Few local elections in modern American history generated more heat than Rep. Harold Washington’s run for Chicago mayor in 1983. That winter, Washington became the city’s first African American mayor following a brutal campaign fraught with racial tension.
We were the campaign’s media consultants, and earlier this year revealed for the first time that in the final hours before Election Day we disobeyed direct orders from the campaign’s governing body and ran a television spot we didn’t have permission to air. It was advertising that we believe played a significant role in Washington’s historic victory.
With tracking polls showing us several points behind in the closing stretch of the campaign, we created the provocative TV spot. The campaign leadership refused to allow us to run it, even though polling data indicated it could get us the votes we needed. This was before the development of systematic TV spot testing, so decisions about which spots to run were based on the political judgment of those in charge.
Four days before the election, we defied our superiors and ordered the spot to be aired 36 hours before the polls opened, when it would be too late for anyone to take it down. Not only did we run it, we did our best to ensure just about every voter in Chicago saw the ad that some within the campaign so adamantly fought against. We never told anyone (until this year) that we were actually responsible for the ad making it to air, while pinning the blame on TV station error.
Washington went on to win a narrow victory, and post-election polling indicated that the positive outcome was likely the result of our mutiny. Campaigns have changed a great deal since our act of defiance, but the ethical implications of what we did might just be more relevant than ever as campaign politics is increasingly decentralized and decision-making is no longer always in the hands of a tiny cadre of consultants. To help you understand our motivations, here’s the full story of our secret rebellion.
A City Divided
The 1983 mayoral election in Chicago was all about race. The city was 40 percent African American, with the Latino vote in single digits. The white powers-that-be had limited black political influence and enforced strict, albeit de facto, residential segregation, leaving blacks confined to immense ghettos on the city’s South and West Sides.
City government was run by Chicago’s vaunted political machine, which between 1955 and 1976 had been controlled by Mayor Richard J. Daley with little opposition. His successors were lesser lights, and in 1983, one of them, Mayor Jane Byrne, was up for reelection. Her lack of popularity encouraged Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, then Cook County State’s Attorney (equivalent to a D.A.) to run against her.
Meanwhile, on the South Side, a plan coalesced within a loose group of community activists who had first come together 20 years earlier to support the Southern civil rights movement and who later had collaborated on local housing and education struggles. They encouraged a newly elected black congressman and long-time state legislator to once again seek the mayor’s office (he had run twice before as a token candidate). They promised Harold Washington that if he ran again, they could organize an “80 for 80” campaign, that is, produce an 80 percent black turnout that would vote 80 percent for him.
Initially, the idea had been to continue demonstrating black electoral power in hopes of gaining more bargaining chips with which to counter decades of racial discrimination. But when young Daley got into the race, it was suddenly transformed into a serious effort to elect Washington.
The arithmetic was obvious. If two white candidates, Byrne and Daley, evenly split the white vote, it was possible for Washington to win a 40 percent plurality in the Democratic primary with only the votes of African Americans.
Chicago was a Democratic city, with roughly 80 percent Democratic registration. The last time it had elected a Republican mayor was in 1927. Therefore, the winner of the Democratic primary almost automatically became the mayor, and the Democratic primary could be won with a plurality. Needing a larger campaign budget than he had ever previously raised, Washington turned to the city’s black business establishment.
These wealthy businessmen had supported African American candidates in the past, but only for spots on the city council, school board and state legislature. Unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the larger budgets required in a citywide race, they agreed to fund the campaign but on condition that they form a finance committee that would retain the right to approve all major expenses. It was this finance committee’s power that we would later choose to so blatantly defy in the campaign’s final hours.
Setting the strategy
The primary was scheduled for February 1983. In late November 1982, we were hired to run the campaign’s communications with Bill producing the advertising and Marilyn running the press operation. We were both veterans of the civil rights movement ourselves, and as former Chicagoans were acquainted with many of the city’s black leaders. We were deeply committed to black empowerment, so for us Washington was more than just another client.
Our first act was to get Patrick Caddell and his young assistant, Paul Maslin, hired to do a baseline poll. The results were a surprise. Two and a half months out, Mayor Jane Byrne was carrying more black votes than Washington, and had a commanding lead citywide. After decades of racism, black voters just didn’t believe that a black candidate could win. They thought young Daley was a greater threat to their interests than Byrne, so they were supporting her over him.