Eugene Sawyer

Forty-Forth Mayor of the City of Chicago (1987-89)

On the eve of Thanksgiving in 1987, Mayor Harold Washington died at his desk of a heart attack. That same day, the process of choosing his successor began.1 It would end up tearing apart the near consensus among blacks that Washington had been able to build up.

In control of the 6th ward, Eugene Sawyer was Washington’s key alderman. Serving as President Pro tem of the City council at the time of the Mayor’s death, Sawyer was usually the one who was able to form a consensus between aldermen.2 However, few outside of the council knew of Sawyer before Washington’s death. On the other hand, many more people knew Time Evans, and thought he would receive the nod.3

The always polarizing figure of Jesse Jackson paraded as a neutral negotiator, but had actually put his full support behind Evans. Evans was Washington’s floor leader and right hand man, but he was not well respected or even generally liked by his colleagues.4 Sawyer, on the other hand, was respected, but shy and soft spoken. The Evans machine jumped on these qualities to make him appear weak.

In the end, Sawyer would become acting mayor, but the disinformation campaign against him left many voters and colleagues angry. Due to this, the government, in turn, still belonged to Washington, leaving Sawyer with little he could do.5 With the exception of one scandal, though, Sawyer was able to keep the office running fairly smoothly, exceeding the low expectations that had been set for him.

When the 1989 election came around, the Evans faction went to court with a lawsuit, forcing an early election.6 This, in effect, divided blacks even more. The dirty campaign between Sawyer and Evans would ultimately cost both of them the nomination. In response to them, a united white front would succeed in getting Richard M. Daley the nomination instead.

  1. Anderson, Monroe. “The Sawyer Saga: A Journalist, who Just Happened to be the Mayor’s Press Secretary, Speaks.” The Mayors - The Chicago Political Tradition. 3rd ed. Ed. Paul M. Green, Melvin G. Holli. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. Pg. 199
  2. Anderson, 200
  3. Anderson, 201
  4. Anderson, 206
  5. Anderson, 207
  6. Anderson, 212
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