Chicago readies for controversial mayoral election

''Oh, I'm voting for Epton. He's a World War II veteran - flew a lot of bombing missions.'' The elderly white Chicagoan, who has stopped for a bite in a coffee shop on the city's North Side, is responding to a reporter's question as to whom he'll support in this city's April 12 mayoral election.

That election pits a white Republican - Bernard Epton - against a black Democrat - US Rep. Harold Washington.

It is a campaign in which race has been billed as the No. 1 issue - and one in which all reasons for preferring the GOP candidate, such as for his war experience, have become automatically suspect in the eyes of some.

A Republican has not won the top City Hall post in Chicago since 1927. And polls indicate that voter support for Mr. Epton, a millionaire insurance lawyer and former state legislator, is roughly double what it would be for a GOP candidate in any routine Chicago mayoral election.

Eight of the city's 50 Democratic ward committeeman have switched ranks to openly support Epton. And a recent poll of the largely white police force, the caliber of which has been sharply criticized until recently by Mr. Washington, shows Epton support there running at a hefty 93 percent among those officers.

''I think Epton - a most unlikely candidate under any other circumstances - is going to win,'' says Dr. Louis Masotti, political scientist and director of Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs. ''You can't underestimate the depth of feeling out there. . . .'' But a recent Gallup poll done for the Chicago Sun-Times and WMAQ-TV shows Washington is ahead 51 percent to 37 percent for Epton.

Whatever the outcome of Chicago's mayoral race, it is almost sure to affect the agenda and outreach of both national political parties.

A virtual parade of US Democratic leaders - including former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale and presidential aspirants Sens. John Glenn (D) of Ohio and Alan Cranston (D) of California - have come to Chicago to make their support for Washington abundantly clear. And blacks, a growing and unified force in many urban centers, are almost sure to be in a stronger position to push for more say on party positions and candidates, regardless of who wins the Chicago election.

The Republican Party, though tainted by charges of racism leveled at Epton (deserved or not), is sure to try harder to court white ethnic blue-collar city dwellers in the future.

Both candidates blame each other and the media for not having raised the tone of the campaign to a higher level. Both have issued pages of position papers on city government issues. But the differences appear slim, other than Washington's vow to end the patronage system - which has sent many once-loyal Democrats scurrying. Both men favor a state income-tax hike, sharp city budget cuts, a ceiling on local taxes, and a school system outside City Hall's control.

Much of Epton's campaign has focused on Washington's past legal problems. Calling it a ''disquieting'' pattern of disregard for the law, Epton has singled out the congressman's 1972 conviction and jail sentence for failing to file income taxes over a four-year period, the suspension of his law license in 1969 for failing to perform paid legal chores, and a continuing record of unpaid bills. Some voters, particularly whites, who have supported Washington are troubled by his record.

Washington insists that he owed only $500 on the taxes, paid back the client fees in question, and that he has long since paid the penalty for such past mistakes. He say his record since those days has been ''exemplary.'' Of the other debts: ''I pay my bills slowly.''

Washington has tried to paint his opponent as a conservative ''clone'' of President Reagan, and urges Epton to release more of his tax, insurance fee, and medical records. At one time Epton underwent psychiatric testing in an effort to diagnose an illness.

But Washington, who has been jeered on at least two occasions in ethnic neighborhoods here, now is putting more stress on his own qualifications as a bridge builder for a racially divided city. This week he announced names of a racially and ethnically mixed transition team of civic leaders, immediately dubbed ''first rate'' by the Chicago Tribune, which has endorsed the Democrat.

Some political analysts say that the conciliatory announcement came late in the campaign. They say Washington has not done enough to court the white vote he needs and reassure property owners that his administration will not mean major changes for them. At a recent session with city ethnic leaders, he was asked by a Polish-American if he would assure homeowners that he would not support forced public housing in single-family neighborhoods. Washington stressed that the issue is not up to his discretion, but with the courts.

''Chicago must grow up and understand there are basic constitutional principles which we all must abide by,'' he said.

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