Chicago — The sign read ``Zivio Bush'' (``Long Live Bush''), and it said a mouthful. A year ago, the white ethnic crowd in Chicago's Serbian Hall was staunchly Democratic. But on Sunday night, it welcomed Republican George Bush enthusiastically.
A change is sweeping through Chicago's white, ethnic areas. Democrats are moving toward the Republican Party. The realignment is slow, and there are doubts about how far it will go. But if it can happen here in Democratic strongholds once thought impregnable, it could happen anywhere.
``I think what we're seeing in Chicago is somewhat the same thing as what's going on in the South,'' says Donald Neltnor, a Republican consultant. ``People ... don't feel the Democratic Party is that representative of the conservative, ethnic Northwest and Southwest Sides.''
As so often happens in Chicago, the local political equation drives the city's national political perspective. Today's Illinois primary will yield hints about the depth and breadth of the change.
On the predominantly white, ethnic Southeast Side, for example, the Republican vote in the 10th Ward was only about 350 in the 1984 presidential primary. This year, absentee ballots alone total more than 600, says an aide to Edward Vrdolyak, the ward's political leader.
Mr. Vrdolyak is one of the former Democratic leaders who has switched parties in recent years. As Republican candidate for county court clerk, he could get 10,000 votes in the primary out of his ward alone, the aide says.
The story is similar on the city's Southwest and Northwest Sides, where white ethnics also predominate.
Cook County Undersheriff James Dvorak expects to quadruple Republican vote totals from previous years in the 18th Ward on the Southwest Side. Also a former Democrat, he is running for Republican ward committeeman.
``The people now in the city of Chicago are disenfranchised,'' he says. Perhaps by November, certainly by 1990, the Republican Party will be the majority party here in Cook County, he adds.
Cook County has always had Republican pockets sprinkled in its suburban areas. But the huge Democratic turnout in the city always overwhelmed Republican votes. Now ``we're narrowing that gap,'' says James O'Grady, another former Democrat who surprised some analysts when he was recently elected as a Republican to the Cook County sheriff's post.
Not everyone agrees the switch will come quickly.
``There will be more change, but I don't think it will be as quick as some people are predicting,'' says Herman Schell, an incumbent Republican committeeman for the 19th Ward on the city's Southwest Side.
``It may become a trend, but it's too early to tell,'' adds Edward Burke, a Democratic alderman who had been closely allied with Vrdolyak before the latter turned Republican. ``A lot of it depends on what the Democratic Party adopts. It has to make a real effort to stop these defections.''
The seeds of those defections were planted in 1983, when Harold Washington became the city's first black mayor.
Many traditional white Democratic leaders, long used to running the city, split with Washington, largely along racial lines. The local Democratic Party became divided between a black-dominated faction running the city and a white-dominated opposition.
After Washington was reelected last year, some traditional Democratic leaders joined the Republicans. ``I think you're going to see a bigger and bigger changeover,'' says Illinois state Rep. Sam Panayotovich, a former Democrat who followed Vrdolyak into the Republican camp.
But the picture has become murky again with Washington's death in November. Now black political leaders are split into an old guard and a new guard. Increasingly, it appears that the next Chicago mayoral election will be a crucial period for conservative white Democrats, elected officials say.
``I'll be watching closely,'' Alderman Burke says. ``That should be a watershed for the Democratic Party.''
All the confusion at the top leaves white ethnic voters in an uncomfortable middle ground.
Philosophically, they are ready to switch and often vote Republican already at the state and national level, says Aldo DeAngelis, a suburban state senator who became a Republican in the '70s. But being a Democrat has always meant access to local services, he adds.
Chicago lawyer Ed O'Donnell says he thinks the white ethnics in his ward won't switch over, because the current Democratic leaders can still take care of the ward's needs.
``I don't think they're buying Republican at all,'' he says, indicating a local crowd gathered to celebrate an early St. Patrick's Day. ``They are pretty well-rooted around here.''
But Helen Bukvich of the 10th Ward has already made up her mind. In today's primary, she plans to serve as a local Republican election judge - her second time.
``My father was an old Democrat. The first President I knew was FDR. That was the Democratic Party,'' she says. But ``I don't like what the Democrats are doing today.''