Cleaning up Chicago's politics. Group announces plan to expunge bigotry and racism from campaigns

Chicago politics is about to be cleaned up. At least, that's the aim of John McDermott, chairman of CONDUCT (Committee on Decent Unbiased Campaign Tactics). The group has just announced a plan to discourage bigotry and racism in Chicago's coming elections.

``We're trying to deal with a very serious problem in Chicago politics,'' Mr. McDermott says, ``a problem which has kind of raised its ugly head, particularly in recent years - namely, the politics of fear, the politics of hate.''

To accomplish that, CONDUCT has announced a three-point plan: (1)to get candidates to sign a new code of fair campaign practice; (2)to monitor the campaigns and investigate questionable tactics; and (3)to probe complaints by the candidates themselves of unfair tactics.

``If we agree that the tactic is wrong or unfair, we will bring it to the attention of the campaign staff or candidate responsible [and] ask him or her to disavow it,'' says McDermott, former publisher of a Chicago newsletter on racial issues and now urban affairs director for Illinois Bell.

``If they refuse to do it, we will make a public issue of it. We are calling on the court of public opinion to back us up,'' McDermott says.

CONDUCT was launched in Chicago two years ago with the support of the American Jewish Committee. It is more active than three similar AJC groups in New York, St. Louis, and Kansas City, committee members say. And it is the only group with observers to monitor campaigns and a code of practice for candidates. But applying that code, while maintaining credibility among all groups, will be difficult.

``We agree with their ideals,'' says Terry Durkin, an aide to Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, who filed the first complaint. But ``they may not be nonpartisan.''

In fact, the committee is investigating its own makeup, McDermott acknowledges, following charges that some of its members are too closely aligned with the campaign of Harold Washington who is the city's first black mayor.

Judging whether campaign appeals are racist or not will be difficult, he adds.

``We're not going to eliminate racism,'' he concedes. ``But we are going to ... discourage and suppress evils and excesses which do great harm.

``It's not only that they are bad politics. They can leave scars, which take a long time to heal, and hurt the community. ...

`` We think Chicago has been hurt in recent years by the image of ``Beirut on the Lake,'' which is what the Wall Street Journal called us.''

In fact, the image of rampant racism in Chicago is only partly correct, he adds.

``It's not just racism. ... It's that the racial proportions are just about equal.'' Thus, black and white tend to take opposing sides, but their motivation is not always racial.

There is the intensifying battle over the shrinking economic pie and the fear of street crime and gang activity often perpetrated by minority youths, he says.

``Our politics are rough,'' McDermott adds. And ``vigorous politics are a reflection of people caring about policy and what happens. CONDUCT is a response by the community to say good, tough politics are OK. Vigorous debate is OK. Bigotry is wrong. And we are acting in a concerted way to advance that principle.''

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