Boston — Ever since Harold Washington's victory in the emotion-charged campaign for mayor of Chicago, Bostonians have wondered what impact that election will have on the mayor's race here this fall. All over the country, Afro-Americans were inspired by Mr. Washington's success in overcoming the racial hostility that plagued his effort to become the mayor of the nation's second-largest city.
The euphoria of Washington's victory has deeply touched Boston's black community, and there is considerable speculation now about whether an inspired black voting bloc will be able to elect former state Rep. Mel King as Boston's first black mayor.
Supporters of Mr. King insist that he has an excellent chance to be elected. Others believe, however, that the black vote in Boston is not yet large enough to elect a black mayor. Almost without exception, black candidates have had to rely on a massive turnout of a large black electorate in order to become mayor of a major city. In Chicago, Washington won by a margin of only 45,000 votes out of a total of 1.3 million cast in an election that saw a record 82 percent turnout. He took more than 80 percent of the city's black vote, which makes up 41 percent of the electorate. Similarly, Wilson Goode recently won the mayoral primary in Philadelphia, where blacks constitute 44 percent of the Democratic voters.
Boston's black population is small by comparison. In this city of 563,000, there are only 126,300 blacks, who make up 22.4 percent of Boston's population. However, an estimated 40,000 registered black voters account for only 17 percent of Boston's electorate. To win an election for mayor of Boston, therefore, a black candidate would have to get a solid black vote and about 42 percent of the votes cast by nonblacks.
Only one black mayor in a major city has been able to succeed against such odds - Tom Bradley of Los Angeles. While blacks constitute only 17 percent of the population, Los Angeles has a very popular black mayor, who last year just missed becoming the nation's first black elected governor.
But Los Angeles is not Boston. According to studies, there is less antiblack prejudice and perceived racial threat in Los Angeles. Also, a large Jewish-American vote, second in size to New York City, is willing to support qualified black candidates for public office. Mr. Bradley's experience in Los Angeles cannot be easily transplanted to Boston.
The pattern for winning an election in the major cities has been for the black mayoral candidate to rely on a solid black vote and about 20 percent of the white and Hispanic vote combined. This pattern is not very old, however, since the emergence of black, big-city mayors is fairly new.
It all began on Nov. 7, 1967, when Carl Stokes, a Democratic state legislator , narrowly defeated Republican Seth Taft to become the mayor of Cleveland. On that same day Richard Hatcher squeaked by Republican Joseph Radigan to become mayor of Gary, Ind. Mr. Stokes won reelection in 1969. Mr. Bradley in Los Angeles and Richard Austin in Detroit narrowly lost their bids to become mayor. In 1970, Kenneth Gibson was elected the mayor of Newark, N.J.; the next year, Mr. Hatcher won reelection in Gary.
Now there are 223 black mayors in cities and towns across the country, but only 17 of them serve in cities with populations over 100,000. Most large cities with large black populations do not have black mayors (see chart for partial list).
For a few cities the growth of the black population during the '70s has almost ensured the continual election of black mayors: Detroit has a 63.1 percent black population; Washington, 70.3 percent; Atlanta, 66.6 percent; and Gary, 70.8 percent. For many other cities, however, a substantial growth in the black population has by no means ensured the election of a black mayor.
Further, the election of a black mayor does not necessarily establish a voting pattern. Cleveland offers a prime example of this. With about the same population as Boston but with many more blacks (251,300), Cleveland was the first major city to elect a black mayor. Since Carl Stokes left office more than a decade ago, however, no other black mayor has been elected there, even though blacks constitute 43.8 percent of the population.
The lesson of Chicago is that it is incredibly difficult to elect a black mayor in a racially divided city unless blacks dominate politically. Washington won a narrow victory in Chicago, even though the city's 1,197,000 black residents constitute 39.8 percent of the population. While one cannot precisely determine what factors led to victory in such a close political contest, an analysis of the strengths of Washington's campaign provides some indication of Mel King's chances for success in Boston.
Washington was clearly the popular choice of blacks in Chicago. His personal philosophy seemed to embrace the aspirations of the black people. His articulate expression of black ideals captured the imaginations of blacks nationwide.
Also, Washington's piercingly direct style of rhetoric gave him the upper hand in the television debates with his white opponents. Some analysts believe that these debates helped to earn him the support he needed from whites who were not committed to casting their votes on purely racial grounds. The outcome of the election became a matter of grave concern both to blacks all over the country and to the national Democratic Party.
Another crucial factor is that the Chicago mayoral election is partisan. When Washington won the primary, he became the Democratic nominee in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. If white Democrats refused to elect the black nominee for mayor of Chicago, then the Democrats could expect wholesale black defections from the party nationwide when black votes are needed in the 1984 presidential race.
To prevent such a calamity, the national Democratic Party raised money for Washington, and major Democratic politicians endorsed him and campaigned for him. This imprimatur of political respectability probably did not dissuade a hard-core, committed white ethnic from casting his vote for the Republican nominee, Bernard Epton, but it probably did help to convince many whites in Chicago that Washington was an acceptable candidate.
Mel King has none of these factors working for him. In the primary for mayor on Sept. 25, 1979, he received only 55 percent of the black vote. While his total vote was a surprising 17,490, King was still quite a bit behind the 50,272 votes for incumbent Kevin H. White and the 33,026 votes for state Sen. Joseph F. Timilty.
There is nothing in King's style, his rhetoric, or his philosophy that has captured the imagination of the black community since 1979. The strategy seems to be to hold on to the base he has or maybe increase it some with the votes of blacks who have been inspired by the Chicago experience. In a crowded field, King hopes that this vote will be enough to win one of the two slots in the primary.
And there is the rub. Boston's election for mayor is nonpartisan, so anyone can vote his prejudice without the slightest pangs of guilt. The final fight in November will be between two Democrats. No Democratic political stars will be flying into town. No funds will come from the national Democratic Party. This race will not be constantly on the network news.
It is unlikely, therefore, that King will be able to fare well against any of the declared candidates who are able to finish either first or second in the preliminary election. To win, King would have to get a solid black vote, which is by no means assured, and at least 42 percent of the nonblack vote. It is more likely that King would be trounced in such a head-to-head contest.
Perhaps this is a time when blacks feel an emotional need to cast their votes for a black candidate, any candidate, regardless of his qualifications or chances for victory. Only time will tell.
But the real legacy of Chicago is that blacks should organize their political power and use it in the most effective way to achieve the kind of government they want. In Boston, the strategy for this election should be to back an electable candidate who is committed to the goal of fully involving blacks in municipal government. Any other approach to this election is certain to lead to bitter disappointment.
Black population in major US cities without black mayors Black Percentage City population, of total pop. New York 1,784,124 25.2 Philadelphia 638,878 37.8 Houston 440,257 27.6 Baltimore 431,151 54.8 Memphis 307,702 47.6 Dallas 265,594 29.4 Cleveland 251,347 43.8 St. Louis 206,386 45.6 Indianapolis 152,626 21.8 Milwaukee 146,940 23.1 Jacksonville, Fla. 137,324 25.4 Cincinnati 130,467 33.8 Boston 126,229 22.4 Columbus 124,880 22.1