washington: I might add that I consider it the same way. They were attacks in the sense that they were trying to give an impression of me that wasn't true. I'm a black man, I don't want to he called white. Nothing wrong with being white, they tell me. [ Laughter. ]

WCT: As far as reacting to [ the Tribune ] ... you just let it go?

Washington: In this business, you better. You wonder about the minds of men, how low they'll stoop. But you can't get hung up on that. In this business if you're a successful male politician, somewhere along the line some slug is gonna call you something you ain't. It doesn't make you happy.

Why'd you ask me that question?

WCT: Because we considered it a very immature reaction. That [ the Tribune ] has not done [ similar "reporting" ] on other politicians in this city or state. We considered that an irrelevant attack on the civil rights ordinance, and on you.

Washington: That shows you, no matter how big you get, if you're black you got some serious problems in this country, which explains, I hope it explains, my own commitment to civil rights for everyone. I don't need any elections to support gays and their rights. I don't need an election to be a defender and supporter of women and Hispanics. It's natural.

WCT: As far as the election next February, are you going to be targeting the gay and lesbian community? Campaigning, using gay and lesbian civil rights as a major issue as part of your campaign?

Washington: Should I?

WCT: Of course I think you should, I think we do have a force in this city to be reckoned with. Do you consider the voting power of the gay and lesbian community powerful enough to be looking for?

Washington: Certainly. I wasn't shocked when [ Sen. Edward ] Kennedy, [ Sen. Gary ] Hart and others went to the gay and lesbian convention four or five years ago. It's pretty clear that the gay and lesbian community is becoming a potent—of course it's not there yet—political force in this country, and anyone who doesn't recognize it is not going to be in office, it's just that simple. That's the crass aspect of it.

WCT: One final thing, Jane Byrne says she supports gays and lesbians, too. What can you do differently than Byrne would do for us?

Washington: If she supported, why did she disappear? Because the Cardinal spoke? She couldn't have any more respect for the Cardinal than I do.

Also please see The Daley dynasty to end, by Tracy Baim, Nov. 17, 2010 www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php.


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