Harold Washington v. Bernard Epton, Mayor, Chicago, 1983
A number of American political campaigns, and several in this book, have featured overt appeals to racism. But none have been more coarse and openly hostile to racial tensions and sensitivities than the 1983 race for mayor of Chicago between Harold Washington, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Bernard Epton. This was a shockingly brutal campaign, even for the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics.
Although he was a longtime fixture in Illinois politics, Harold Washington was not the mayoral nominee that many Democrats wanted in 1983. He had won a bruising primary against Democrats Jane Byrne, the incumbent mayor, and Richard M. Daley, son of the late mayor Richard Daley and scion of the famous Daley political machine. In the Democratic primary, neither Byrne nor Daley wanted to attack Washington because they were trying to win votes in the black community. In the general election, however, Epton and his campaign forces felt no such hesitation.
As a candidate, Washington did have some significant vulnerabilities. In the 1970s he had not filed income taxes for four straight years. His debt to the 1RS lead to a short prison term. He had had his law license suspended for taking clients' money without performing services. It also came to light that he had not paid a series of electricity and water bills, also leading to legal action against him. Thus, his political opponents had considerable ammunition to throw at him, completely apart from race, creating an image problem that Washington would have to overcome.