As one who has advanced "coffees" in white neighborhoods for a black candidate for mayor in Detroit in 1969, I think I know something about how you win white votes for a black candidate in a majority-white city. You don't do it the way Harold Washington is running in Chicago.
For Washington is appealing almost exclusively to black voters in a city whose electorate is at least 60 percent white. In the Democratic primary he made essentially no appeal to white voters. Rather than emphasize that ordinary blacks have been treated unfairly or that the city, despite its fiscal problems, can do more for them, he made the crass appeal: "Now it's our turn."
After he won, he announced that he would not "grovel" for the support of white politicos. He refused to meet with white ward committeemen and aldermen. He refused to take phone calls from Walter Mondale, who endorsed one of his primary opponents and wanted to show his support for Washington to counter criticism from blacks.
Washington's backers argue that since he has the Democratic nomination, he should get the support of local Democrats automatically. His critics argue that he is booting the election or, if not, making it more difficult to govern by his refusal to compromise and make peace with his former adversaries.
Both miss the point. The point is that Harold Washington is running a high-risk strategy. If he wins the election, he will be beholden to no one. He will not have to give jobs to white ward committeemen and aldermen. He will not have to deliver on promises to maintain their friends and relations in the $50,000 city jobs that are the real prize in this election. He can be exactly the kind of mayor he has shown every sign of wanting to be: a mayor who gives credentialed, professional blacks the jobs and opportunities they have not gotten from Chicago's previous mayors.
The risk is that he won't win. Washington will get the votes of virtually all blacks and of some white liberals no matter what he does--but they're probably not enough for him to win. He needs the support of a rather small number of white voters out in ordinary Chicago neighborhoods, and politically active local whites can make a difference.
With a candidate who makes reassuring statements about serving all citizens equally, who has impressive credentials and who endures dozens of excruciating coffees in basement rec rooms, local politicos can squeeze out the extra 10 or 20 votes per precinct that a candidate like Washington needs to win. But Washington doesn't want to make the commitments needed to run this kind of campaign. He seems uninterested in reassuring white voters. He wants the job on his own terms--or not at all.
In the meantime, national politicians of both parties are making fools of themselves in Chicago. National Democrats like Mondale and Democratic national chairman Charles Manatt are stumbling all over themselves to embrace a candidate they know little about and whom many local Democrats will have nothing to do with. This can't be helping Washington much.
Chicago voters know that national politicians don't know Chicago and don't know Harold Washington (who has served in Congress only two years and spent most of that time in Chicago). They must be smirking when Manatt defends Washington for spending time in prison on income tax charges by saying that he didn't hurt anybody--the same defense Republicans gave for Richard Nixon.
As for the Republicans, they would have us believe that the campaign theme their money and top-flight consultants are using in Chicago --"before it's too late"--has nothing to do with race. Not that it's likely to make much difference: the one man who can determine how much whites will fear Harold Washington is Washington himself, and he seems to be making the Republicans' job easier.
Because of the publicity given this race and the size of Chicago, many blacks and whites will see it as a test of whether white Americans are ready to support a black candidate.
It is no such thing. White Americans passed that test a long time ago: majority-white constituencies elected Edward Brooke senator from Massachusetts in 1966, Carl Stokes mayor of Cleveland in 1967, Ron Dellums congressman from California in 1970, Andrew Young congressman from Georgia in 1972, Thomas Bradley mayor of Los Angeles in 1973. California-- 93 percent non-black--came within 1 percent of electing Bradley governor in 1982.
What is at stake in Chicago is the fate of a shrewd politician who has put a high bet on a risky roll of the dice. If a white candidate who was an ex-convict, running in a 60 percent black city on a largely racial appeal to whites, were defeated, we would not be much surprised or shocked. Should our reaction be a whole lot different if Harold Washington loses?