Washington to Democrats: don't sell minorities short

AS Democratic Party leaders try to chart a new course and lure back wayward voters, such as Southern whites, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington says he is concerned that the needs of the nation's minority voters could be sold short. ``Reaching out is part of winning -- you've got to do that,'' he says. ``But in the process, the movers and shakers of the party must understand that it can only succeed as a coalition. You can't sacrifice the concerns of any one group to reach out for another. You've got to find that happy meld.''

While admitting that civil rights is one of these concerns, Mayor Washington, a Democrat and the first elected black mayor of the nation's third-largest city, insists they also include economics.

``The problem the Democratic Party faces is whether or not it can put together the kind of program and platform that will reach out to economically depressed classes of people -- that's really the genius thrust,'' says the mayor, who is seated in one of the comfortable maroon chairs in his City Hall office during an interview.

If the Democrats don't do that, Washington contends, black voters have shown in the past that they do have other places to go.

Although 90 percent of them cast their ballots for Democrat Walter Mondale last November, Washington says this lopsided vote was due in large part to black voter ``antipathy'' to President Reagan.

``I've seen the likes of that with only one other presidential candidate and that was Mr. [Richard] Nixon. Had Mr. Reagan been a [former President Gerald] Ford or someone of that nature, he would have gotten many more votes from the black community because there was some disenchantment with Mr. Mondale,'' Mayor Washington says.

Indeed, there are those who contend that the mayor was not that enchanted with Mondale. In the end, he supported Mondale, who had won the earlier, strong endorsement of Cook County Democratic chairman Edward Vrdolyak, leader of the majority opposition to the mayor on Chicago's City Council. But the mayor delayed announcing his choice at the San Francisco convention until the last minute and voted first with a bloc of other largely black Illinoisans for Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson.

Mondale chose not to accept Washington's late bid to insert in the San Francisco party platform a pledge to create 1 million public-service jobs aimed at rebuilding deteriorating urban housing stock and infrastructure and at making environmental improvements.

The mayor insists he is still committed to the idea -- ``I'd do it again, only louder next time, because I feel it has to be done'' -- despite the embarrassment he says it caused him at the time. He argues that if packaged attractively and promoted, the plan could have made a significant difference in rallying more support for the Democrats.

``To galvanize the kinds of voters you want, you have to talk a language that moves them. Mondale might have lost anyway, but I think he would have done better if he'd really dealt with the core problems affecting a lot of people in this country. I think the Democrats just missed the boat.''

Wouldn't such a pitch for jobs have moved the party further left?

``No, if you're talking about creating jobs, you're moving right down the center of the road in my opinion,'' says the mayor.

As it is, Washington, who has been in the forefront of urban leaders protesting the Reagan administration's proposed budget cuts, says he sees a danger of stagnation in the current debate over budget cuts and freezes.

``We're bogged down in a fight over alternatives, and there's nothing positive or moving in the whole dialogue. It's dead. If we just talk about voting defense or human services up or down, we're not doing anything to move this country ahead.

``There are things that need to be tackled or this country is going to be pulled to a halt,'' says the former state legislator and two-term congressman.

Although some observers say there is a growing schism between middle- and lower-income blacks, Washington says he doesn't see it and thinks most blacks of all income levels agree on a national agenda of civil rights and class issues.

Most blacks ``overwhelmingly'' support affirmative action, job training, and education programs, he contends, even though they themselves might not benefit from them.

``There's no conflict there,'' he insists.

What about the views of blacks such as Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., the chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, who recently labeled affirmative-action programs examples of ``new racism''?

``He doesn't speak for any group -- black, female, or otherwise,'' insists Mayor Washington. ``He's out in left field someplace by himself.''

The Chicago mayor concedes, however, that he is concerned that some of the civil rights progress made by blacks in recent years appears to be eroding under decisions made by the commission and the Reagan administration.

But he counts it only a temporary setback. ``The laws are on the books,'' he says. ``All we need is an administration to carry them out.''

Washington says he is pleased to see the number of elected black mayors in this country increasing. Their numbers -- now well over 200 -- have more than tripled in the last decade.

But he points out that most presiding over the larger cities -- with the exception of Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Philadelphia -- have faced almost insurmountable economic challenges.

``Most cities that black mayors inherit are close to bankruptcy,'' he says.

And making that challenge tougher once they are in office, he says, is a certain, almost inevitable resistance they meet from other elected city officials, police departments, and the media.

One in a series of occasional interviews with the nation's big-city black mayors. -- 30 --{et

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