The small basement hall of the church in Marquette Park was nearly full of people waiting for the mayoral election forum to begin. This was, by all accounts, Bernard Epton territory, a neighborhood on the southwest side of the city with a reputation—partly earned, partly not—as unfriendly to blacks and politically conservative. Epton had declined the invitation, but Harold Washington was expected soon. Near the door was a middle-aged man who was a community leader and business agent for a not especially liberal union. He had been an ardent Daley supporter in the primary.
Now, he said, he was for Washington “We have no choice. We can’t go Republican. We definitely cannot go for Epton. good tradesmen tend to think as Democrats. But they’re torn apart—can you vote for Washington and shed your racism? a lot of people don’t know how to deal with black people. If you don’t work with them or live with them, you just don’t know.”
What’s the main reason some of your members are supporting Epton? I asked. “Probably fear,” he said, “fear of the unknown.”
After a primary campaign marked by bitter rejections of Mayor Jane Byrne, suspicions of State’s Attorney Richard Daley, and hopes inspired by U.S. Representative Harold Washington, the general election has been dominated in white neighborhoods by anxiety and fear, emotions that have at times nourished hatred as well. The old order of Chicago politics was turned upside down by the Democratic nominee black, he was also an independent, a reformer, a liberal.
One of these blows to the crumbling remains of machine politics would have been unsettling enough. Together they knocked away many people’s accustomed moorings. In this new climate, morbid fantasies, wild rumors, and deep-seated phobias flourish like molds in a damp basement and like molds cover the political realm so that it is difficult to see what is really there.
In the black communities, there is, even more than before, the hope that Harold Washington can redress the long history of neglect that has shortchanged that two-fifths of the city of jobs, parks, education, city services, economic development funds, and a voice in the city. In the Latino communities, according to both polls and precinct canvassers, there has been a massive shift to Washington as members of that similarly neglected minority see his campaign as a vehicle for their own hopes. The shift has come despite the countervailing pressures of inter-ethnic rivalry and the influences of Machine politicians, which have led a smaller Latino bloc to Epton (a bloc that appeals primarily to Cubans, least of all to Puerto Ricans, who make up 60 percent of registered Latino voters).
There is also a committed hard core for Epton. Some of the far southwest- and northwest-side wards regularly vote Republican in state and national elections, and have even in past mayoral elections. With conservative Democrats, deflecting Machine hacks, and outright racists (more about them later), Epton clearly has his base.
But there are also many troubled voters, in need of a contemporary political equivalent of Maimonide’s Guide to the Perplexed. They may not like either candidate. They may feel troubled about their own feelings about blacks. They many not know what or whom to believe or what is really important in this election. There are obviously many undecided voters in the crucial lakefront wards, but in the often maligned “ethnic” neighborhoods there also is a lot of soul-searching going on.
At the meeting on the southwest side, Washington presented himself to the 125 people as the candidate for labor and the neighborhoods, against Reagan and machine politics. “This city has a clear choice,” he said. “I’m not talking about the spectrum of color, but of political opinion. My concern is to build,, to attack the problems so common to all of us not-withstanding the animosities we have had.”
After the meeting, I talked with Perry and Renee Zatarski, childhood sweethearts who married and, now in their mid-20s, had just bought a $33,000 brick bungalow, which Renee’s grandmother shared with them. They were both undecided. “I like the fact eh says he’s going to help the elderly,” Renee said. “Too many are eating dog food.” Glancing at a young black man who had attended the meeting, she added, “On both sides. I don’t know that much about Epton. He’s for cutting services.”
I stopped to share an RC Cola (as a well-paid truck driver, Perry was loyal to his employer), and listened to their often conflicting political sentiments. As children of poor families, they wanted to help the needy, but they didn’t like paying taxes, especially when they now had to support another person and felt they never benefited from government programs.
Perry was friends with Clyde, a black coworker, but he feared that blacks would move into his neighborhood. they had both lived in a “changing neighborhood” and had their share of conflicts with the life-styles of their new neighbors.
Would their neighborhood change again? “The mass consensus is he’s going to push black people into their neighborhoods, that they’re going to integrate,” Perry said. “People aren’t interested in that, not in Chicago, not yet. I bought this house two years ago and put pretty near every penny I have into it. I’m afraid of losing it. That’s the bottom line. It’s so little compared to other people.
Community organizer in the neighborhood report that since the primary unscrupulous realtors have begun to prey on people’s fears, going door to door making solicitations to sell, calling people, sending fliers from phony real estate companies (“to soften up the neighborhood,” one organizer said of this established tactic), and suggested to people that the value of the home has already gone down. These same tactics have been used often in the past to try to scare whites into moving, so that realtors and financial institutions can profit in the continual turnover of property.
But the Zatarskis did not want to be thought of as racists. They wanted better race relations. “I don’t want to see this city torn apart racially,” Renee said. “I don’t want to see a Miami here. We don’t follow anymore what our fathers and grandfathers thought.”
Despite some sympathies for Washington, the repeated attacks on his personal past—on his unfiled income taxes and legal suspension—were beginning to move them toward Epton. Torn between liberal sympathies and conservative skepticism of government, between racially tinged economic fears and dislike of the racist stigma, the Zatarskis are not an unusually tormented couple in this race.
In the simplest of terms, the novel and fluid political climate makes this election a choice between those who hope for change and those who fear change.
Whites with more education and professional or technical jobs are the most likely whites to vote for Washington: they are more inclined to see him as a reformer and feel confident enough that they can ride the waves of change. But many small business people, craft workers, and middle-class whites, including city employees, fear for their jobs, their homes, and whatever else they may have acquired, if blacks get their fair share of the public goods.
But few elections—certainly not this one—are so simple. Even before we can get to the question of change and the issues about the direction of the city, it is necessary to dig through several layers of ideological fungus that have sprouted recently.
Epton has successfully made Washington’s past personal problems the central issue for many white voters. By constantly repeating his charges (indeed, Epton campaign speeches include little beside attacks on Washington), by referring to them in a sneering manner no matter what other issue may be raised, and frequently by exaggerating or simply misrepresenting the offenses, Epton has inflated the issue so that many people can’t see beyond it. It is clear that a very large number find it a convenient excuse to dismiss Washington without thinking about him.
In their eyes, Washington now appears as a convicted felon who cheated on his taxes, stole from his law clients, never pays his bills, and probably is capable of all sorts of nefarious deeds—accusations that Epton’s supporters now are trying to spread through rumors, calls to talk shows, and other surreptitious means.
But the record is quite different—and the meaning of that record possibly something even farther from the Epton charges.
First, the conviction was not a felony but a misdemeanor, an indication in law of a lesser charge. (Attempts to evade taxes are classed as felonies.) In the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Sam Perry said, “I just want the record clear that this is not a fraudulent charge. This man is not charged with defrauding the government and filing false returns.”
Second, there was never any accusation of an attempt to defraud the government. Taxes had been deducted from Washington’s salary as a state representative. He had simply neglected to file. After an audit was completed, he was found to owe $35,53 for one year, $32.94 for the next, nothing for the third (indeed, if he had filed, he would have been eligible for a refund), and $439.58 for the final year—a grand total of $508.05.
But what about the other years? Epton says he didn’t pay for 19 years. There is, however, no proof of that—just as there is no conclusive proof that he did, since the Internal Revenue Service does not keep such old files. The only evidence that Epton can produce is an allegation by the prosecutor at the sentencing hearing that was denied by Washington. The prosecutor never introduced any evidence to support his allegation.
Lawrence E. Kennon, an attorney who served as assistant to Washington’s principal defense attorney (now dead), recently discussed the prosecutor’s charge that Washington did not file for 19 years.
“That was not true,” Kennon said. “They had no records of 19 years. We had records at that time that he did file. If they’d had the 19 years, believe me, they would have got one. We were prepared for anything that they brought up.”
But Epton—and thousands of amateur lawyers out in the streets—quickly respond that the government did not pursue the case because the statute of limitations had expired. However, Philip Ashley, professor of federal income tax law at DePaul University law School, said that “if they can find a continuous conspiracy not to pay taxes, the statute of limitations doesn’t run at all, and the government can go back as far as it wants.” Kennon agreed. “For failure to file there’s no limitation” he said. “If they had it, they could have gone on back ad infinitum.” Neither is the government under any limitations on pursuing civil cases to recover back taxes.
So the charge of 19 years withers into the status of an ugly, unsubstantiated rumor elevated in the heat of a campaign to a major assault on a candidate’s character. But still, isn’t four years bad enough?
James Caldwell, a corporate tax attorney who worked for ten years handling failure-to-file cases at the Internal revenue Service, said that the amounts involved in the Washington case were so small that “if he’d been an ordinary taxpayer, the matter would not have been a criminal prosecution but a negotiation to recover taxes or a civil suit.”
The Criminal Tax Prosecutions code, revised in 1980, now reads that “criminal prosecutions will be recommended [for failure to file and similar offenses] only if the evidence indicates that the yearly additional tax would be $2,500 or more.” Caldwell observed that “when small amounts were involved, the likelihood is its negligence.”
That is Washington’s explanation. “He said it was an oversight,” Kennon recalled. “He was busy. He was a new representative. He was working hard. The other thing, you see, the taxes were taken out of his check.
“Now everybody is saying had he fought it, he probably would have won it. At that time his major concern was not to have a court battle. Washington wanted to get it over.” That rash judgment was not to fight it—as other prominent attorneys have done successfully when they have fallen behind in filing their returns—was Washington’s biggest political mistake.
Epton waved a thick black book on TV in his debate, supposedly documenting all the charges he was making. But looking at the book carefully and reading through the transcript produces some interesting information that deserves to be taken at least as seriously as the prosecutor’s allegation of failure to file for 19 years.
In an exchange among the lawyers and the bench, Judge Perry raised the question of whether all legislators who had not filed tax returns had been prosecuted. Then he remarked, “It is a pretty well known fact that there has been a lot of laxity in that, and I think I should have some assurance that all the legislators and lawyers are being treated alike.”
Prosecutor Howard Hoffman, acting for then U.S. attorney James Thompson, said it was absurd to think some legislators were exempted. “I do not know that it is absurd,” the judge said. “I think it should be checked very carefully. I think that counsel’s statements that there are other representatives should e checked very carefully … . I have heard rumors of them … . There may have been some free rides.”
And in the sentencing hearing, Judge Perry noted, “So far as I know, a number of Democrats have been indicted within the last year or two, and I have yet to see a person affiliated with the Republican party who has been indicted for any of these charges.”
So why didn’t Washington get a “free ride,” especially when the sums involved were so tiny that they would henceforth never be grounds for prosecution? It is useful to remember the political context. Washington was indicted in 1971, and he pleaded “no contest” in 1972. It was a time when Washington had powerful antagonists. The FBI, which was vigorously pursuing its COINTELPRO plan to disrupt the civil rights movement, had an extensive file of over 500 entries detailing Washington’s civil rights involvement. Washington earned the wrath of the Daley Machine when he quite openly criticized State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan for the 1969 police raid that killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, leaders of the Black Panther Party. And he won no friends in Republican circles when he led a walkout in the state legislature over the appearance of vice-president Spiro Agnew.
“It was accepted at that time that Washington was getting the shaft,” Kennon recalled. “He was a young legislator, not strictly with the straight-line Democrats, extremely popular—and he was black.”
So Washington goofed twice—by not filing for several years when little was owed, and by not taking the time and effort to fight the charges. But rather than appearing simply as a criminal, Washington can, in retrospect, be seen with equal plausibility as a victim of a politically motivated prosecution at a time when that was rampant.
If we look at the rest of the Epton black book, we see that in the years that followed, Washington won numerous awards for legislative excellence. The Sun-Times editorialized in 1974 that “his contributions to the legislature and to his constituents far outweigh personal problems he has had in the past … .” The Tribune in the same year said he had “redeemed himself.” And this was nearly a decade ago, long before he served in the Illinois senate and in Congress.
What about the other charges? Washington says that the long overdue gas and telephone bills that Epton criticizes as evidence of his negligence involved campaign expenses. “They stem from 1976 on,” Washington said, “when I was fighting the bitter fights. Working with short dollars, you incur debts. Every candidate has debts. You can’t find a politician in this city who doesn’t have an ongoing debt with a printing company. That doesn’t make it a nondebt, but it’s not a personal debt.”
The Epton black book makes it clear that Washington’s law license was suspended once (not twice, and it was not a disbarment, a much more serious censure). The money involved here was legal fees, and again the sums were miniscule—$15, $30, $60. The suspension was not, as Epton alleges, due to the conversion or misappropriation of clients’ funds for private use, but to a lesser offense, failure to adequately render service. In most cases, there was a dispute: Washington claims that the amounts received had been small down payments and that the clients had not paid the rest as agreed.
Also, he says that he was loaded down with community service work at the time. “We did a lot of pro bono work. You can’t be a black lawyer in the city of Chicago, and certainly not a black lawyer in politics, without doing a lot of pro bono work,” Washington told me. “The danger is, you load up with pro bono work and you leave behind the good case—you just don’t function right.
“I didn’t try to excuse these except to say that you won’t find another lawyer who was suspended for something like that, and you won’t find another individual who was indicted for something like that.”
“Those charges are quite common,” Kennon said. “A person will come in for a consultation is supposed to come back with more money to get started. When people don’t get back to you, you figure they just didn’t decide to use you.” The reason why Washington was punished probably had less to do with the complaints against him than with his insistence that he was too busy with legislative work to attend the subsequent hearings of the disciplinary committee of the Chicago Bar Association, thus angering the hearing officers.
“In those days it was common that people would not give credence to the [disciplinary committee],” Kennon argued, “and more people would get in trouble for that. Lawyers are a peculiar breed, very independent.”
Washington was very much the feisty lawyer, stubborn and unwilling to submit to what he considered unjust treatment. Now, he acknowledges, such combativeness wasn’t wise. “They caught me at the wrong age,” he said. “I was much more intemperate at that age. I was inclined to tell people to go to hell much too quickly when I thought I was being pushed around. You can’t do that.”
So what is the pattern? Repeated criminal behavior, as Epton alleges? Or neglect of small personal matters by a busy legislator combined with some bad judgments in not better pursuing his own defense? Considering the accolades Washington received as an effective, careful, and reliable legislator from his Downstate colleagues in the state legislature and from many members of Congress, it becomes clear that Washington is far better about carrying out his public duties than in taking care—or making sure that others take care—of his private affairs.
Given this context, some voters may still decide that Washington’s foibles are too heinous for anyone holding public office. Many of these voters will be people who have enthusiastically voted for and supported Machine politicians who have, unlike Washington, abused their public offices, embezzled public funds, and peddled their influence. Over a third of the voting electorate just recently embraced Jane Byrne, who collected her infamous $10 million political fun in large part from private contractors who grew wealthy from exploiting the city coffers or from being granted licenses and permits from the city, such as to dump hazardous wastes in populated neighborhoods. Illegal? Apparently not. But what behavior reflects better on a public figure’s trustworthiness?
“I don’t think [these failings] reflect on my ability to do anything,” Washington told me. “There are no purists in the world. Anybody in public life, unless he’s highly affluent, has had financial problems. I’ve always said it is a legitimate issue, but to duck behind that as a reason not to support a candidate for something that happened 17 or 18 years go, I don’t buy that.”
Epton’s efforts to make personal character the focus of the campaign may backfire. The Illinois Public Action Council, which has represented consumer interests in the state legislature for many years and knows Epton’s performance well, recently charged that Epton was involved in a “pervasive” conflict of interest in the state legislature.
Epton is a multimillionaire lawyer who specialized in representing insurance companies and owns at least $225,000 in insurance stocks, a drop from the past following some lucrative sales of stocks. In the legislature he was known as Mr. Insurance and chaired the House Insurance Committee. At least three-fourths of the legislation he introduced concerned insurance companies.
During the last five years alone, Public Action discovered, Epton’s law firm, where he still receives a hefty salary, received at least $1.3 million in legal fees from insurance companies—although that is only “the tip of the iceberg of the legal business which Epton’s firm conducts with insurance companies.” One of the biggest plums was a state contract (ultimately worth about $1.5 million) for the liquidation of the Kenilworth Insurance Company that was awarded by Governor James Thompson’s Republican administration to Epton’s firm. Both Thompson and Epton, Public Action charged, have tried to “seal the case from public scrutiny” and cover up information about the case and the fees.
Epton worked hard to defend the insurance companies and to fight consumer interests in the legislature, Public Action director Robert Creamer said. Epton fought against bills to regulate insurance rates, which would have lowered rates for Chicagoans, who have long suffered from extremely high and discriminatory home and auto insurance rates.
Epton fought for limitations on consumer product liability, for restrictions on claims in cases of death or injury, for restrictions in pursuit of punitive damages, for increasing the difficulty for filing lawsuits on injuries resulting from negligence, and for making it harder for victims of medical malpractice to sue for damages.
One of the major insurance problems in Chicago over the years has been insurance redlining. In certain geographical areas, insurance companies would not write policies for home or even auto insurance. This discriminated especially against blacks and Latinos. But it also speeded the racial change of neighborhoods, since white areas near black communities that were designated “changing areas” would also be redlined by banks, savings and loans, and insurance companies. Ironically, many of the rabid Epton supporters were victims of these practices, which Washington fought against.
Epton’s role in this problem is very instructive. He opposed a tough law that would have stopped redlining and established minimum standards of insurance. He favored a toothless bill that simply prohibited redlining without providing any real enforcement mechanism.
In response to the conflict-of-interest charges, Epton says he sponsored legislation that cost in the insurance industry millions of dollars. What he does not say is that those few instances of “reform” were designed to head off much more effective reforms. The demand for reform had been spurred by the abuses of the insurance industry, which is far less regulated in this state than in nearly any other—in large part thanks to Bernard Epton.
“He was the insurance industry’s man,” Creamer said. “When they finally made a deal, he would carry it through the legislature to prevent the attachment of any amendments that were unfriendly to the insurance industry.”
The FAIR plan, for example, set up a risk pool among insurance companied to cover people otherwise denied insurance. But those people are forced under the plan to pay far higher rates. The strong redlining reform bill that Epton fought—and that lost by only two votes—would have augmented the FAIR plan by providing that a state inspector would investigate a house, for example, and determine what causal factors ere relevant to its insurability. If there was bad wiring, that would be relevant; if it was in a “bad neighborhood,” that would not. If it met some minimum standards, it would be eligible for commercial rates of insurance.
“To deal with redlining and insurance in the city, you had to deal first with rates,” Creamer said, “and Epton absolutely opposed dealing with rate discrimination.” Insurance companies may not exclude certain areas from coverage; but they can charge such exorbitant rates that insurance is effectively precluded. The people covered by the FAIR plan do no not show a higher incidence of loss than those who are not, Creamer said, indicating that some other basis of discrimination is at work.
That basis is geography, according to Creamer. Geography meant race. Chicago as a whole paid higher rates, and it was harder to get insurance,” he said. It was harder and it was costlier, it is worth emphasizing, for whites who lived in the city as well as blacks̬thanks in part to Bernard Epton. Beyond his legislative activities, there is the fact that four of the ten insurance firms cited i a 1977 state of Illinois study of redlining in insurance as being guilty of the practice have been among the clients of Epton’s law firm. They are State Farm Fire and Casualty, Fireman’s Fund, Reserve Insurance Company, and Aetna Casualty & Surety.
Creamer claims that Epton’s work in the legislature has cost all Chicago consumers in higher insurance rates, has penalized many with outrageous rates and the unjustified stigma of being excluded from regular insurance coverage, and has contributed tot he instability and deterioration of many Chicago neighborhoods.
Such behavior—far more relevant to decisions about selection of a mayor than Washington’s misdeeds—has received very little attention. But Creamer is concerned about it for more reasons than the light it throws on Epton’s legislative history and ethics. Epton has allied himself with some of the Machine politicians who are most inclined to sell the city for private gain; Creamer is convinced his record shows that “he’ll sell the city to the highest bidder, just as he sold his legislative east to the insurance industry.”
Chicago Lawyer reported that Epton tried to talk privately with U.S. District Judge Prentice Marshall about a case involving “millions of dollars of Epton’s personal fortune.” DePaul University law professor Debra Evenson said, “In the canons of ethics, that’s as serious as taking a retainer and not fulfilling the work.”
Although Epton’s release of incomplete medical records that were presented as a complete resume has occupied much news media attention, he is more likely suffering among voters as a result of his volatile temper. Madeline Lund, a community leader on the northwest side who is undecided in the race, said she and many of her friends “perceive Epton as a hot-head, and he looks pale and sickly” Other undecided community leaders in the area commented that Epton “acted like a jerk” or seemed “immature” and treated the election “like a big joke,” as reasons for their ambivalence.
After Epton’s outburst during a benefit for Vito Marzullo’s 25th Ward organization, when he told reporters to “go back to Russia” and pushed some away as he rushed out, Milton Rakove, author of Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers, observed, “A lot of people seeing that on TV will think, leaving race and religion out, what kind of guy have we got coming in for mayor? Washington is clearly a moderate, temperate guy and Epton looks more volatile. It will cause many of them to have second thoughts.” Especially after Jane Byrne.
For some people, the questions about Washington’s legal troubles may be more than a convenient excuse and a cover for unacknowledged racial feelings. But there is no question that racism has entered the campaign full-force.
For some people, the questions about Washington’s legal troubles may be more than a convenient excuse and a cover for unacknowledged racial feelings. But there is no question that racism has entered the campaign full-force.
Throughout the southwest and northwest sides, unregistered groups like “Democrats for Epton” are slipping racist literature under doors. Some of it is outrageously scurrilous, such as the broadside advertising that “your vote for Mr. Epton will stop contamination and occupation of the city hall, by a Mr. Baboon … elected racially with the votes of thousands of baboons … nonproductive, irresponsible Americans, American baboons who cannot care less for their duty towards America.” It gets worse. Then it concludes, “As a ‘white’ vote ‘white.'”
More typical are slightly less crude appeals. “Don’t lest Washington and his croonies [sic] have a second chance to rub our noses in the ground,” one leaflet reads. “A concerned neighbor” advises people, “if the majority of voters choose Harold Washington you can expect the value of your property to depreciate in price by many thousands of dollars over night. Equally disaterous [sic] your prospective buyers will probably be black bargain hunters.” Another leaflet states bluntly, “You an either put an Epton sign in your window and support him or YOU CAN PUT A FOR SALE SIGN IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE.”
After a primary in which racial resentments were not fanned until the latter days by Byrne’s workers, the general election has taken a more vicious turn. The symbol of that viciousness—although not the worst instance of it—was the picketing of Saint Pascal. “I think Epton has to take major responsibility for what happened Palm Sunday,” Said John McDermott, editor of the Chicago Reporter, the monthly newsletter on race relations. “That was obviously organized, and it was irresponsible. Epton’s problem is to control the crazies. He’s attracting racists, people who are frightened to death of blacks. He has a moral, ethical, political decision to make. He’s said some good things, but he’s waffled. When you have a campaign slogan like ‘Before it’s too late,” you’re playing on racial fears.
“The Sunday thing was absolutely the worst. I don’t think he’s got control of them. He seems like a good man, although he comes across as glib rather than serious. He doesn’t want to turn away any support, but there are some people he shouldn’t allow on the board. But I think he has allowed them in.”
Epton obviously does not go around making overtly racist comments, such as the scrawl “nigger die” on the walls of Saint Pascal. But in slightly more polite terms he tells people that their racist sentiments are legitimate. There is a continual sneer in his voice when he talks about Washington; it indicates contempt. He peppers his remarks with coded digs—”If he can read,” “We don’t want him in our neighborhood,” the suggestion Washington was treated leniently because he’s a (pause, sneer) “minority.”
Maybe Epton still believes in some of the civil rights measures he supported, when it was politically necessary for him to do so as a representative from Hyde Park. But an old friend who was shocked at his campaign called the headquarters and told a staff member there that she couldn’t believe it was the same Bernie Epton. “People can change,” came the reply.
Epton may have opened a Pandora’s box of racial hostility with his campaign, but the contents were a long time in the making. John McKnight, associate director of the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern, has a long personal and professional involvement in studying racial frictions in Chicago communities. He sees the peculiar tenacity and fierceness of racism in Chicago as the heritage of machine politics that deliberately kept races and ethnic groups apart as a way of maintaining centralized control.
“I think part of the special virulence is a legacy of the Daley years,” McKnight said. “In other communities across the country where there was sufficient democratic life, where politics as sufficiently in the citizen domain, people had opportunities and necessities to interact and to come to agreements and coalitions. The machine always acted to keep interests in enclave and acted as a broker. It always exacted a racial price for being the broker in the black communities. The black chip in the game was always half-price, always cheaper in this brokered interests politics.
“We learned to live with a petty tyranny that brokered black interests to the consistent disadvantage of blacks and prevented coalitions across class and race—blacks were only blacks, Poles were only Poles. The Machine always kept race and ethnicity as the primary category and kept any popular citizen action, such as neighborhood action, from developing, because that competed with their ward action. They undercut citizen action and participation, because that undercut their own local system of control.”
At one time, William Dawson was Daley’s back boss. Daley relied heavily on him. The white ethnics on the northwest and southwest sides rebelled against Daley, especially in 1963 when he barely defeated Republican Ben Adamowski. Daley survived because of the loyalty of black voters tot he machine. But the Machine never rewarded that loyalty. It took blacks for granted and tried to woo the whites. Thomas Keane, who ran the City Council for Daley, recently recalled that when Dawson died, Daley swore that he would never let blacks get in the position where one person could speak for them again.
Gradually blacks began to protest their second-class status as the cheap chip in the game, as the loyal troops who never got their share of rewards. At first, the middle class fielded some independent candidates. After many sputtering fits and starts, more independent aldermen and some independent legislators were elected. A few Machine Democrats, like Harold Washington an his mentor Ralph Metcalfe, broke with Daley over issues such as police brutality.
Occasionally, blacks broke away en masse from the machine, most significantly in 1972 in rejecting State’s Attorney Hanrahan. But when black candidates ran for mayor—Richard Newhouse in 1975 and Washington in 1977—most blacks stuck with white candidates and the Machine.
Blacks broke again from the machine in 1979. In large part they were the forced that propelled Jane Byrne to victory. But Byrne, they believed, betrayed their support, did not deliver on promises to blacks, and fought to keep blacks under her revived Machine control. This led to growing protests and to self-organization within the black community. And the organizing and anger paved the way for Harold Washington’s candidacy. Perhaps a black candidate would deliver, since white candidates supported faithfully by blacks refused to do so.
Washington’s opportunity came partly because of the division between Byrne and Daley, as everyone has noted. But this formulation should not ignore an important comparison: White overwhelmingly voted white in the primary; at least 92 percent voted for white candidates. But despite the crusade fever that Washington stirred up, only 82 percent of blacks voted for a black candidate.
The very sad irony is that most whites have an image of blacks in the primary voting as a bloc, whereas whites simply decided on who was the best candidate. “I felt betrayed,” one young, intelligent white cop told me. right after the primary his immediate reaction was simply to vote white in the general election. Like nearly every other white, he was totally unaware of the real proportions of bloc voting in the primary.
Now the Epton campaign is attempting to legitimize an anti-Washington, anti-black vote with the argument that is repeated over and over: “Is it racist for whites to united, but not racist for blacks?”—as one leaflet reads.
The answer is yes, not only because of the obviously racist character of much of the campaign but also because the analogy simply does not hold. As the capsule history should make clear, blacks have been historically in a different position. Their actions were expressions of a legitimate interest group seeing equal treatment from the government. Ethnic or racial pride played some role in Washington’s victory, but it was a movement committed to issues as well, a reform movement that tried to reach beyond blacks but was largely rebuffed.
One top-ranking aide to Epton who has grown “ambivalent and uncomfortable” about remaining in the campaign repudiated the legitimacy of the “vote white” campaign. “blacks have been excluded and exploited,” he said. “When blacks vote for a black, it’s a classic interest-group vote. But when whites vote for a white because he’s white, it’s racist.”
However decent Bernard Epton may be personally, whatever he may have done in the past or intended to do in this campaign, the meaning of his candidacy now transcends him. A victory for Epton becomes a victory for racism.
But the issue is much more than that. In his bid for power, Epton has allied himself with some of the most conservative, corrupt, and rearguard elements of the Machine. Some Machine leaders like George Dunne may hope their fortunes will improve with Washington, but in any case they know their political futures depend on blacks. But others are so committed to patronage and the traditional broker politics of the machine that they sense that their power is threatened. For many, Washington offends not so much because he is black but because he supports independents and wants to reform city government.
“Washington has said he would get rid of patronage,” said James Pogwizd, a Marzullo precinct captain and county employee now working for Epton. “He’s told us, ‘I don’t need you, but you better support me, even though I’m going to destroy you and everything you stand for.’ It’s like asking an endangered species to show himself to a hunger.”
Before members of the Wilderness Society rush to Marzullo’s defense, it is worth recalling that these endangered beasts are also known as the “gray wolves.” They are expected to dominate city government if Epton is elected, since he has no base in the council and no ready source of a policy-making staff.
The contrast between Washington and Epton campaigns shows up starkly in their visits to white neighborhoods. Not long ago, Bernard Epton visited Club Karlov, a bar at 4058 W. 47th St. in the 12th Ward. There he was greeted by a raucous crowd of about 100 workers for Aloysius Majerczyk, one of the least distinguished members of the City Council, whose main claim to fame is that he was the first alderman to bolt to Epton. Amid the shouts of “Epton for mayor” where insistent cries of “vote proud, vote white.” There was a wide variety of buttons—a yellow one reading “Be a Republican for a Day,” a mouse saying “Hey, Harold” and brandishing a middle finger, a picture of a watermelon with Washington written above it, and the straightforward legend, “Vote for the White Man.”
“We got to have Epton,” one young man insistently urgently. “You can’t have a nigger. He’s illiterate, and that’s it.”
Epton was only slightly more temperate. “When I come out and see my neighbors, my friends, my associates, my colleagues, the people who helped make Chicago great, come out in miserable weather like this all I can say is “God bless this wonderful city,'” Epton addressed the crowd. “My opponent goes all over the country. He goes to Los Angeles, to Detroit, to New York talking about what a rotten city this is. On April 12 we’ll send him away from this city for a long time.” The crowd loved it.
“Here’s the alderman that’s going to help you and help me run this city and this neighborhood,” Epton said of Majerczyk. He criticized the TV stations for what he considered unfair coverage of his campaign, and then told his audience—to their great approval—that he would never change his “Before it’s too late” commercial. “If anybody wants to read anything malicious or racial into that, that’s their privilege. Very simply what I’m saying is the city of Chicago is in a very, very crucial, tight financial period. We need honesty and integrity in the city government, and I’m not going to turn this city over to a man who can’t handle is own finances, who can’t pay his own taxes.” People who “pay their bills slowly,” as Washington had joked himself earlier in the day, don’t do small business any good, Epton said, “and we don’t need him in our neighborhood.”
Then, after suggesting that clergy stay out of politics, Epton made a pitch. To “people like you who have worked so hard to maintain the little you’ve achieved, all I can say is while I’m the mayor of Chicago, you can be confident that under no circumstances will I raise taxes on single penny. I know you’ve heard it before, but sometimes my opponent isn’t quite too bright … . Day by ay he’s been changing his tune. Eventually he might reach some of my programs and get the right answers, assuming he can read.” The yahoos loved it.
“As my wife can tell you, I’m not even mad yet. Harold as a record that doesn’t belong in any, in any public office in this country.” Washington’s behavior is “morally wrong and certainly it’s not what our parents taught us to do.”
That is standard Epton out on the hustings—nary a program, nary a word about unifying the city, nary a sense of direction.”
At no time did Harold Washington—or Daley or Byrne—ever come within leagues of such demagoguery. Each of Epton’s lines is designed to trigger deeply felt racial hostilities and project them all onto Harold Washington.
Harold Washington took his place before the lectern in the meeting hall of the Parkview Lutheran Church, 3915 N. Monticello, as guest of the Parkview Civic Association. About 100 leaders from different community groups in the 35th Ward (in the vicinity of Irving Park and the Kennedy Expressway) had been invited. (Epton declined the invitation, as he has done for many such forums that focus on community issues.)
Blacks have always been conscious of how their communities were short-changed, Washington began, but his travels around the city have revealed how “many, many communities are on the short end of the stick. It’s shocking how similar problems in many other neighborhoods are to some in my community.” All are affected by the flight of industry, inadequate schools, lack of park and recreation facilities. “It’s that kind of across-the-board gross negligence that concerns me,” he said.
“My perspective is all-inclusive,” he said. “Fundamental is the knowledge, appreciation, and concern for our neighborhoods, where people live and work and children go to school they have been neglected.” The whole city’s fate was linked together: “A job in your community in a sense is a job in mine.”
As a product of the city and its schools and of a Methodist preacher’s family, he said he felt he owed back to the city for what he had received. “I’m a workaholic. I love to work. I love campaigning. You’re looking at a person who believes he has something to offer—with your help.”
The response was friendly and polite but restrained—not the standing ovation he would receive later that evening at a much larger, multiethnic church meeting in Logan Square, not the warm applause he had got at Wright Junior College and at North Park College. But a far cry from Saint Pascal.
These community leaders had serious questions. What about street crimes and gangs? As a supporter and critic of the police, he said, he wants a more effective police force with a professional superintendent who knows the neighborhoods and “who understands the civilian part of society is the boss of the military, which is the police.” He would beef up foot patrols, make police more visible, deal “firmly and fairly” with gangs, and be tough on narcotics. “If children can find it, why can’t police?” he asked. If they want to keep the commander they have now, he said in response to another question, they should have a voice through neighborhood planning institutions that he would set up.
“This city is run as a closed shop,” he said. “People don’t see where the decisions are made. They can’t make their weight felt.”
He argued for a change in the building codes to facilitate rehabilitation of housing and for putting more city money in the neighborhoods (including deposits in local banks that make loans for neighborhood development). “There’s no inventory of business in the city except for one reason,” he quipped, “to collect campaign funds.”
A young blond man said that people in the neighborhood realize black neighborhoods don’t get their share. Does that mean our neighborhood will get a cutback in services? “No,” Washington said. “Your question goes to the heart of the misconceptions and misunderstandings [about needs and desires of poor neighborhoods]. Their cry is not to reduce the quality in other neighborhoods. Their cry is it raise the level in the whole city.”
Will you punish this ward by withholding services if our committeeman goes against you? “A ward is not responsible if it has a knuckle-headed committeeman,” he said, drawing the first hearty laugh of the evening. “I’m not in the business of punishing anybody. I have survived because I am basically and fundamentally a fair person.”
An older man in a dark blue suit asked why Washington wants Democratic party support if he plans to sever links with the party. Washington explained that he wants to “remove the party from the backs of city workers,” but the party will remain one influence group among others, even if he plays no role in its structure. “I’m not out to hurt or destroy the party,” he said, “but just to see that it doesn’t have overweening influence in the city. Why should the party run the city and not you?”
In his final remarks, he made his one reference to Epton, as “a clone of Mr. Reagan,” and ended with an appeal that their neighborhood and his would never have to fight each other for what is due them. “I want to help you build the city.”
Above all, Washington has tried to find a common ground above the racial strife with his emphasis on neighborhood strength, good schools, and economic development. He has won over the leadership of labor unions—sometimes grudgingly, often enthusiastically—with his voting record. On issues important to working people and unions, he has taken the positions they favor close to 100 percent of the time, compared to Epton’s 38 percent in his most recently evaluated year in the legislature.
Washington also appeals to white voters’ economic interests as consumers and taxpayers: The Illinois Public Action Council, a statewide federation of community, consumer, and labor organizations, ranked Washington in favor or 89 percent of key consumer protection and tax reform measures in his last two terms in the state legislature, with Epton favoring only 21 percent. The Public Action Council is trying to reach community groups and consumer advocates to bridge the racial divisions. Likewise, lakefront reformers—Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization and the like—are holding an “issues fair” at the Belmont Hotel this Saturday to show how they believe Washington’s program advances the liberal agenda.
Mike Holewinski, a former state legislator from the northwest side and one of its few prominent independent politicians, is leading the Washington effort in the toughest areas—the far northwest and southwest sides. As the city is tracked eastwardly from those far reaches, Washington’s support among whites picks up steadily, increasing to its peak just behind the lakeshore high rises.
Like many in the campaign, Holewinski thinks that most whites from the outermost wards can be won over only by Washington’s performance in office, but that Washington can nevertheless demonstrate his commitment to those neighborhoods. Holewinski’s aim is to calm the fears. “There’s a lot of unreasonable thought out there,” Holewinski said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if Jesse Jackson is going to be superintendent of police.”
Holewinski was with Washington at Saint Pascal. “It bothers me that Epton is trying to get away from that,” Holewinski said. “They were his supporters and they were organized to be there. What he’s bringing out is the ugliest emotion. It was oppressive seeing whites saying we must stick together as whites. ‘Aren’t you ashamed? You’re Polish, you’re white,’ some people yelled at me. I’m not at all ashamed of being Polish, and Harold Washington is my friend. I’ve known him for ten years and I stick with my friends. I don’t think Epton is a particularly good candidate. He’s abysmal.”
On many of the issues most important to northwest-side neighborhoods, Washington has been on the residents’ side and Epton has been opposed to it Holewinski said. Washington opposed the crosstown expressway and insurance redlining. He favored the substitution of generic drugs and lifting the sales tax from food and drugs. Epton took the opposite stands.
Although Washington is not interested in fighting the court ruling that mandates scattered sites for public housing, he is sensitive to the issues of community stability. “Bank redlining, blockbusting—those are the most destabilizing forces in the city,” campaign manager Al Raby said. “It’s a given that this administration will support open housing, but the issue we can join on is that the real estate agents should not be able to make a profit off human suffering and manipulation. Period.
“Philosophically, we believe in scattered-site housing, that this is a real alternative and not disruptive. We will have resources and authority to prove that it can be successful. We will need a period of time to show our goodwill and win the confidence of those neighborhoods before we proceed. We are not interested in scaring people to death.
“They’re frightened people. Frightened people put up the frontiers. I know what it is to be frightened, to feel that people in power know nothing about you and care less. We have an opportunity to behave differently.”
Despite the candidates’ records, despite the programs, some people will never be reached. Lois Cioch was a supporter of Holewinski and wanted to run for the city Council. Now she says, “I’m definitely not for Washington, even though I’m a Democrat. I’m probably a little on the prejudiced side. I feel he is not the right man. As a minority group they could have come up with something better.” (Is Epton the best white Chicago could produce?) Cioch doesn’t really trust Epton (“maybe it’s because he’s a Republican”), but she and her family will vote for him.
Did she ever consider the Washington record that Holewinski mentioned? “I knew I wouldn’t be able to vote for the man.”
But not everyone on the northwest side is like her. Talks with a number of people who attended the Parkview meeting turned up much indecision and some sympathies for Washington as well as Cioch-like close-mindedness. George Redfearn, a market researcher, had been for Daley but was now for Washington. “Partly I’m drawn to Washington because of the negative reaction to his campaign,” he said. “I find it distasteful. I think Washington has the best program, and he can pull talented people together. I’ve had a problem with his tax problems, but the amount was insignificant so I can live with it.”
His wife, Kathy Stubblefield, “mommy and occupational therapist,” sensed a surprising amount of quiet support for Washington in the neighborhood despite the more visible Epton signs. And Redfearn said that despite the strong police reaction against Washington, many cops feel that Washington—who, unlike Epton, has supported collective bargaining for city employees—will be more likely to give them a pay increase.
Although Sean McDermott, vice-president of the Patrick Henry Association, feared that white neighborhoods would get fewer services with Washington as mayor, he doesn’t much like Epton, whom he sees as “less mature,” less qualified, and less impressive as a leader. He worries about Washington’s tax and legal problems, but he is turned off by the racist campaign that he believes Epton is running, despite the disclaimers.
“If Washington is going to benefit blacks and in doing that taking things from whites, I don’t like that,” he said, reflecting on his indecision. “The one thing I like about a black mayor is the way blacks and whites get along is pretty decent, but if Epton gets elected it will upset blacks and cause a lot of problems. If Harold Washington can make blacks more relaxed and blacks and whites grow together, that would be great. If Epton is elected blacks might think, ‘Well, we’ve been screwed again.'”
John Lund, a “very conservative person,” may just stay home. Unhappy with Washington’s answers, he was convinced that “Epton’s worse. He’s worse on organizational abilities, and he’s unable to say what he’ll do about anything.” With Washington the city will be topsy-turvy, he thinks, and with Epton the powers in the smoke-filled rooms will run everything. “Nobody knows what to do here,” he concluded. “It’s going to be bad whatever happens.”
Jack Kirby, a retired security officer and former precinct captain, can see nothing but Jesse Jackson and a bunch of “radicals” around Washington. “I think he’s going to turn all the neighborhoods into ghettos,” he said. “He’s going to take away from the good neighborhoods and spread it to the south and west sides—which need rebuilding—but he can’t take from people paying taxes. I think the town’s going to be up for grabs when he’s elected.
“This is a white town. They say this is the most racist town. Good, I’ll buy that. At least I don’t have somebody in a high rise next to me with $1,5000 a month and a green card to raise their kids. It all come down to education, and you can’t educate these people.”
Like so many whites, Kirby projects his fears, his hates, his anxieties onto blacks. “I seen the other night when his entourage stood around with hatred of whites on their faces, defying us,” he said. I was at the same meetings, saw the same faces, perceived no defiance, no hate, just the typical stony faces of security people, like secret service agents or cops anywhere.
A little knowledge can make a big difference. Carolynn Ediger, president of the Parkview Civic Association and a youthful-looking grandmother in her mid-40s, lobbied the state legislature on education issues some years ago for another community group. “I encountered Holewinski, Washington, and Epton,” she said. “Holewinski was very receptive. I was very impressed with Mr. Washington. He was patient and worked with us. He was open and available. Mr. Epton wasn’t—he was aloof and uninterested. There were some issues I felt strongly where Mr. Washington voted the way I liked and Epton was against my position—on insurance and women’s issues. In Congress I’ve watched Mr. Washington, and I’ve been pleased.”
She figures that Washington was simply overburdened with work and let his tax filing slide. “Our leaders are human beings, and we should have compassion for them as we would for a friend,” she said.
Compassion is in short supply these days, however. It never was the city’s strong suit. But self-interest alone demands that voters pierce through the veil of distorted personal attacks and racial fears to confront the meaning of the election. It is a critical election on two counts—first, the policies and administration of the city government; second, the overall political direction of the city and the country.
“I have great hope,” John McKnight said, “because I believe that too many Chicagoans have come to accept the degraded level of public service and public participation that was Daleyism as that which we ought to have. What we need is an opportunity for a government that builds community and civic action. Now we have that possibility. All kinds of people at the neighborhood level—white and black—paid the price for the racist Machine politics, and that was lack of good community services and an active program for neighborhood economic development.
“Chicago to survive has to mobilize its neighborhoods in new forms of economic development. We need Harold Washington, not as a person, but somebody who says what he does, if the city is to survive. We can’t afford another four to eight years of the current economic reality. It’s sucking the blood out of the city.”
The Washington program promises economic development, neighborhood power, fair treatment for women and those long left out of the mainstream, and governmental efficiency. Whatever limitations there may be in the specificity of those programs now, they are still more carefully thought out than the Epton pastiche of recommendations from civic groups, none of which he really seems to take seriously in his campaign. Whatever disorganization there is in the Washington camp—and it persists—it might seem to be nothing compared to the possible chaos if Machine factions in the city Council came into control under Epton.
Beyond the matters of public policy and fair administration, there is the question of where the city is going. Washington stresses grass-roots democracy, a coalition of interests across racial and ethnic lines, comprehensive public planning, and an end to the machine politics that in dominating this city for more than half a century has left it crippled and full of bitter division. He also emphasizes, as his many national supporters do, that a victory for Epton is a victory for President Reagan and a major setback for Democrats and those seeking an alternative in 1984.
The old ways promise worsened problems and steady decline. Yet even if the city must change, there are those who fear it. “It’s the unknown we’re afraid of,” Carolynn Ediger said of her neighbors. But perpetuating the known Chicago of division and inequity is also a frightening prospect. The unknown is where the future always is.