Newsweek featured it on the cover. Day after day, front-page newspaper stories report the latest polls, endorsements and revelations with an intensity matching the closing days of a national election. A grim television correspondent, standing against the outline of the Windy City, tells us in a somber voice that the Chicago mayor's race will have an "enormous impact" on the 1984 presidential elections, may even "determine" who sits in the Oval Office and that the decision of Chicago voters will be "heard around the world."
What will be the profound message from today's election? The message should be that there is no message at all from this muddled, unrepresentative contest. It is not a valid referendum on racial progress in this country. Nor do its results deserve to affect the national decisions of black leaders and presidential candidates looking to the 1984 election. Race has become the dominant factor in this election only because it is the easiest way to distinguish between two mediocre candidates.
Whether Harold Washington wins or loses, it will be because of the color of his skin. Washington won the Democratic nomination only because he was able to motivate, register and turn out a large black vote against two white candidates. And if he loses, it will be only because Chicago's ethnic Democrats could not stomach this particular black man as their mayor.
But race has not been the only factor in this stormy contest. A better mayor than Jane Byrne would not have lost the nomination of her own party, and Bernard Epton would not even be in the running against a black candidate of the caliber of Andrew Young, Tom Bradley, Coleman Young or Walter Fauntroy. Harold Washington's personal background and his taunting rhetoric following his primary victory made it difficult for the party machine to close ranks behind him and easy for white Democrats to exercise their prejudices.
But whether Bernard Epton is elected the first Republican mayor of that great city in 50 years or Harold Washington squeaks by, one thing is certain: the enormous national exposure given this crazy local race guarantees that the national black leadership and the Democratic presidential candidates are sure to overreact to the results.
If Washington wins, the Democratic presidential candidates and party leaders will send congratulatory telegrams proclaiming "racism dead" and cross their fingers, hoping quietly for a return to normality, i.e., not having to bother with the problems created by a black candidate in the Democratic primaries.
If Washington loses, the argument will be made by some black leaders that the voice of black voters is neither heard nor respected by the Democrats and that their only recourse is to run a black candidate for president to gain leverage within the party.
But the notion of a black presidential candidate--nurtured by the real problems that afflict black America, the numerical strength of blacks in the Democratic Party and the racial feelings stirred by the Chicago race--has gained momentum in recent weeks and is now a likelihood.
Do black Americans deserve a large voice in selecting the Democratic nominee? Yes, both in terms of their historical performance on behalf of the party and their potential contribution in 1984. In recent elections, black voters were 20 percent of the Democratic vote and usually voted in excess of 80 percent for Democratic candidates.
The key question black leaders must address is whether their interests are best served by supporting one of the present white candidates or running a black candidate. The rationale for a black presidential candidate is that such a candidate would be able to win a number of delegates in each state and go to the convention as a major broker, able to decide the ticket and the platform.
The excitement generated by a black candidate would also increase black registration, elect more blacks to state and federal office and ultimately improve the chances of the Democratic nominee by creating a larger pool of voters motivated to defeat Ronald Reagan.
There is one danger in this strategy. While there is talk every four years of "brokered conventions"--promoted by the very people who dream of being the brokers--the fact is that in the past seven presidential elections in both parties, one candidate arrived at the convention with the lead in delegates and went on to receive the nomination of his party.
Consequently, one of the risks of a black candidate hoping to play broker is that by the time the convention begins, there would be nothing left to broker. If this happened, not only would the black influence be unfelt at the convention, but the candidate(s) most deserving of black support would also find their black votes siphoned off to the black candidate. So the nominee of the party would arrive at the convention without the help of black voters and with less of an obligation to address their concerns.
For better or for worse, the inordinate attention given the Chicago mayor's contest has stirred the pot of racial feelings in this country. One would hope for a mature reaction to the Chicago results from both the black leadership and the various presidential candidates. Black leaders should not determine their interest and long-term strategy in the euphoria of a Washington victory or in the despair of a Washington defeat.
They should measure carefully the risk and consequences of manning a campaign that, if successful in uniting black leaders and voters, would put all of their political eggs in the basket of a single candidate/broker, and, if unsuccessful, would split the black community and dilute their ultimate influence.
Conversely, the presidential candidates should examine carefully their reaction to a probable black candidacy. Attempts by presidential candidates to prevent a black candidacy by making unrealistic promises will only add to the cynicism of black voters.
One option for national party leaders and the presidential candidacy is to accept the inevitability of a black candidate as a consequence of black political strength and frustration and hope that the campaign can be conducted in a way that reconciles the different interests of black America and the Democratic Party in time to defeat President Reagan.
The notion of a black candidate will be strongest in the month following the Chicago race, particularly if Harold Washington loses. A serious black candidacy would demonstrate that while the concerns of black America may be monolithic, the strategy for addressing those concerns is not. A black candidate will find political equality in the presidential arena that he/she might have been denied on the sidelines, facing the very same frustrations and problems of organizing a national campaign and raising funds as the white candidate.
City by city and state by state, the black candidate will have to appeal to individual black leaders and voters, convincing them that it is better to support a black person who might be a broker for their interest than to sign on early with a white candidate who might be president.