Mayor Jane Byrne may well have blocked Congressman Harold Washington's election as the first black mayor of Chicago. When she threw her hat in the ring as an independent write-in candidate, Byrne recreated the three-person race by which Washington won his strategic and important victory in the Democratic primary. The voters had three serious candidates from whom to choose in the general election; under these circumstances Harold Washington would certainly have won on April 12. By withdrawing, Byrne has considerably bolstered Republican Bernard Epton's chances for election and has enhanced the city's white ethnic leaders' efforts at retaining political control of the city.
Washington's strategy was based on two factors. First he required, either in the primary or the general election, at least two opponents who would thereby split the white vote. In the primary, Byrne, the incumbent, and Richard J. Daley Jr., the prince of the city, provided the competition, and prior to the election they seemed to have the advantage. Washington's opponents outspent him by a considerable amount. Jane Byrne had a $10 million campaign budget, Daley $2.5 million, and Washington only $500,000. Of the machine's vote-producing resources , Byrne reportedly controlled 20 of the city's 50 wards, Daley 11, and Washington only 3, leaving 26, including the black wards, in doubt.
Secondly, Washington's strategy required that he get an overwhelming majority of the recently mobilized and increasingly independent black vote, and support from Hispanics and from white liberals located along the lakefront. When the votes were counted, Washington had won 36 percent of the vote, Byrne 33 percent, and Daley 31 percent. Washington won at least 70 percent of the vote in 16 of the 19 wards he controlled, because of the large and loyal black turnout. Byrne and Daley, on the other hand, split the vote on a citywide and a ward-by-ward basis; 17 of Byrne's 22 wards and 8 of Daley's 9 were won with only slight majorities or bare pluralities.
The city has routinely elected Democratic mayoral nominees since the machine formed in 1931, but a black Democratic candidate is something else again. The city's party and ward leaders are openly rebellious with Washington at the head of the ticket, because he insists on promising to eliminate political patronage. While Washington is careful to distinguish the concept of patronage from jobs as such, the Irish, Poles, Italians, and others whose livelihoods have been tied to the public sector for nearly two generations thought it was a distinction without a difference.
When Jane Byrne conceded defeat the day after the election, she left these machine loyalists with only one other candidate with a somewhat unusual appeal, Bernard Epton, the Republican.
Two factors have motivated a groundswell of interest in Epton: political patronage and race. The ward committeemen fear Washington's accession to power will either eliminate or seriously weaken their system of patronage politics. However, Washington not only promises to be a reformer; he is also black. Even if he makes no effort to reform the machine, they calculate he will certainly seek to redistribute its rewards to his black supporters. In either instance party leaders expect a serious reduction in their power.
These two factors have galvanized the city's patronage leaders, the ward committeemen, to behave in an unconventional fashion. Some are supporting Republican nominee Epton, who won his party's uncontested primary with only 11, 243 votes. Epton is an appealing alternative to Washington because he could not control the city council or Democratic patronage.
The late Richard J. Daley was both government and patronage leader, holding the positions of mayor and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Committee. No person held both posts before Daley nor has any since. Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne each governed the city as mayor while George Dunne served as chair of the Cook County Democratic Committee until Byrne replaced him with Edward Vrdolyak.
If Epton is elected mayor, control of the machine will fall to the Democratic Party of Cook County. ''Fast Eddie'' Vrdolyak and the 50 ward committeemen will no longer have to take the mayor's concerns into account. Their political power will increase significantly. For these same reasons, Epton remained an attractive candidate even after Mayor Byrne entered the race. For example, the southwest side's Vito Marzullo, alderman and committeeman of the 25th ward for decades, and Edmund Kelly, superintendent of the Chicago Park District and 47th ward committeeman, both important patronage leaders, have already announced their support for Epton.
Jane Byrne's candidacy, however, posed a serious threat to Epton and was resisted by Democratic Party leaders. Byrne is the incumbent and would have attracted support for that reason alone. She promised to maintain the present system of patronage and has considerable influence over it. Byrne was also the only Irish Catholic in the race. Because Epton is Jewish, Byrne would also have attracted those voters with antipathies toward his ethnicity.
Finally, Chicago is a Democratic strong-hold. Over 1 million people voted in the Democratic primary while 12,000 participated in the Republican. The city has been predominantly Democratic for over 50 years. Many of its Democratic voters would find it difficult if not impossible to support a Republican even to avoid a Washington mayoralty.
These strong Democratic identifiers would have felt considerably more comfortable voting for ''Independent Democrat'' Byrne. Her candidacy appealed to those who feared the election of a black mayor but who wished to preserve an organized Democratic system of patronage. Now that she has withdrawn, these voters may determine the outcome of the election.
In effect Jane Byrne has significanty restructured the contest for mayor. Anti-Washington voters would have split between Epton and Byrne, allowing Washington's support from regular Democrats and newly mobilized black Democratic voters on the south and west side wards to elect him the next mayor of Chicago. Her withdrawal allows the party's anti-Washington ethnic leaders to coalesce around Epton.
The election also has national importance as it will significantly affect the upcoming presidential contest. If Harold Washington is elected, he will seek to control the party, while the election of Epton will precipitate the disintegration of the Democratic Party into warring factions and stimulate the outrage of black Democratic voters. The outcome of the election will shape the party, which will affect the turnout and loyalty of voters in the presidential primaries and the general elections. As the Chicago mayoral election goes, so may go Illinois in 1984.