June 5, 2010

WAUKEGAN (June 5)—State Rep. Eddie Washington, a former Metra trainman and the only UTU member in the Illinois General Assembly, has died of a heart attack.

“The people of the 60th District, the members of our union, and working people all across Illinois have lost a true friend and a powerful advocate,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “Gov. Pat Quinn called Eddie ‘a good man with a servant’s heart,’ and that is exactly the kind of person I found him to be. He loved to help people.”

A native of East St. Louis and a 1977 political science/journalism graduate of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville/East St. Louis, Rep. Washington hired out with the Missouri Pacific Railroad at Granite City in the 1970s but lost that job after 59 days when a business downturn forced the carrier to lay off younger personnel.

“I loved working on the railroad, but it was not to be,” he said.

He would not return to railroading until 1995, 10 years after he moved to North Chicago. He joined Metra as a trainman on the Milwaukee West Division and became a member of UTU Local No. 1258 in Elgin.

But well before his move to the northern park of the state, Washington began making his mark as a community activist and public servant, twin missions that seized him even before he graduated from college.

In 1975 he was a plaintiff in Washington v. Illinois State Police, a state and federal case that charged discrimination against hiring African-Americans, Latinos and women as state police officers. He won the case.

As soon as he moved to Lake County in 1985 he joined the Power Street Association in Waukegan, which he later described as “just a little neighborhood crime-watch organization.”

Working his way up to the chairmanship of the association, Washington broadened its community-activism portfolio and renaming it POWER—People Organized and Working for Equal Respect.” He soon was recruited to become director of the Lake County Urban League’s Economic Development Commission and the Staben Center homeless shelter, and served on the Waukegan Economic Development Commission and the prison-reform advocacy group the John Howard Association.

When the 60th District was created in 2001, Washington made his first try for public office and was elected as the new district’s first state representative. He was reelected three times and was a major factor in the passage of all of the UTU’s workplace safety and health-care legislation that passed during his terms.

“With his care and concern for people it was inevitable that Eddie would become a point man in protecting our members against threats to their health and well-being,” Guy said.

“Protecting the powerless against the powerful was always right in Eddie’s strike zone,” Guy said. “He was highly effective in reaching out to his fellow legislators to help us secure passage of the Safe Walkways Act, the Contract Carrier Safety Act and the Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act. He was a railroader and a union man, but he knew how to relate the dangers of railroad work to other legislators who knew nothing about the industry or about the role of unions. He appealed to their humanity, and they heeded him.”

Washington’s success was not just the result of his passion, however. He was also renowned for his legislative skills, especially after he devised a stratagem to rescue the Safe Walkways bill from limbo during the 2004 legislative session. The walkways language had been inserted in another bill that fell victim to bickering over a totally unrelated issue. Washington, with the help of House Speaker Michael Madigan, had the same language inserted in a “shell bill” that the Speaker had introduced at the start of the session. Washington followed up with a vigorous jawboning of his colleagues that resulted in the new bill’s passing 117-0.

“You have to credit the initiative, determination and legislative savvy displayed by our own Eddie Washington,” said then UTU Ill. Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo when the vote was over. “He was totally dedicated to walkway safety and knew exactly what to do.”

Rep. Washington is survived by his wife, Flor; and seven children, Tikisha, Malik, Kitanda, Albert, Elias, Asian and Racquel.

A public viewing will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Shiloh Baptist Church, 800 S. Genesee St., Waukegan.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in East St. Louis. Interment will follow at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Bellville.