Chicago — The curve ball recently thrown into Chicago's volatile mayoral race by Mayor Jane Byrne still has veteran political onlookers here shaking their heads in amazement.
Her surprise decision less than one month before the April 12 mayoral election to run as a write-in candidate, after losing the February Democratic primary, has been variously labeled as selfish, desperate, divisive, racist, and hopeless. US Rep. Harold Washington's victory over Mrs. Byrne gave him what many consider a very good chance to become Chicago's first black mayor.
A quick poll conducted by Market Shares Inc. found voters disapproving of the mayor's action by a 3-to-2 margin. Few comments have been kind. A Chicago Sun-Times editorial termed her late entry ''a profound embarrassment.'' In the Chicago Tribune's eyes, her decision further divides an already divided city and promises to turn a crucial election into a ''spectacle.''
Mrs. Byrne insists she's the only experienced candidate with a viable program for the city's future and that she's trying to help a ''fragile'' city survive rather than slide backward. Whatever her motives, her entry in the race is sure to have a profound effect on the outcome.
At the very least it is almost sure to spur a higher turnout among the city's 1.6 million registered voters.
''She becomes a legitimate Democratic alternative for white Democrats who wouldn't vote, rather than support a Republican, if they didn't feel they could vote for Washington,'' says University of Illinois political scientist James Nowlan.
Some political analysts here say she could yet win. But the consensus among most observers is that her action has helped Mr. Washington (whom she endorsed after the primary) and effectively quashed any chance for a victory by GOP candidate Bernard Epton. No Republican has been elected mayor in this city in more than five decades. But after Representative Washington's win in the primary , Mr. Epton was showered with attention and financial help from national GOP leaders and was widely considered to have a ''fighting chance.''
Mayor Byrne says she views her action as a ''kind of runoff'' - fair in her opinion because none of the three candidates in the Democratic primary got 50 percent of the vote. But she readily concedes she faces an ''uphill'' fight.
Although at least four politicians have been elected to Congress as write-in candidates (one of them: Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, 29 years ago), no such candidate has emerged victorious in any city election in recent history.
It seems clear that Mrs. Byrne, despite her weekend release of the names of 31 business supporters, can expect little organized help from traditional Democrats. Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, one of her closest allies in the primary, recently sealed his support for Washington with a $2,000 contribution. And her parks superintendent, Edmund Kelly, a man who controls a number of patronage jobs, has declared his support for Mr. Epton.
Several Democratic ward committeemen have been reluctant to support Washington. They point to his promise to abolish patronage or to reservations that their constituents have about voting for him.
''I think a lot of them are just going to hide and take a pass in order to survive,'' comments University of Illinois political scientist Milton Rakove, long a specialist on the intricate ways of Chicago politics. ''They're not heroes - they're survivors.''
But Washington, who recently won the endorsement of the Chicago Federation of Labor, has stepped up the pressure on some of those Democratic ward committeemen. He says if every one of them does not help him, he will lead a movement to defeat all Cook County Democratic candidates in 1984.
Much was made earlier in Washington's campaign of the fact that he was convicted of failing to file income tax returns during a four-year period in the 1960s (he says he forgot) and that his law license was suspended for five years in 1970 after he accepted payment for legal chores never fully performed. He says he has since returned all money owed. Voters in the primary obviously didn't regard the charges as enough of a drawback to keep him from a win.
But they could carry more weight with the broader constituency he must now court. GOP candidate Epton is renewing and widening the charges. He says he has seen court documents indicating that Washington failed to file tax returns for a total of 19 years. Only the statute of limitations protected Washington from further prosecution, he suggests.