Chicago a step closer to having its first black mayor

As the surprise winner of Chicago's Democratic mayoral primary, US Rep. Harold Washington has moved one giant step closer to becoming Chicago's first black mayor.

Few analysts in this heavily Democratic city expect Republican challenger Bernard Epton, a lawyer and former state legislator, to overcome Mr. Washington in the April 12 final election. But neither do they discount the possibility that some disappointed white Democrats may yet vote along racial lines to benefit Mr. Epton - despite his vehement denial of interest in such votes. Chicago's population, shifting as that of most major cities, is now 46 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, and 40 percent black.

It was the uniformly strong support from minority voters, including many recently registered, that put Washington over the top. The odds had been heavily against the two-term congressman. Most polls and analysts here had predicted that incumbent Jane Byrne or Richard M. Daley, whose politically popular father had been mayor here for 21 years, would win.

Washington, a somewhat reluctant candidate (interested in running only if reasonably sure of winning), started his loosely organized campaign late and ran it on markedly few and often borrowed dollars. Most pundits agree that it was Washington's star performance and the benefits of free TV exposure during candidate debates here that convinced a crucial number of undecided voters to support him.

But many of his most formidable challenges lie ahead.

One of the immediate tasks facing Washington, a Northwestern University law school alumnus who is considered a very practical politician, will be to try to tone down the emotional racial element in the campaign. Chicago is widely considered one of the nation's most segregated cities in both housing and school attendance patterns. During the primary, Washington stressed the importance of a united minority vote (criticizing those black ministers who chose to support either of his opponents) and uniformly dismissed much of the criticism against him as ''racist.'' The Byrne campaign in recent days also took on racial overtones when Cook County Democratic chairman Edward Vrdolyak implied that only a vote for Byrne would keep the city from having a black mayor.

Washington must convince white voters, many of whom helped in his primary campaign, that he will be the mayor of all Chicago. During the primary, he pledged to establish a ''speckled'' but ''fair'' government (''we're not anti anybody'') but he insisted: ''I want everybody to know it's our turn.''

''I think it will become a citywide campaign and that a large percentage of the Democrats will become part of his coalition,'' says Michael Preston, a political scientist at the University of Illinois who teaches a seminar on Chicago politics.

Washington's many assets include a ready wit, a persuasive way with words, tough leadership potential, and a sense of idealism. But he has yet to prove in the eyes of some voters that he has administrative capability. He is sure to be pressed for more specific proposals on his financial plans for the city. Chicago's transit system has been living on borrowed funds while the city budget and the school system face an imminent deficit of almost $100 million each. Though he favors some spending cuts, Washington largely looks to more money - from the nation's capital and an increased state income tax - as the answer.

Washington has pledged to do away with patronage and restructure the Democratic machine with a broader base. So far, his campaign has attracted a number of talented people who are potential appointees for top city jobs.

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