"I guess you could say Kennedy and Mondale have a little bit of a problem," a friend remarked the day after the Chicago primaries.
The reference, of course, was to the senator and the former vice president having backed white candidates in a mayoral race won by black congressman Harold Washington.
My friend thought that Ted Kennedy, who says he won't run for president, and Walter Mondale, who says he will, would be hard-pressed to repair the damage to their images among blacks resulting from their having campaigned against the victorious Washington.
Which is one way of looking at it. Washington attorney Ron Brown has another thought: that Mondale, Kennedy and the Democratic Party--in Chicago and in America--will have not "a little bit of a problem" but an important opportunity to show what they're made of.
Brown, once Kennedy's staff director and now deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, thinks Harold Washington's victory could turn out to be a major plus for the party.
"Kennedy has already had a long talk with Washington," Brown said. "I don't know whether Mondale has had the chance to talk to him or not, but I know he understands the situation. (Charles) Manatt (Democratic National Committee chairman) assures me that there will be a concerted effort to show support from all parts of the party. He has already said as much to Washington.
"The way I see it is that this gives the Democratic Party the opportunity to demonstrate to black Democrats that the party will pool its resources and stand behind Democratic nominees. I think it will happen, not just with the DNC but with presidential aspirants and even with Chicago Democrats."
Washington--who was running far behind incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne when Mondale endorsed a second challenger, Richard M. Daley, and Kennedy came out in support of Byrne-- swept to his surprising victory on the strength of his crusading campaign style and the record participation of Chicago blacks. It is likely that the Kennedy and Mondale endorsements helped to mobilize the black vote for Washington. The turnout was boosted by a special registration campaign that added upwards of 150,000 black registrants, bringing the total black electoral strength to more than 600,000.
The black vote went overwhelmingly to Washington, in what Chicago's Jesse Jackson described as a "political riot" against the city's political machine. A number of black political leaders see the turnout as a major boost in their effort to get black voters registered across the country. Still, some whites have noted a seeming philosophical inconsistency: why should it have been seen as treachery when Kennedy and Mondale backed white candidates, but an occasion for rejoicing when black leaders across the country helped to elect the sole black candidate?
Ron Brown, who is black, acknowledges that it is hard to articulate a convincing response. "It does seem clear to me that blacks, in the history of American politics, have had a unique and special role," he said. "There has been such specific and deliberate exclusion from the political process that when there is an opportunity to help balance the scales, it is important to take advantage of it. I hope we will get to the point where race is not a significant factor, but we're not there yet. Until we get there, we will be forced to take a special interest in black candidates."
The immediate test of how close we are to Brown's ideal will be the extent to which the Democratic Party rallies to elect its black nominee mayor of Chicago.