About the only thing missing from the mayoral race here has been a little guerrilla theater. That ended today when William Zimmerman, media consultant for Democrat Harold Washington, crashed a screening of television advertisements for Republican Bernard E. Epton and branded their creator, John Deardourff, "a disgrace to the profession we both practice."
As reporters looked on in surprise, Zimmerman popped up during a question-and-answer session and said the first wave of Deardourff's commercials has turned the Epton effort into "one of the most racist campaigns since George Wallace ran for president in 1968."
Deardourff denied the charge and accused Rep. Washington of deliberately heightening racial tension by, among other things, taking former vice president Walter F. Mondale to a Palm Sunday church service in a white neighborhood, where they were forced by a crowd of hecklers to cut short their visit.
The incident was featured in a new ad Zimmerman began airing Tuesday for the Washington campaign--a dramatic contrast of young children reciting the pledge of allegiance and the contorted faces of the anti-Washington pickets.
Tonight, however, Zimmerman pulled that ad off the air after CBS News said he had used its film without permission.
Also this evening, Epton responded emotionally to one of the few incidents in which he has encountered hostile pickets.
When he arrived at a rally in a near North Side dance hall populated by young people, about 10 Washington supporters shouted "racist, racist" at him.
Epton told his backers inside the hall, "There are people here today deliberately trying to foster problems, to give the world the wrong impression of our city, but we're not going to let them. We're going to conduct ourselves with dignity, integrity and tolerance . . . . Please don't respond to these people. We're bigger and better than they are."
The unusual display of animosity earlier between political consultants reflected increasing tensions in both camps as the campaign heads toward a showdown Tuesday with both sides uncertain of the outcome.
Zimmerman told reporters that Washington's polls show that he has halted his slide and has "just over" 50 percent of the vote.
Deardourff said he doubts that either candidate has a majority, and said the election would be determined by undecided white voters.
The consultants' word war overshadowed this afternoon's campaigning. Washington visited Jewish and Hispanic audiences with Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.), the latest in a parade of Democratic presidential hopefuls who have come here to endorse his candidacy.
Epton met with two large audiences of senior citizens on the northwest side, telling reporters that Zimmerman's charges about a racist campaign were "ridiculous on their face."
The media screening of Epton ads was designed to introduce four new ads that omitted the tagline, "Epton for Mayor--before it's too late," a slogan that Chicago newspapers and others had criticized as racist.
Deardourff defended the slogan and, citing the Palm Sunday church visit, said Washington had stirred the racial pot.
Washington denied today that any of his actions in the campaign have contributed to racial polarization.
"I've lived 60 years, and I haven't added one ounce, one fraction of an ounce, to racial divisiveness, period," he said. "My life in the area of race relationships is impeccable . . . . There just isn't a negative nuance connected with anything I've remotely done which would justify anyone hurling racial epithets at me."
The Zimmerman-Deardourff flare-up served as a backhanded acknowledgment by the Washington camp that he had been bruised badly by Epton's first round of ads, which hit hard at Washington's problems with paying taxes and bills.
"We started slipping two weeks ago when those ads began running," Zimmerman said. "If he comes back at us with very strong negative spots on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, that's going to hurt."
Epton and Deardourff said their plan is to "stay positive" in the days before the election, but Deardourff declined when Zimmerman tried to obtain a commitment from him on that point.
Epton's new ads focus on his background, and refer repeatedly to the integrity issue. In one, Epton notes that the campaign has been one in which "emotions have run high--sometimes too high." In another, he says, "I have been blunt in my criticisms of Harold Washington, but his record is not a good one."
Washington plans to spend $175,000 on media advertising in the final week, compared with Epton's $105,000, and television commercials it has begun running are designed to capitalize on what Zimmerman sees as a backlash to racial feelings stirred by the campaign.
One television ad shows a montage of Chicago neighborhoods in all of their ethnic diversity, with an appeal at the end that Chicagoans "vote with our hopes, not with our fears."
The second spot used the Palm Sunday incident at St. Pascal Roman Catholic Church. Zimmerman said that the ad was designed to "promote thought and not exploit racism . . . . The erosion in Washington's standing in his polls was stopped by the incident at St. Pascal's. A lot of people saw that as a line they didn't want to cross."