Six years ago the major media were caught off guard by the political potency of Harold Washington’s movement. Election day left them gaping. Now, judging from their initial coverage of the February 28 mayoral primary, they may be underestimating the movement again.

The day after the primary, the Tribune proclaimed a Daley “landslide.” On WBBM AM, Daley media master David Axelrod announced that his client had forged a new coalition to replace Washington’s movement. The Sun-Times’s front-page story quoted Democratic political consultant Thomas Carey claiming, “Daley won by getting the swing voters from the Washington coalition,” And a front-page Tribune analysis invented a “Washington rule”–that blacks have to unite to win–and posited it as “the biggest lesson of Harold Washington’s most important victory.”

What a lot of bunk. Washington’s movement wasn’t defeated on February 28–it never even took the field. On April 4 it will. And while Tim Evans still must be rated the underdog, he will almost certainly do better–perhaps much better–than the man Daley beat in the primary.

Three points in the media’s primary coverage merit comment:

First is the assertion that Daley won by a landslide. This is true in a relative sense: Daley did beat Sawyer 55 percent to 44 percent. However, to the extent that “landslide” implies invincible popularity, it is a misleading description of the primary vote. Daley’s winning total this year actually fell 25,000 votes short of Jane Byrne’s losing total against Harold Washington two years ago. And Daley lagged behind Washington himself by more than 100,000 votes. In the 1987 primary Washington hauled in some 588,000 votes to Byrne’s 509,000. This year Daley managed only 484,000. He won only because Sawyer did so miserably–attracting only 383,000 votes.

Daley’s cheerleaders blame his low totals on low voter turnout. But the obvious question is, Why was turnout so low? And the answer is, Because neither Daley nor Sawyer excited the voters.

Some commentators have suggested that the low turnouts represent a return to normalcy, following aberrantly high turnouts in 1983 and 1987. But those high turnouts reflected intense voter interest in races pitting a black reformer against white traditionalists. While few voters perceived this year’s primary as another such contest, the general election between Daley and Evans has that potential.

A second, even more misleading media claim is that Daley has built a new coalition by luring swing voters to defect from the Washington coalition. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the Washington coalition either stayed home or voted for Sawyer.

Washington’s winning turnouts came from blacks, Latinos, and liberal and progressive whites mainly along the north lakefront. In 18 of 19 predominantly black wards on the south and west sides, Daley picked up a combined total of only about 2,000 more votes than Byrne got in ’87. In the six north lakefront wards combined, he did surpass Byrne by more than 6,000 votes–but only after nearly 12,000 new voters registered in these wards between 1987 and 1989. Without the newcomers, mainly white yuppies, Daley would probably have fallen short of Byrne’s showing.

In three of the four Latino wards, Daley received a collective total of about 1,000 votes fewer than Jane Byrne did.

Of all the strong Washington wards, that leaves only two–the 5th (Hyde Park and South Shore) and the 26th (West Town and Humboldt Park). In the 5th, whose alderman, Larry Bloom, withdrew shortly before the primary, Daley picked up about 1,100 votes over Byrne, for a total of 2,300–hardly a major shift in a ward where Washington drew more than 22,000 votes, and even Sawyer pulled in more than 15,000.

In the 26th, where Alderman Luis Gutierrez defected to Daley, Daley gained 1,300 votes over Byrne. However, this gain was nearly offset by Daley’s 1,000-vote drop in the other Latino wards.

In short, the vast majority of Daley voters punched their cards for Jane Byrne two years ago. His marginal gains came mostly from new yuppie voters in wards like the 43rd (Lincoln Park) and 44th (Lakeview). Daley neither built a new coalition nor made significant inroads into the Washington coalition.

A third media misperception is that black unity is the most important lesson of Washington’s electoral success. The reality is that black unity is not a winning ticket in this town; there simply aren’t enough blacks. The true lesson of Washington’s success is that the kind of movement he led–a progressive multiracial movement, bringing together a coalition of blacks, Latinos, and progressive whites–can win.

To win, a black candidate does need to unite the black vote–but he or she also needs to appeal to the liberal and progressive agendas of the minority of mainly lakefront whites, to Latinos, and to a network of activists who have long been committed to working in a multiracial coalition–people like Jesus Garcia in the 22nd Ward (Little Village), Danny Davis in the 29th (Austin), and David Orr in the 49th (East Rogers Park).

Sawyer’s loss reflects that reality. Admittedly, black disunity would have prevented his election in any event. With huge falloffs from Harold Washington’s black vote totals–Sawyer got 7,600 fewer votes even in his own Sixth Ward–no black can expect to win.

But even if Tim Evans and his supporters had heeded the insistent calls for black unity and come out for Sawyer, it is doubtful at best that Sawyer could have won. His shortfall from Washington’s totals in the north lakefront wards alone was about 26,000 votes. He lost another 7,000 votes in the 22nd and 31st wards, where aldermen Jesus Garcia and Raymond Figueroa, Washington (and Evans) supporters, sat on their hands.

The real “Washington rule” is thus not black unity, but multiracial, progressive coalition politics. Among its leading exponents in the white and Latino communities, few lined up with Sawyer, whose politics and record they found unappealing.

Many of them have, however, joined Evans. Even in the midst of the Daley versus Sawyer primary campaign, a January Evans rally at the Belmont Hotel drew the same kinds of progressives who had supported Harold Washington in 1983–people like organizer Heather Booth, the Reverend Don Benedict, state senator Miguel del Valle, aldermen Helen Shiller and David Orr, 44th Ward gay activist Ron Sable, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs director Jane Ramsey . . .

And when Evans held a press conference in mid-February to reiterate that absolutely, positively no way would he support Sawyer, and that his refusal was a matter of principle, he solidified that progressive support.

Within a week of the primary, for example, in two key lakefront wards, progressive organizations that did nothing for Sawyer–Network 44 and Network 49–endorsed Evans.

Evans appears to understand the real “Washington rule” in a way that the Tribune still does not.

But can he win?

The answer, subject to the unpredictable ups and downs of hard-fought Chicago mayoral contests, is that Evans faces an uphill but not unwinnable campaign.

He begins as an undeniable underdog. A Southtown Economist/Daily Calumet/Channel Two poll taken the first two days after the primary showed Daley leading Evans 58 percent to 27 percent. However, there are many reasons to expect that Daley’s huge margin will shrink by election day.

On the one hand, there is reason to believe that Daley has come close to topping out. The turnout in the white ethnic wards on the southwest and northwest sides was markedly better than in the black wards, and Daley got almost all of it. There is little reason to expect him to do much better on the north lakefront or in the Latino wards than he did in the primary. And while the initial postprimary poll showed Daley favored by 18 percent of blacks–just as early preprimary polls showed him doing well among blacks against Sawyer–by election day his actual black vote is likely to sink well into single digits.

If voter interest in the general election picks up, Daley could be expected to move up to Jane Byrne’s 1987 totals or even somewhat higher. But if Ed Vrdolyak stays in as the Republican candidate, as now appears will happen, Daley could actually end up with fewer votes in the general than he got in the primary. The initial postprimary poll showed Vrdolyak supported by 3 percent of whites and 6 percent of blacks; while Vrdolyak may keep or even expand his white support, it’s a good guess that few of his purported black supporters will actually vote for him.

Daley may thus present an attainable target. If he does only as well as he did in the primary, Evans can beat him even if–running on the same multiracial, progressive platform that Washington ran on–Evans gets 100,000 votes fewer than Washington got last time out. Even if Daley improves his showing by, say, 40,000 votes, Evans could still beat him by drawing 60,000 fewer votes than Washington.

While the arithmetical variations are endless, you get the point: the same coalition–or “movement”–that elected Washington two years ago could elect Evans with tens of thousands of votes fewer than Washington received.

That is good news for Evans, because it is unrealistic to expect him to do as well as Washington did. The former mayor was the incumbent and the Democratic nominee; Evans is neither. As a less well known candidate, he may also be more vulnerable to attacks, whether well-founded or not, by his opponents and by the pro-Daley press. And it is too soon to assess how many voters will shy away from Evans’s newly created “Harold Washington Party.”

Still, Evans should do considerably better than Sawyer. Already he has managed one electoral and organizing feat that (even though the Sun-Times buried it on page 48) is undeniably impressive.

When Evans bowed out of the Democratic primary in late December to run as an independent, he faced a formidable task. Within the span of four weeks, he needed to gather 25,OO0 valid petition signatures to get on the ballot. To weather the customary challenges, he realistically needed closer to 40,000. By mid-January, about ten days before the deadline, one political gossip columnist wrote that Evans had only about 10,000 signatures, and that he was in trouble.

Then the filing date arrived. Evans wheeled over to City Hall more than 104,000 signatures–the largest number of mayoral petition signatures gathered in the shortest time in memory.

This achievement reflected both multiracial coalition support and a level of organization and enthusiasm that surprised the political wizards at the Sun-Times and Tribune. Evans’s field organization gathered signatures in 45 of the city’s 50 wards (missing only five of Daley’s strongest wards). It gathered at least 1,000 signatures in each of 30 wards–including not only all the black 9 wards, but also three north lakefront wards (46, 48, and 49), two Latino wards (22 and 31), the home wards of aldermen Terry Gabinski (32) and Richard Mell (33), and even Vrdolyak’s home base, the 1Oth Ward.

In short, Evans has organization in places where Sawyer didn’t even have places.

To what extent Evans’s stronger citywide network will translate into votes remains to be seen. But the question is not whether he will do better than Sawyer in lakefront and Latino wards; the question is how much better will he do? Among blacks, of course, the largest single question is whether they will overcome the bitter primary split to unite behind Evans. Initial signs are encouraging for Evans. While Sawyer has not and, understandably, probably will not endorse him, other leading Sawyer backers have already moved toward Evans. Jesse Jackson endorsed him the day after the primary. Two of Sawyer’s staunchest supporters, aldermen Bill Henry of the 24th Ward and Marlene Carter of the 15th, endorsed Evans that same week. Henry told the Chicago Defender that “this is bigger than personalities. . . . We have to do something to bring our community together. . . . If we don’t, we can forget about 1990 and 1991” (when wards may be redistricted and the next mayoral election will be held).

That kind of logic is likely to appeal to most of the pols formerly in Sawyer’s camp. In Henry’s and Carter’s cases, it will be stoutly reinforced by the fact that in March 1988, after they helped make Eugene Sawyer the acting mayor, both lost their ward committeeman elections to Evans supporters. Thus, in their wards, both sides of the post-Washington factional split may be pushing hard for Evans. And their example may not be lost on other black aldermen looking for reelection come 1991.

Evans did suffer one early and vocal defection–but it may help him more than it hurts. Alderman Anna Langford of the 16th Ward, now 71 years old and perhaps less concerned about running again in 1991, has endorsed Vrdolyak, of all people. But instead of swinging her ward toward Harold Washington’s old nemesis, her treason is more likely to send a message throughout black communities–and others–that Evans is, as he says, carrying on Washington’s fight.

Can the movement that elected Harold Washington elect Tim Evans on April 4? It won’t be easy, but it’s not out of the question.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.