Jeff Toth stepped up to a polling booth at the Abraham Lincoln School Tuesday and did something that not long ago would have been considered unusual by the electoral norms of the independent-minded 43rd Ward.
He voted for Richard Daley in the Democratic mayoral primary, as did most of Toth’s friends and neighbors in the north side Lincoln Park area.
It wasn’t that Richard Daley, of course, but rather his son, Cook County State’s Atty. Richard M. Daley, who was battling Acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer for the party nomination that for decades has been tantamount to a general election victory.
Breeding Ground for Opposition
Long the mainstay of liberal, independent politics in Chicago, the 43rd and a handful of other wards along the city’s posh lakefront were the breeding ground for opposition to the elder Daley, still referred to as “The Boss” for his iron-fisted control of City Hall and the old Democratic machine.
While the rest of white Chicago fiercely resisted political empowerment for minorities, the lakefront wards provided the margin of victory for Harold Washington when he became the city’s first black mayor in 1983 and was reelected four years later.
This time around, however, the lakefront by and large fell in step with other white neighborhoods in backing Daley over Sawyer, who is black, propelling Daley to victory.
Underscoring the point, a CBS exit poll predicted that 78% of all whites across the city who voted for Washington in 1987 had cast their vote for Daley this time.
It represented a remarkable change in voting patterns that had more to do with the pervasive nature of racial polarization in this city than any groundswell of affection for Daley himself.
Questions Sawyer’s Associates
“Sawyer’s OK, but I’m just not happy with the people he’s associated with,” said Toth, a white construction executive who backed Washington in previous elections. “You’re no longer allowed to criticize people in the city of Chicago. As soon as you do, they (Sawyer’s people) call you a racist, even if they’re incompetent and unqualified.”
The latest struggle for City Hall has forced many white liberals, weary of bizarre racial incidents and charges, to rethink one of their most cherished beliefs--that race should be irrelevant in such contests.
During Washington’s tenure, conservative whites were clearly at the core of black-white friction in the city. They mocked his campaign with racist slogans and banners and, once elected, tried to block his legislative program in the City Council.
Under Sawyer, however, tensions seemed to flow more from the black community. Last spring, blacks and Jews came to loggerheads when Sawyer dragged his feet in firing a controversial aide, Steve Cokely, over anti-Semitic lectures that accused Jewish doctors of injecting black babies with the AIDS virus. And over the last week, several prominent Sawyer backers have warned of dire consequences if whites were returned to power.
Low-key and polite to a fault, Sawyer has sought to distance himself from such comments. But the damage was done.
“I’m one of those perverse liberals who would rather vote for a black because I feel they should have a chance at power,” said Ellen Pritzker, who lives in a lakeshore high-rise in the 43rd Ward. " . . . But the inflammatory racial comments of the last few days have indicated to me that the gulf is too wide.”
Coalition of Liberals
Jews represented a small, but extremely influential and active portion of the wide-ranging biracial coalition of liberals that put Washington into power and kept him there. Now Jews have abandoned Sawyer in droves.
“After the Cokely affair, I was hard-pressed to know anybody who was Jewish--I hate to say it--who would vote for a black,” said June Rossner, a public relations executive who was a close adviser to Washington.
Several prominent white liberals who fought tooth and nail against the elder Daley have signed on to the campaign of his son. Among them is former Alderman William Singer, who once opposed the late mayor in a Democratic primary.
Such defections are by no means universal or solely linked to distress over racial tensions. But many liberals who backed Sawyer admit they were doing so unenthusiastically and with the hope that he would be easier to unseat at the next election by a candidate more to their liking. “I’m just afraid that if Daley gets in, he’s in for life,” said Alton Miller, who was Washington’s press secretary. “If Sawyer gets in it may only be for another two years.”
Agony Over Unhappy Choice
Indeed, many liberals said they agonized over their vote for the first time in years. “It’s a choice between short-term petty thievery (Sawyer) and long-term autocracy,” said Marilyn Katz, a public relations executive and former campaign aide to Washington.
Joan Callahan, a part-time social worker from the upscale Edgewater neighborhood, said she felt “like a Ping-Pong ball” for days before deciding on Monday to back Sawyer. Still, she said, her husband, Michael, an attorney, went with Daley.