Damn. Another choice between two mediocrities whose records are, at best, modest and mixed.

Until last week, tens of thousands of voters–about 20 percent of Chicago’s electorate, according to one recent poll–were hoping to vote for an obviously better candidate in the February 28 Democratic primary, Fifth Ward Alderman Larry Bloom. Many more might have supported him if they thought he could win.

Now they can’t. Last week, having raised less than one-tenth the financial war chests amassed by Daley and Sawyer, having been slighted by the major papers, and facing a possible electoral debacle, Bloom pulled out and endorsed acting mayor Eugene Sawyer.

Now, whether they stay at home or drag themselves to the polls on primary day, many voters will once again find themselves asking, Why don’t better people run for public office?

Bloom believes his difficulties had a lot to do with money and race. And his sortie suggests that flying solo is no way for good progressive candidates to overcome these hurdles. Harold Washington did it on the strength of a multiracial progressive movement. Bloom tried–and failed–to go it mostly alone.

Bloom is no more a saint than any of the rest of us. His ego matches his considerable intellect, and some people complain that he wears both on his sleeve. His terrierlike tactics in his one televised debate against Daley did not sit well with some viewers. Nor did his overstatement of the degree to which his election could spare the city the racial divisiveness he foresaw from the election of Daley or Sawyer.

That said, Bloom was easily the most welcome line on the primary ballot. He is very bright, able, and well versed in city government after ten years as an alderman, including a stint as chairman of the City Council’s important Budget and Government Operations Committee. He has a consistent record of integrity, of support for reform, and of commitment to public service over private gain for pols. He is a white man reelected twice by a ward that is 75 percent black. His campaign ideas for the city’s future were so much better than Daley’s and Sawyer’s that the Tribune was moved to comment at one point that if the candidates ran “on the wisdom of their ideas, Alderman Lawrence Bloom would be so far ahead of the pack that this race would be a bore.”

In short, one would have to search far and wide to find a better-qualified candidate than Bloom to run for mayor of Chicago.

But on February 15 Bloom withdrew, in part squeezed out by the same money people and media moguls who often say they’d like to see more candidates like him. He not only endorsed Sawyer, but said he will campaign for him.

What deal was cut? The Sun-Times immediately quoted two of Sawyer’s more mindless allies, aldermen William Henry and Robert Shaw, as suggesting that Bloom, who is a lawyer, would make a fine corporation counsel. WBBM newsradio aired Alderman Eddie Burke, of late a Daley supporter, licking his chops when asked whether Sawyer may have promised to help with Bloom’s campaign debts.

Invoking these innuendos, the Tribune editorial page pounced on Bloom as a “sellout.” After Sawyer’s many misdeeds, how else could Bloom support him?

(The editors did not ask how, after Daley’s many misdeeds, the Tribune could support him.)

It doesn’t appear to me that any deal was cut. Bloom isn’t that kind of guy–there really are at least some Chicago politicians for whom deals are not the bottom line–and anyway he had better reasons for getting out of the race.

After the February 7 debate on public television, Sawyer’s campaign commissioned a poll by researcher Thomas Kiley of Boston. The results were disquieting for Sawyer but encouraging for Bloom–they showed Bloom taking 24 percent of the black vote and about 17 percent of the white vote, for an overall 20 percent share of the primary vote.

While this reflected progress for Bloom, it was still far short of what he needed to win. But “the thing that really got me,” he told me the day after his withdrawal, was a Southtown Economist poll taken about the same time. What it showed, Bloom said, was that about half of his voters would back off if on election day they thought he was going to lose–which they probably would. That might leave Bloom with an embarrassing single-digit showing for a campaign in which he had actually done much better. Bloom thought it better to leave the race with his electoral dignity intact.

Another motivating factor, he said, was that if there was any chance of beating Daley, he wanted to help. One point in particular impressed him. “Traveling around the city during the campaign,” he explained, “I realized how impoverished this city is. I asked myself, will Richie Daley even sympathize with the plight of the poor on the west side, and if he does, will he have the political muscle to help them? My answer was no.

“Sawyer, on the other hand, at the very least has political reasons for helping them.”

Bloom denied any deals. He “never discussed” the corporation counsel position with Sawyer. Sawyer did invite him to help with the new administration in whatever way he could. But if any executive post were offered, Bloom said he would have to think about it very carefully. It would mean giving up his seat as alderman–which as a practical matter might end his career in electoral politics.

As for debts, Bloom answered, Sawyer “made no commitment and I made no request.”

One could argue, of course, that siding with Sawyer is in Bloom’s self-interest, if he hopes to be reelected yet again from a ward that’s 75 percent black. But one could also argue that siding with Daley would be in Bloom’s self-interest. Most political savants still expect Daley to win. Bloom would not be the first “progressive”–witness Luis Gutierrez–to go with the expected winner. And a Bloom endorsement would give Daley a real boost. A nice, deniable Daley deal could have been cut.

In the end, while one can agree or disagree with Bloom’s endorsement of Sawyer, there is neither convincing evidence nor persuasive argument to accuse Bloom of basing his decision on any deal.

On the other hand, there is evidence–in the form of their unconvincing editorial endorsements of Daley–to charge both the Sun-Times and Tribune with first-degree condonation of mediocrity. By not endorsing Bloom, they probably did not block his election; he would likely have lost anyway. But they did prove themselves disposed more to pick a winner than to pick the best. And they once again vindicated Nelson Algren’s observation, voiced nearly three decades ago. about “the tone that now dominates Chicago . . . politics. Mediocrity is wanted. Mediocrity is solicited. Mediocrity is honored.”

One result of Bloom’s decision is that he, a white candidate, now supports the black candidate in the primary over the remaining white. That result should be trivial, but it isn’t. In Chicago the phrase “mayoral race” has a double meaning. And in recounting his unsuccessful “race,” Bloom offered revelations bearing equally on the other meaning of the word.

You can’t win a major contested election in Chicago without either a lot of money or a movement to back you up. Bloom had neither. By last count Daley had raised about $4 million (and still growing) and Sawyer about $3 million–enough for each of them to fund a constant barrage of slick TV and radio ads. Bloom raised something closer to $200,000–not enough for TV ads. The candidate who most needed to build up name recognition and a familiar image among the voters was least able to afford it.

Bloom’s failure to attract hefty contributions from fat cats was not for lack of trying. Especially around December 1988, he solicited a number of well-to-do business people. Many replied simply, “You can’t win.” Daley’s people, Bloom laments, had convinced them that he couldn’t.

Others, he told me, came right out and said, “I want a white mayor. You’re the best candidate, but the other guy [Daley] has a better chance.”

In various forms, Bloom said, more than a dozen well-heeled whites gave him this message. The number is even higher, he added, if you count people solicited by others on his behalf.

When I asked whether they explained their racial preference, Bloom summed up the consensus thus: “They thought the city had gone downhill under black mayors. For them and their friends to have confidence in this city, we had to show that a white could get elected.”

Bloom also approached a handful of black business people who had given to Harold Washington. They wanted to support Bloom, they told him, but they didn’t want their names on any list. “You’re a fine candidate, but we’re not sure the black community would understand.” Contributions have to be publicly reported, Bloom said, so he came up dry.

Of course the tilts of the money people in this primary race simply reflect the reality that most black voters are now lining up behind Eugene Sawyer (16th Ward Committeeman James “Bulljive” Taylor, also black, will likely draw few votes outside his own ward), while most white voters are now set to vote for Rich Daley.

To their credit, both Sawyer and Daley, whatever their other shortcomings, have made the morally admirable and also politically smart decision to try to reach out to voters of other races. Yet Sawyer may have come too late to the effort. If he loses this primary election, it will probably be due at least partly to his insensitive handling of the Steve Cokely affair.

After Cokely’s offensive, anti-Semitic statements were reported last spring, Sawyer equivocated for a well-publicized week before dismissing Cokely from the mayoral staff. Although he has since allowed that he should have moved more quickly to dismiss Cokely, the fact is that Sawyer had known about Cokely’s statements for about six months–because members of his own administration had complained about them.

From an electoral point of view, this insensitivity is imperiling Sawyer’s election effort by shrinking his support along the north lakefront. In the 1987 mayoral primary against Jane Byrne, Harold Washington did impressively in the lakefront wards, his percentages ranging from a low of 37 percent in the 43rd Ward to 52 percent in both the 46th and 48th. My lakefront feelers report that Sawyer will do nowhere near as well against Daley. While many reasons are given, the one most frequently cited is the Cokely affair.

Depending on turnout, Daley could well emerge with a 40,000-vote cushion (or more) on the north lakefront–enough to reverse what could, at least conceivably, be a Sawyer lead in the rest of the city. With the race now appearing to get ever closer, Sawyer’s ethnic lapse may thus simply underscore the lesson that in this multiracial city, the only way to win is with multiracial politics.

Tim Evans appears to understand this in a way the other candidates do not. In recent weeks he has been under intense pressure–both publicly from black Democratic heavies like Jesse Jackson and Roland Burris, and privately from black businessmen–to support Sawyer in the primary because he’s black.

There is no ground in political principle upon which Evans could endorse Sawyer. Evans purports to speak for a progressive political movement that has clashed with Sawyer on nearly every key issue since the night Harold Washington’s former adversaries in City Council crowned Sawyer as acting mayor. You name it–patronage, ethics, budgetary priorities for such needs as housing for the poor–Evans has repeatedly denounced Sawyer’s alleged sellouts. About the only thing they have in common is that both happen to be black.

Many former Washington supporters have been skeptical of Evans: is he just another opportunist hoping to ride the progressive movement to higher office?

Whatever the answer to that broad question may be, Evans has now given an emphatic and encouraging answer to at least one important aspect of it. At a February 16 press conference, Evans announced “once again . . . for the record . . . and I hope for the last time” that he would not endorse Sawyer or anyone else in the Democratic primary. His position, he declared, was a matter of principle, and “principle does not yield to pressure . . . from anybody.”

When reporters asked to what principle he referred, Evans replied that it was the principle on which he is running: “Coalition politics, not racial politics.”

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