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Race Emerges as Top Chicago Mayoral Issue : Candidates Deny Ethnic Rhetoric; Primary Likely to Reflect Voter Biases

Times Staff Writer

After an early attempt at civility, Chicago is showing its true colors, so to speak.

Leading up to today’s mayoral primary, Richard M. Daley, the leading white candidate, has been censured by a watchdog group for allegedly telling Polish voters “you want a white mayor.”

Supporters of Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer, the leading black candidate, responded by chanting anti-white slogans at a rally last weekend, and a black minister is threatening to lead a black boycott that will “shut this city down” if Sawyer loses the primary.

Blatant appeals to race have been booming from this city’s black wards, where voters are fearful of losing the political gains they’ve made in the past decade if Chicago becomes the first major U.S. city to oust a black mayor from office.

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“Race is the only issue in this campaign,” said black activist Lu Palmer.

Candidates Deny It

The candidates themselves publicly deny it, but for large segments of the voting population it undoubtedly is true. In the Democratic and Republican primaries today, the vast majority of the whites will cast their ballots for white candidates and the vast majority of blacks will vote for black ones, polls show.

Some of Sawyer’s supporters recently have stepped up their race rhetoric in an effort to overcome initial coolness toward Sawyer in much of the black community. Several of them have been reprimanded for making inflammatory remarks by the watchdog group, the Committee on Decent Unbiased Campaign Tactics.

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If the Sawyer camp was looking for a demon to stir up black passions, Daley helped them Feb. 19, when, while addressing a group of Polish supporters, he apparently said: “You want a white mayor who can sit down with everybody.”

After video tapes of the speech were circulated late last week, Daley denied that this is what he said. “I’ve been campaigning all over this city on the issues and for bringing people together,” he told reporters. “I never said the word ‘white.’ ” Daley claimed that he merely stumbled in mid-sentence.

The watchdog committee censured him on Friday, however. “We looked at two video tapes several times and concluded that this is what he said,” said John A. McDermott, chairman of the group. “The camera doesn’t lie.”

The incident has served to increase anti-Daley and anti-white rhetoric.

Recent blatant racial appeals are seen by some as the mirror-image of the 1983 campaign, when whites sang “Bye, Bye Blackbird” at rallies and sported campaign buttons picturing a crossed-out watermelon.

The racism turned off some white voters then, causing them to vote for Harold Washington, who became the city’s first black mayor.

But already many of the so-called “lake-front liberals” who helped Washington get elected have switched to Daley.

Lost Support

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Sawyer, 54, lost much of his Jewish support soon after he took office following Washington’s death in 1987 because of his slowness to fire an aide who made anti-Semitic remarks.

Meanwhile, Daley, 46, has courted the lake-front vote by painting himself as a progressive with good management skills and a tough stance on crime. He also has been campaigning hard in black wards.

As Sawyer began to narrow Daley’s lead in the polls last week, Daley started attacking his opponent by name for the first time.

Also turning up the heat was the announcement last week that Edward R. Vrdolyak, a controversial former alderman, was entering the Republican primary as a write-in candidate.

The Republican primary usually is a yawner in this heavily Democratic town, but Vrdolyak thinks he can pull enough white voters away from Daley to win. If he can manage this, he may also weaken Daley enough to cost him the Democratic primary. The winners will face each other as well as Timothy Evans, a black alderman running as an independent, in the general election in April.

‘Uncle Tom’

Evans and many of his supporters are still hostile toward Sawyer, charging that the same white City Council members who fought Washington engineered Sawyer’s selection as acting mayor over Evans. Some blacks branded Sawyer an “Uncle Tom.”

If, as many blacks have charged, Sawyer was deliberately selected in order to divide the black community, the plan worked.

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