Tuesday, April 29, 2008

We Have Been Here Before, and Prevailed

If the magic of the early primaries has worn off, and you're starting to get discouraged by the ugly plow through Pennsylvania, the annoyance of Rev. Wright, the smug fake-confidence of the McCain campaign, take heart: Democrats have faced a racism-vs-sexism election before, and not only survived but emerged victorious.

In Slate, Diane Marie Amann reminds us.

Twenty-five years ago today Chicago made history when Harold Washington was sworn in as mayor.

The 42d person to lead America's Second City, Washington, who was serving in Congress at the time of his election, became the 1st African-American to hold that position. In a bruising primary, he'd bested the incumbent, Chicago's only woman mayor, Jane M. Byrne, as well as Richard M. Daley, presumptive heir to the seat his father had held for 2 decades. Still more bruises followed in the contest against Republican State Rep. Bernard Epton, as the website of the local CBS affiliate reported:

90 percent of white voters in Chicago, including ward bosses, turned their back on the Democratic Party. The atmosphere of the city became divisive and hostile in ways that would be difficult to imagine ... a quarter century later.
... It became a campaign of slurs, accusations, charges and counter-charges, and a contest dominated by the issue of race. ...


Emblematic of the ugliness of the 1983 campaign was a button that my relative saw worn openly on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange: Beneath the circle-with-slash that's the universal sign of "NO" was a green watermelon against a black background.

And yet, that year, Chicago began to rewrite its history. Citywide turnout on Election Day was nearly 88%, the highest ever. In the end a coalition of African-American, Latina/o, and "white 'lakefront liberal' voters" elected "Harold," as supporters called him, by a slim margin.

Washington's 4 years as mayor -- he died from a heart attack in 1987 -- were landmark. The city fared as it had under other mayors. That fact of competence eroded Chicago's entrenched ugliness. And though Daley eventually did become mayor, his way of running things proved far more inclusive than that of his father.

Harold's breakthrough, moreover, inspired a generation -- not only this onetime lakefront law student, but also a man who came to the city in the '80s to work with poor people. That man was Barack Obama, now himself a Member of Congress, now taking his own bruising as he endeavors to repeat in the national arena what Harold achieved in Chicago.

Barack is still, as TPM reports, meeting every apparent campaign-killer with a response that just strengthens his campaign.

My political memory goes back to JFK, and I'm telling you, I have never in my life seen a politician who grows stronger and more popular with every blow, who more effectively turns every attack into an argument in his favor, than does Obama. Not Jack, not Bobby, not "teflon" Ray-Gun himself, not even Billy the Comeback Kid.

At his very lowest point since New Hampshire, on the very day he was having to repudiate Rev. Wright, Obama achieved yet another unexpected victory: an endorsement from Blue Dog Conservative Kentucky Representative Ben Chandler.

It's going to be a long six months to November 4, and to survive we're going to have to pace ourselves. Don't panic, don't give up, and don't forget we've been here before, and prevailed.

Cross-posted at BlueGrassRoots.