By PAUL M. GREEN
Chicago election: the numbers and the implications
IN 4000 B.C. the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers became the cradle of civilization. After the 1983 mayoral election the Chicago neighborhood known as Hyde Park, between 59th Street on the south and 47th Street on the north, may have emerged as the new cradle of clout in Chicago. Through circumstances involving a heated Democratic mayoral primary, the rising tide of black voter awareness and a white backlash to both events, Chicago voters found themselves facing a new neighborhood of power Hyde Park.
Harold Washington, the Democratic nominee, was black and from the liberal-independent University of Chicago/Hyde Park community. Bernard Epton, his Republican challenger, was Jewish and also lived in the same reform-minded near southeast side neighborhood. For years Chicagoans had seen the near southwest ethnic communities of Bridgeport and Canaryville dominate political leadership in the city. However, in 1983 the cradle of clout moved to Hyde Park.
The old-fashioned street fight that passed itself off as a mayoral election was engineered and directed by those living between the new Tigris and Euphrates of Chicago politics, 59th and 47th streets.
Primary sets the stage
On February 22, 1983, over 1,235,324 Chicagoans or 77.5 percent of the city's eligible voters went to the polls. Nearly 99 percent of those voting asked for a Democratic ballot as the entire city reacted to the frenzied three-way mayoral primary fight between incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne, Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley and Congressman Harold Washington. Only a few diehard GOP party loyalists and candidate family members bothered to vote in the Republican primary which former state Rep. Epton easily won, although few analyzed his votes. However, soon after Washington claimed his narrow Democratic victory, everyone began to realize a single unalterable fact: Bernie Epton was more than a Republican mayoral nominee he was an alternative.
Given the status of the Republican party in Chicago, Epton had only one hope for victory: He had to become the ultimate counterpunch candidate in the city's history. Epton's sole strategy was to gear his campaign to the supporters of the two losing Democratic primary candidates. What the national media missed in their zeal to color the Epton-Washington contest in total racial tones was the effect of the primary on the Republican candidate's campaign. A Byrne primary victory would have found Epton leading a solid liberal/black coalition in the April general election while a Daley victory would have seen the Republican challenger (with a little more trouble) attempting a similar alliance. The bottom line of the Epton strategy was to remain flexible prior to the primary with the hope that a bitter and close Democratic contest would give him enough disappointed leftovers to mount a credible mayoral challenge.
August 1983/Illinois Issues/13
The Epton campaign
Following the primary, Epton boldly revealed his tactics for the upcoming campaign. "When you have almost two-thirds of the Democratic voters losing their candidate," he argued, "there is a fertile field for my election." Under the direction of two newly hired top guns, Jim Fletcher, former aide to Gov. James R. Thompson, and John Deardourff, noted Republican media adviser, Epton went directly after the anti-Washington primary voters. A vast majority of these voters were white ethnics who had split fairly evenly for Byrne and Daley. Unlike these latter candidates Epton had little expectation of gaining much support in the black wards. Thus, he had little to lose by attacking Washington. In his now famous tagline at the end of his TV commercials, "Epton for Mayor: Before It's Too Late," the Republican candidate gave the anti-Washington voters the proper code words to elicit their support.
Critics have condemned Epton for injecting race into the campaign and for turning the contest into a simple white/black struggle. Yet given the political movement sweeping the black community and the results of the primary, Epton took the only viable road open to him if he hoped to win the election. It is indeed difficult to ponder how Epton could have appealed to the 733,000 anti-Washington primary voters without having race crop up in the campaign. Perhaps his attacks on Washington could have been more delicate or discreet, but it is unlikely that the media or Washington would have responded to any Epton campaign charge without discussing its racial overtones.
As the campaign lurched along, Epton unleased a brutal barrage of accusations against Washington. Unlike Washington's primary opponents, Epton early and often brought up Washington's past legal and financial problems. Using a caustic wit that sometimes went too far, Epton chastized the congressman for failing to file his tax returns. At a north side rally he told a cheering crowd that "he would be happy to reveal his income tax returns for the last 20 years if Washington could find his" and that it was "sheer idiocy to support a man who had been sentenced to jail." In one ethnic neighborhood after another the liberal, Jewish, Hyde Park Republican received resounding screams of "Ber-nee, Ber-nee" from conservative, heavily Catholic, northwest and southwest side Democrats.
Following the euphoric aftermath of his brilliant and upset victory in the primary, Washington and his staff developed a conciliatory campaign strategy for the April election. In a city where outspoken Republicans are viewed as either an "endangered species" or DuPage County residents who are simply passing through, Washington chose the role of political healer. Running as if he were already mayor, the Democratic nominee spoke of his coming programs that would enable "all Chicago to move forward under [his] regime." He deftly sidestepped Police Supt. Richard Brzeczeks post-primary broadsides that under a Washington administration "the police department would be a circus"; Washington answered by calling the city's top cop hysterical and out of control. The overwhelming Democratic numbers in the city suggested that the obvious winning Washington strategy rested on a simple premise: Have Democrats vote for the party's nominee. Interestingly, Washington's healing strategy did not accept the view of some political commentators and longtime machine opponents who claimed the organization was dead and virtually irrelevant to the upcoming campaign.
By early March it became apparent that Washington was not going to have an easy reconciliation with various white Democratic ward committeemen.
In the large vote-producing ethnic wards, powerful organization leaders balked or outright refused to endorse or even recognize Washington as their party's nominee. Unlike the Epton campaign which had a single-minded direction, the Washington post-primary efforts swirled like a whirlpool caught up in the contradiction of its own political parts.
Washington was the Democratic mayoral nominee and he demanded that he be treated and supported by the party in the same political fashion as previous white candidates. If this happened, there would be no contest on April 12. At the same time, the so-called "movement in the black community" was cresting into a political tidal wave that demanded Washington not bend to the city's power brokers. The candidate, by nature a cautious and careful politician, pondered campaign alternatives. If he ran as an antipatronage political reformer, would give his party foes a nonracial issue on which they could hang their support for Epton; yet if he moved too close to the party regulars, he might alienate some of his black and many of his liberal lakefront supporters who would see him pulling a "Byrne-like" doublecross on reform. Moreover deep in his heart, Washington could never be sure of how sincere regular party endorsements would be to his campaign and whether powerful, white ward committeemen could even deliver a sizable vote to him on election day. Thus, while Washington's campaign stalled in the basking limelight of the national media, the Democratic candidate lost the political initiative to his suddenly strident GOP opponent and Hyde Park neighbor, Bernard Epton.
Byrne write-in, write-out
"I have never been afraid to make the bold move. I think that is why my life has been so much of an adventure." So said former Boston Mayor James Michael Curley in his autobiography, I'd Do It Again. Curley's political philosophy was never better exemplified than when Mayor Byrne flung herself back into the mayoral picture by announcing a write-in candidacy on St. Patrick's Day eve. Calling herself the "unity candidate," Byrne attacked both Washington and Epton claiming that "as mayor I've concluded that neither of their candidacies represents the best interests of the city." She conceded that a write-in campaign would be difficult but that her own polls indicated that remaining in the race would be worthwhile. In perhaps the oddest and most astounding twist to her declaration, Byrne announced that she would be calling on her arch-foe, State's Attorney Daley, and tell him that "for the good of the city we should get together."
14/August 1983/Illinois Issues
1983 Chicago mayoral general election, Washington v. Epton, by ward
Even in Chicago, a city that prides itself on playing hardball politics, Byrne's sudden mayoral reentry was met with shock and disbelief. Earlier reports of a White House-inspired scheme to replace Epton with Byrne on top of the Republican ticket had been discounted as Potomac daydreaming and cocktail party gossip. But just when she was counted out, the unpredictable Jane Byrne scooped the field with her daring declaration.
If Mayor Byrne was looking for a political groundswell to her write-in campaign, she was greatly disappointed. The annual St. Patrick's Day Parade was not a "Byrne-fest." Her political foes, County Board President George Dunne and Daley, denounced her actions. Moreover, her former close allies, Democratic County Chairman Edward Vrdolyak and Park Supt. Edmund Kelly, called the move "political suicide." The city's black leaders cried "racism" while Washington and Epton, interrupted in their preparations for their first political debate, mouthed astonishment at the sudden turn of events. Stripped of political support, unable to raise the sizable amounts of money needed for her unorthodox campaign and facing uncertain court action on her efforts to clarify legal write-in procedures, Byrne meekly withdrew from the battle a little over one week after her entrance. In the end she left most Chicagoans gasping at her "chutzpah," while to others she rekindled the words of G. K. Chesterton:
"For the great Gaels of Ireland,
With the fallout of Byrne's surprise write-in campaign still settling around them, Washington and Epton squared off in their first and only debate. The Republican challenger was clearly the aggressor as he flailed away at Washington's tax return problems and the Democratic nominee's suspension from practicing law for taking clients' money and then failing to represent them. For his part, Washington attempted to remain on his "high road strategy," though Epton's barbs forced the congressman to say of his opponent: "He's been saying he was going to take off the gloves. What he took off were his shoes, and we found he didn't wash his feet and he didn't wash his socks." Post-debate analysts praised neither performance, claiming Epton's satiric wit was overused in his effort to attack Washington's character, while the latter had once again voiced few specifics about his future programs and policies. Sun-Times columnist Roger Simon summed up the debate as "two decent men in a dirty war," though many Chicagoans were tickled by the Hyde Park-style sarcasm used by both men.
August 1983/Illinois Issues/15
The St. Pascal episode
Newspapers, radio and TV stations were nearly unanimous in their endorsement of Washington's candidacy. Yet unmistakably Epton's campaign was gaining momentum as the contest began to turn more and more on the race issue. Ugly comments and racial slurs were picked up for widespread dissemination, as some local and most national correspondents and commentators acted as social and political leeches sucking as much bigotry and racism as possible out of the campaign. On Palm Sunday, March 27, all of the "I told you so" pundits gave knowing smiles as Washington and former Vice President Walter Mondale were jeered and told to go home by a group of northwest side residents in front of St. Pascal's Church. Both men refrained from entering the church where a mass was well underway, and with cameras grinding they retreated to their car under a barrage of words and shouts. Later in the day Washington blamed Epton for the incident as he told a massive crowd at the University of Illinois Chicago Pavillion: "What manner of people would even remotely consider such a dastardly thing?" Epton disavowed any part in the episode and criticized Washington for blaming him, but the final parameters of the campaign had been set it was now a street fight.
Down and dirty at the end
The Washington-Epton campaign deteriorated to the gutter and below in the closing weeks. Neither man exhibited much wit, charm or polish as they tore into each other, leaving no aspect of the other's character or record untarnished. Washington questioned Epton's mental health and demanded he release his medical records before any second debate could be scheduled. Epton had undergone psychiatric evaluations at Michael Reese Hospital in 1975 and 1978. The Republican candidate, infuriated by the release of these records, claimed he had been in a state of depression because doctors were unable to find the cause of his severe abdominal pains (later diagnosed as ulcers). Washington also tried to paint Epton as a Reagan Republican on social issues, though his opponent had a voting record fairly similar to his own. The heat of Washington's attacks and the persistent questions on race by reporters unnerved Epton, and more than once during the campaign's closing weeks the GOP candidate unleashed temper tantrums towards his perceived enemies.
Epton and his staff counterattacked Washington from every conceivable direction. They intensified their charges that "Washington was unfit to be mayor because of his historic disregard of the law." Every day new accusations against the congressman hit the front pages and the air waves. Epton claimed: 1) Washington did not pay property tax on a building whose tenants were evicted by the city for safety reasons, 2) that the Democratic nominee avoided paying his various utility bills and 3) in a final radio commercial referred to Washington as a convicted felon who had been disbarred (in reality Washington was convicted of a misdemeanor and his law license was suspended). However, it was a piece of literature (totally disavowed by Epton) alleging that Washington was a child molester which truly shook the heretofore unflappable congressman. Thursday before the election Washington's campaign seemed in disarray. He missed a scheduled appearance on WGN Radio's Wally Phillip's Morning Show, blew up at a student heckler at Northeastern Illinois University and seemed out of control answering reporters' questions.
Going into the campaign's last weekend, Washington needed desperately to regain the political momentum. The candidates had virtually written off each other's racial strongholds, and both camps agreed that only two contestable blocs of voters were left in the city white lakefront liberals and Hispanics. Pollsters differed only slightly as to how many of these voters Washington had to win, but they all concurred that if the expected turnout reached 80 percent or above, the Democratic nominee needed a sizable chunk of this vote. Pulling himself together, Washington poured himself into the crucial last weekend of campaigning. For reasons yet unexplained, his opponent did not match his effort; Epton's run for city hall cooled down to a walk during the campaign's waning hours.
Washington dominated the media during the campaign's final push as he geared his remarks directly to the undecided lakefront liberals. At rallies up and down Lake Shore Drive, the Democratic nominee bellowed out, "The battle cry is reform." He openly attacked the turncoat Democratic ward committeemen who backed Epton, calling them "greed merchants," and he downplayed his own legal financial problems, claiming "he was slow in paying bills because he spent his money campaigning against the Democratic machine." Washington had little alternative to becoming a robust reformer during the campaign's last days. His easy win option of running as the endorsed Democratic mayoral nominee and receiving a traditional organization landslide plurality was dead. What was left was a sweep of the heavily turned-on black electorate while receiving significant lakefront liberal and Hispanic support. However, if the turnout went over 1.2 million votes, Washington would need white, ethnic Democratic voters to become the city's first black mayor.
16/August 1983/Illinois Issues
Analysis of the vote
Harold Washington beat Bernard Epton because Washington ran as a Democrat. The congressman's heavy and near unanimous black support, his strong Hispanic totals and his respectable cut of the lakefront liberal vote would not have been enough to win without the hardcore backing of a measurable number of white ethnic Democrats.
A myth has grown out of this election that black Chicagoans turned out in vastly greater numbers than their white counterparts. Looking at ward turnout percentages, not one black ward makes the top 10 turnout list, and if these mainly all-white top 10 wards had voted as a solid bloc against Washington (as Washington's black wards did against Epton), the Republicans would have captured city hall. The white ethnic voters in the northwest and southwest side neighborhoods still turn out in greater percentages than any other voting bloc in Chicago.
Admittedly, Epton carried these predominantly white wards by lopsided margins, but the 1983 Chicago mayoral battle was the ultimate turnout election. It boiled down to which candidate's area of political support would outcount the opposition, for in this election almost every ward was won by a landslide. Only in nine wards did the winner receive less than 60 percent of the vote while in 22 wards (almost half the city total), the victor captured 90 percent or more of the vote. In ward returns broken down by candidate: Of Washington's 22 ward victories, he won 16 with 90 percent or more of the vote, five with 60 percent or more and in only one ward victory did he receive less than 60 percent. In sum, Washington's white Democratic support in Epton wards far exceeded the latter's black GOP support in Washington territory.
As for Epton, he carried six more wards than Washington and came within 50,000 votes of beating Washington. Aiding Epton's effort was the high voter turnout. Almost 100,000 more voters participated in the general election than the primary, thereby pushing the total turnout to 1,334,303 voters (82 percent of those registered to vote). Part of Epton's strategy was a high turnout, but the result was higher than hoped for.
Epton received nearly a half million more votes than the hapless 1979 GOP nominee Wallace Johnson, while Epton's percentage of the mayoral vote tripled Johnson's, going from 16 to 48 percent. The large turnout and Epton's strong support gave the Republican candidate 200,000 more votes than the combined totals of the last three GOP mayoral nominees. Epton won more wards than the previous seven Republican candidates put together. Not since 1927 (the GOP's last Chicago victory, under Big Bill Thompson's banner) did a Republican win as many wards as Epton, and only two other Republican candidates in Chicago history received as many mayoral votes. In fact, Washington's winning mayoral margin was the smallest since 1919 when Thompson won in a hotly contested four-candidate race.
Where and why did Epton run so well? A look at his best margin and percentage wards tells the story. A vast majority of Chicago's white ethnic northwest and southwest side voters supported a Republican for mayor. His best six wards, measured by both plurality and percentage of the vote (13, 23, 36, 38, 41, 45), were almost entirely white and former bastions of the Republican strength in the city. Starting under former Mayor Richard J. Daley, Democrats replaced GOP stalwarts in these wards and turned them into large Democratic vote-producing wards in local elections. In state and national contests, however, these mainly middle-class residents kept some of their old Republican leanings. In 1983 these voters were frightened by a Washington candidacy; they had opposed him in the primary, and in the general election they went back and went over to the GOP mayoral candidate. At the same time, these voters still heavily supported Democrats for city clerk and city treasurer (the latter a black, Cecil Partee). Yet as strong as Epton's support was in these wards, Washington had 11 wards with a higher winning percentage than Epton's best ward.
Never in Chicago's political history has a candidate swept a portion of the electorate the way Washington cleaned up on the black vote. For example, in 1967 Mayor Daley won every ward in the city as he trounced the Republican candidate, John Waner. In 1983, however, Epton's total vote in Washington's 10 best wards (all predominantly black) was less than Waner's vote in Daley's legendary home 11th Ward in 1967. So massive was Washington's black support that in these 10 wards he received an unbelievable 99 percent of the vote, while in six other wards his percentage was over 90 percent.
Black middle-class south side wards (Washington's true home base), though unable to match the white ethnic wards in turnout, were by their large populations and near unanimity able to give the congressman margins large enough to neutralize Epton's strongholds. This factor allowed the near south side and west side black wards the opportunity to use their slightly smaller Washington vote margins (percentages were similar but turnouts were less) to overtake Epton citywide. Thus, though Epton overall won six more wards than Washington, the Democratic nominee enjoyed a 2-to-1 advantage in wards where he won by over 20,000 votes.
In an election as close and controversial as this one, "second guessers" will have many years to rehash campaign strategy and reanalyze election results. The "Hyde Parking" of Chicago politics flip-flopped voting habits and party loyalty. Having both candidates zero in on the lakefront and Hispanic voters was also a novel twist in Chicago politics. Interestingly, it was in these wards where voter turnout was the lightest. Washington's Democratic credentials carried him to victory as some longtime party loyalists facing the uncomfortable choice between a black and a Republican sided with their party. However, it cannot be underestimated how strong the political movement in the black community has become and how much a role it played in Washington's victory. Between the primary and general election 31,523 new voters were added to the rolls. Eight wards in the city each gained over 1,000 of these voters; all of these wards were mainly black, and only two were not middle-class south side wards.
August 1983/Illinois Issues/17
The short-range political implications of Washington's victory are still unsettled and as this is being written (mid-June 1983), one does not know how the courts will eventually decide the current Chicago City Council deadlock. However, in the long run, certain facts of life are becoming clearer to members of both political parties.
Statewide, the new black political muscle in Chicago has complicated the tight balance of power between Democrats and Republicans. Increased black voting strength will help state Democratic candidates only if the party can hold its longtime white ethnic supporters. As Milton Rakove has so aptly argued, "The 1983 Chicago mayoral primary saw the Democratic organization lose control of the black vote while in the general election the organization lost control of the white vote."
In raw political numbers, every new registered black voter who goes to the polls on election day will add one vote to the Democratic column. However, every white ethnic Democrat who switches his party preference adds two votes to the Republican column the one he takes away from the Democrat he normally would have supported and another for the vote he adds to the Republican candidate's total. Statewide, if 200,000 white Democrats switch parties or selectively switch their support for individual candidates, the Democratic party would need 400,000 new black voters to counteract the defections.
The racial implications of Washington's victory and the movement that produced it may have reshuffled the political deck in Illinois. The Democratic dilemma is deep, complicated and highly emotional yet the answer is relatively simple. The emerging black political leadership must recognize the oldest political axiom: "That you win elections by addition." The established white political power structure must recognize that a whole new generation of better educated and better informed black voters are entering the political arena and they are not going to disappear. Thus, the old must accept the new into the highest councils of the party.
The current Chicago stalemate suggests that neither side is considering the political impact of their confrontation on the upcoming 1984 elections. Both factions are needed inside the Democratic party in order for national and state candidates to carry Illinois and county candidates to be reelected in Cook. Obviously, the high stakes power struggle between the Washington 21 and the Vrdolyak 29 muddles the picture, but the incredible showing of Epton should send fear into all Illinois Democratic hearts.
The Republican party has no cards to play in this internal Democratic, party dispute. It can only sit back and hope for continued Democratic confusion or better yet mass defections of white ethnic Democrats to the Republican ranks. Like Epton, the state GOP must play the role of the political counterpuncher and see which direction the current struggle takes their Democratic party opponents.
Some new black activist leaders in Chicago have suggested that the Republican party is a viable alternative to them, while others have argued that it makes little difference which party wins if the candidates are unresponsive to black concerns. It is hard to imagine the current crop of Illinois or Cook County Republican party leaders advocating, supporting or even listening to many of the programs espoused by the new black leaders and spokesmen.
In sum, the Chicago Republican party which has been considered dead for years (some have called it a mercy killing) has not been resurrected, but individual candidates running under the GOP banner may have been. The Chicago mayoral election's spillover into Cook County and Illinois politics has enormous electoral ramifications. As has been argued many times in the past, "downstate holds the key to victory," but that theory only works if Chicago Democrats produce sizable vote margins to offset Republican votes in suburban Cook and the five collar counties. A significant reduction in Chicago Democratic vote power stemming from an extended political battle between Washington Democratic black voters and Vrdolyak Democratic white voters would be fatal to most Democratic state and county candidates.
As the warring Democratic factions seek reconciliation and compromise on the governing of Chicago, they must also seek political accommodation on future campaigning in Illinois. A united Democratic party which can peaceably couple its growing and energized black voters with its traditional white ethnic supporters would be almost unbeatable in statewide elections. It certainly would slam the door on any Republican comeback in future Cook County contests. Thus, Chicago and Illinois Democratic party leaders, currently engaged in their semi-official civil war, would do well to heed the insight of Chicago's turn-of-the-century fictional bartender-philosopher Martin J. Dooley. Commenting on another internal Democratic party dispute Dooley said, "Th' dimmycratic party ain't on speakin' terms with itself. . " (when party leaders meet) "wan mutthers thraiter and th' other hisses miscreent. . .ye can bet they're. . .thrying to reunite the ol' party."□
Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors State University, Park Forest South. The author acknowledges the assistance of Candy Serbus, center staff member. Green is currently co-editing a new book with Mel Holli, University of Illinois at Chicago, titled Making of the Mayor: Chicago 1983, to be published by Northern Illinois Press, DeKalb.
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