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Harold Washington: Chicago's first black mayor

Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor-elect, was a product of the Democratic machine when he entered rough-and-tumble Chicago-style politics at an early age. Decades later, he took on the machine and won a bitter race.

Washington Tuesday beat Republican Bernard Epton, a former state legislator and virtual unknown, getting 51.6 percent of a record-high vote after a heated campaign punctuated by racial slurs and personal attacks.

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'Out of the crucible of this city's most trying election, carried on the tide of the most massive voter turnout, blacks, whites, Latinos, Jews, gentiles, protestants and Catholics of all stripes have joined hands to form a new Democratic coalition and to begin in fact a new Democratic movement,' Washington said as he proclaimed victory.

'Our most important concern at this moment is unity,' said Washington, who dogged by financial and legal problems throughout the campaign.

Washington, who turns 61 on Friday, got his start at the age of 13 by helping his father, a regular Democratic precinct captain for the fabled machine in a South Side ward.

But the machine of Washington's childhood was much different from the machine of the 1980s -- a once invincible mechanism that held most of the black vote in the pockets of white political bosses.

Washington, a U.S. representative with a 'safe' seat in Congress, did not get into the race until after the completion of a successful black voter registration drive he had sought. He then won the Feb. 22 primary, proclaiming victory over Mayor Jane Byrne and Cook County State's Attorney Richard Daley, son of the legendary 'Boss' who ran the city with an iron hand for decades.

'Less than three months ago we started with no money, very little organization, nothing more than a dream -- a dream that a working people's coalition of whites, blacks and Hispanics could be forged,' he said after the primary.

Washington earned a business degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, then attended Northwestern University School of Law. He worked for the city as an assistant corporation counsel from 1954 to 1958 and served as an arbiter for the Illinois Industrial Commission from 1960 to 1964. He was elected state representative in 1965 and served 11 years.

Washington broke with the regular Democratic Party in 1977 by opposing former Mayor Michael Bilandic in a special election after Richard J. Daley's death. He collected only 11 percent of the vote.

City administration loyalists unsuccessfully opposed Washington when he ran for state senate in 1978.

As a protege of the late Rep. Ralph Metcalfe, Washington beat party regular Rep. Bennett Stewart for the 1st Congressional District seat in 1980, carrying 50 percent of the primary vote.

Washington represented one of the nation's largest black districts. He served on the House Education and Labor Committee, the House Government Operation Committee and the House Judiciary Committee. He also was a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Democratic Study Group.

Washington considers his work in Congress on the Voting Rights Act a hallmark and has publicized his support for jobs legislation.

His career was stained in 1972 when he was convicted of failing to file federal income tax returns for four years. He pleaded 'no contest' to the charges and served a one-month prison term followed by three years probation. He also lost his law license for the second time.

His law license was first suspended in 1970 after he was charged with accepting fees for legal work he never performed.

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