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Byrne out; Pucinski v. Vrdolyak


It's hard to believe she won't be around anymore, but that's what she says. But then, she hasn't won any merit badges over the years for truthfulness.

Jane Byrne has lost her third straight election, and it was a wipeout. Even she herself admitted it was, and she indicated that she's giving up.

For all the fame Byrne has acquired over the last decade, she has won only one election — her first. That was when she rode a blizzard to victory as mayor of Chicago in 1979. She was ousted by Harold Washington in 1983 and lost to him again in a comeback attempt in the February 1987 Democratic mayoral primary.

She backed Washington in the general election last April, and had hoped to win his endorsement this year in a bid for, of all things, clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court. It was quite a step down from the mayor's office, but beggars can't be choosers. However, Washington, just a week before his death in November, put together a Democratic slate for the March 15 primary that included Aurelia Pucinski, the daughter of one of his chief opponents in past years, Ald. Roman Pucinski, as the candidate for clerk. And Ms. Pucinski blanketed Chicago's south and west sides with advertising that emphasized her endorsement by the late mayor, who is now close to canonization in the black community.

The result was that Pucinski humiliated the pollsters, who had predicted a Byrne win. Pucinski racked up 398,000 votes to only 289,000 for Byrne. Byrne was able to win only four of the 50 city wards (all in black areas) and two of the 30 suburban townships.

The key to Pucinski's win was the party slating. But beyond that, the voters simply have a good memory: They haven't forgotten Byrne's chaotic term as mayor. Pucinski is an attractive, articulate, 40-year-old commissioner of the Metropolitan Sanitary District. She was one of the Democrats who was upset by a Lyndon LaRouche follower in the 1987 state primary. That embarrassment behind her, Pucinski has now rehabilitated herself and may have a promising future in local politics if she is elected clerk in November. Which brings us to another familiar name in Chicago politics over the last decade or so: Ed Vrdolyak.

Vrdolyak, head of the Cook County Democratic party and leader of the anti-Washington majority bloc in the City Council during Washington's first term, ran for mayor as a third-party candidate last year, and then, with much fanfare, joined the Republican party. He wanted to run for state's attorney, but his new party turned him down because of his sleazy reputation. So, like Byrne, he settled for running for a lesser office that has a lot of patronage, and he got himself slated as the GOP candidate for court clerk. He had no opposition in the primary. Vrdolyak is Cook County's most prominent race-baiter, and he aims to beat Pucinski by portraying her as a pal of Jesse Jackson, who campaigned for her in the primary. If Vrdolyak wins, he may run for mayor again. An election to complete Washington's term, which would have ended in 1991, is expected to be held next

May 1988 | Illinois Issues | 40

year, although the law is unclear on when it should be held and Mayor Eugene Sawyer's supporters have been trying to delay it until 1991.

Sawyer fared poorly, to say the least, in the March election. Out of five supporters of his who were running for Democratic committeeman in black wards, four were defeated. And his friend, Circuit Judge Fred Sudak, finished last in a five-way contest for a judgeship. Sudak's campaign was crippled by the disclosure that he gave then-Ald. Sawyer $30,000 in the 1970s under circumstances that neither he nor Sawyer has ever satisfactorily explained.

Sawyer, so far, is a joke. The Sudak affair is just one of his problems. The media have raised questions about his rich life-style, given the fact that he claims to have been living off his modest salary as alderman all these years. And black voters — witness the committeeman races —didn't like the way he was elected acting mayor by white aldermen who were Washington's greatest foes.

It's impossible to say who will be contending in the next mayoral election, whenever it is. As usual, the race of the candidates will be a key ingredient. Among the blacks, Sawyer's chief opponent at present for the Democratic nomination is Ald. Tim Evans. A third black, Ald. Danny Davis, also has ambitions. There is a dearth of viable white candidates. State's Atty. Richie Daley could run but probably won't. Many white politicians concede that Chicago is likely to be electing a black mayor for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, in a race among two blacks and a white, the blacks might split the black vote and hand the election to the white — the reverse of how Washngton won in 1983.

Vrdolyak and another ex-Democrat, Cook County Sheriff James O'Grady, may seek Republican nomination. The Republicans, who are picking up strength in the city, could even pull an upset.

But Jane Byrne won't be pulling any upsets. "When we say the people have spoken. . . the people shouted," she said on election night. "I'm very good at taking hints." If we can take her word for it (which, come to think of it, we can't), we won't, as they say, have Jane to kick around anymore. Too bad; she was so kickable.□

May 1988 | Illinois Issues | 41

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