A District Of Color: Illinois’ 1st CD

One of the passions of being a political junkie is going back into the past and learning about the candidates, campaigns and personalities of the time.  That’s one reason why we have a “This Week In Political History” feature in our podcasts, and why we offer trivia questions each week as well.

Last week’s question was one of our favorites and worthy of a greater discussion:  What district has had the longest unbroken representation by black members of Congress?

The question was spawned by a discussion regarding the May 6 Democratic primary in North Carolina’s 12th CD.  The district was created in 1992 for the purpose of electing an African-American to Congress, and that’s been the case ever since.  Mel Watt won it that year and served until quitting in January to become the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.  Alma Adams, a 67-year old state rep., will be his successor.

The 1st CD has had black representation since De Priest's (R) victory in 1928.
The 1st CD has had black representation since De Priest’s (R) victory in 1928.

But that streak of 24 years pales to the First Congressional District of Illinois, centered in Chicago’s South Side.  In 1928, Oscar De Priest — a Republican — won the seat, and in the 86 years since, every incumbent has been black.  No district in the country comes close to that.

Here’s the history:

De Priest held the seat for three terms, losing to Arthur Mitchell (D) in 1934.  Mitchell, in victory, became the first African-American DEMOCRAT elected to Congress.  He served until retiring after 1942.

Then came William Dawson.  A former Republican — he was the GOP nominee against Mitchell in 1938 — Dawson won the election in 1942 as a Democrat and rose to become the chairman of the Government Operations Committee.  But much of his power was derived from support of the Chicago Democratic machine led by Mayor Richard J. Daley.  Dawson was long seen as a Daley lieutenant and was constantly accused of Uncle Tom-ism.  But none of his primary challengers came close to toppling him.   He had already announced his retirement when he died on November 9, 1970 at the age of 84.

Representing the 1st: Metcalfe (1971-78), Stewart (1979-80), Washington (1981-83), Hayes (1983-92).
Representing the 1st: Metcalfe (1971-78), Stewart (1979-80), Washington (1981-83), Hayes (1983-92).

Dawson was succeeded by Ralph Metcalfe, a track and field Olympics star in the 1930s — he finished just behind Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936.  Metcalfe also started out being close with the Daley machine as a member of the Chicago board of aldermen.  But he began questioning his loyalty after the 1968 Democratic convention riots and started his break following the beating of two prominent black dentists by the Chicago police in 1972.  By 1976, the year Daley died, Metcalfe became a leading antagonist of the machine.  Metcalfe, however, was in failing health, and he died in October 1978, shortly before the election.

His death gave the machine an opportunity to name a loyalist to the ballot:  Alderman Bennett Stewart, who won the election handily though not with the usual dominance of previous Democratic nominees.  Derided as a party hack, Stewart only lasted one term.  In the 1980 primary, he not only lost to state Sen. Harold Washington, who easily won the primary, but he finished in third place, right behind Ralph Metcalfe Jr.

Washington had a safe seat, but he decided that the way to make a real difference was to run for mayor — which he did in 1983.  The growing black political power in Chicago was significant, but what also helped was that the white vote was split between Jane Byrne, the incumbent, and Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley, the late mayor’s son.  Washington won the primary and then eked by a fairly inept Republican in the general election, making him the first black mayor in Chicago’s history.

With Washington gone, the new congressman in the 1st was Charles Hayes, a longtime union and civil rights organizer who had the backing of Washington, a longtime friend.  It was enough to give him 45% of the vote in the special 1983 primary against 13 opponents.

Hayes was not a legislative powerhouse but he was considerably popular.  Unfortunately for him, he was named as one of the worst abusers in the House bank scandal, just days before the March 1992 primary.  His 716 overdrafts drew national attention — and probably gave the primary victory to Bobby Rush, perhaps best known for being a former leader of the Black Panthers who spent time in prison on a weapons charge.  More important, however, is that he served ten years on the Chicago board of aldermen, where he led efforts in the South Side to combat drugs and guns and fight for education and community development.  Rush beat Hayes by three percentage points and has served ever since.  In 1999, Rush made an ill-advised run for mayor but got clobbered by the younger Daley, by then already in office for a decade.  That perceived weakness may have inspired a state senator by the name of Barack Obama to challenge Rush in the 2000 Democratic primary.  Rush clobbered him by a 2-to-1 margin.

1 thought on “A District Of Color: Illinois’ 1st CD”

  1. In the back part of the Metcalfe paragraph, you start calling him Dawson. Unless Rep. Dawson was a recurring zombie of the 1st District . . .


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