In Harold Washington’s first City Council meeting nearly 40 years ago, he suffered a bruising defeat that set the stage for months of struggle to come.

Despite a mandate at the polls, badly gerrymandered ward boundaries left Washington with only 21 supportive votes in the City Council. Washington’s nemesis, Ald. Edward “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, led a cabal of white ward bosses. They won 29 votes.

Washington could do the math, and it wasn’t good for him. He gaveled his first council meeting to order, then quickly adjourned it, storming away in an apparent effort to buy time.

Vrdolyak jumped to the rostrum, grabbed the gavel and began conducting the council’s business. His first official act: placing cronies from the Vrdolyak 29 in control of every committee of the new City Council.


David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative journalism and policy advocacy.