Dissatisfied Chicago Blacks Form New Party

Discontented with Democratic Party, group of blacks go independent; but critics say split may help Republicans

A new political party is taking shape in Chicago: the Harold Washington Party. It is black. It is dissatisfied with the current political lineup. And it is the latest sign of growing black discontent with Democrats nationwide.

``Clearly, there's a dislodging of blacks from the Democratic Party,'' says Alvin Thornton, a political science professor at Howard University.

``The dissatisfaction is there, no question,'' says Milton Morris, research director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

For example: Close to half of the black population is giving President Bush a positive approval rating - nearly an all-time high, he says. And more and more blacks are identifying themselves as Republicans.

``We have watched it grow from just under 10 percent of the black population that identified itself as Republican to last summer's survey that showed 16 percent of the population identifying itself as Republican. ... That, to me, is a very significant change.''

The biggest shift is among blacks 30 years old or younger, who identify themselves as independents, says Professor Thornton, who surveyed some 1,000 black college students about their political perceptions.

Most black political observers doubt that the emergence of a third party in Chicago is the start of a black independent movement elsewhere.

``I don't see it happening because the institutional forces are arrayed against it,'' says Robert Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. Elected Democrats who are black would have to sacrifice too much power to move toward a third party.

But at least one black political observer predicts more black independent parties will emerge by 1992.

Repeating previous party split

This period is somewhat similar to the early 20th century, says Ronald Walters, a sometime adviser to two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. Then, Southern blacks were snubbed by both Republicans and Democrats and formed several third parties. The same forces are at work today, he adds.

These forces are certainly at work in Chicago.

``We just got fed up,'' says Jim Hutchinson, the party's communications director. Republicans traditionally have not been a force in Chicago politics. And the Democrats? ``They have disrespected our community.''

Indeed, the local Democratic organization has a long history of resisting full black participation. The election last year of Mayor Richard M. Daley, a white and traditional Democrat, over two black candidates has frustrated a large section of Chicago's black community.

One of those black mayoral candidates, Alderman Timothy Evans, ran in 1989 as an independent by forming the Harold Washington Party (named after the city's first - and recently deceased - black mayor.) Since then, another group of Chicago blacks has taken over the party machinery and is running a slate of candidates for the county elections this November.

Initially, the Harold Washington Party attracted little attention outside the black community. But when R. Eugene Pincham, a high-profile former federal judge, announced two weeks ago he would switch from the Democratic ticket to the Harold Washington ticket, the political speculation kicked into high gear.

Critics question commitment

Political pundits have wondered out loud whether Mr. Pincham is seizing on black discontent or simply nursing a grudge against Richard Phelan, the man who beat him in the Democratic primary for president of the Cook County Board.

More important, several Democratic officials and political analysts are convinced that the party is nothing more than a Republican ploy. They point to the party's chief organizer, David Reed, who worked for former Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie, campaigned for President Richard Nixon, and once ran for Congress as a Republican.

``I think what it is a very clever Republican strategy to splinter off Democratic voters and win,'' says Richard Day, head of his own political research firm in Evanston, Ill.

The logic is: If the Harold Washington Party can draw enough black votes away from the Democratic Party, then Republicans have a chance to capture some important county posts.

Party officials deny the accusation. So do Republicans, although they are pleased by the opportunities the new party represents.

``Democrats, in order to win, can't lose more than 15 percent of the black vote,'' says Aldo DeAngelis, the Republican candidate who faces Mr. Phelan this fall. County board president is the top prize in the local elections.

According to a Phelan strategist, who asked not to be named, Phelan would have to lose a quarter of the black vote before he could be seriously threatened by Mr. DeAngelis. Ironically, two black Democrats are more vulnerable, he points out. Democrat Cecil Partee is the first black Cook County State's Attorney; if elected, Democrat Charles Freeman would be the first black on the Illinois Supreme Court.

In fact, the immediate impact of the Harold Washington Party may not be empowerment but a split in the black community between longtime Democratic loyalists and disenchanted blacks who want to take the independent route. That poses a dilemma for blacks - not only in Chicago but anywhere that a third party is contemplated.

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