Those results set our strategy. We had to convince black voters that Washington could win (which by itself would produce a tremendous black turnout) while we simultaneously helped Daley increase his vote to create the possibility of him evenly splitting the white vote with Byrne.
Community organizers began to turn out large crowds at Washington events. By early January, the Washington campaign was on fire in the black community. Organizers mobilized massive rallies in the city’s African American neighborhoods, each of which enhanced the next until a full-blown crusade was underway. Slowly, it dawned on the press that if the non-black vote was evenly split between Daley and Byrne, Washington could theoretically win.
We began to command more news coverage, and as we did, Marilyn aggressively attacked Byrne with scripted and highly visual press events. Campaign contributions, especially from African American businesspeople, increased. That meant Bill was soon able to make TV spots that demonstrated Washington’s competence and experience as a legislator.
By late January, most black voters had shifted to Washington, along with a small segment of liberal whites. But when the strength of the crusade building in the black community became evident outside of it, racial tension in the city grew proportionately. Given thousands of patronage jobs and millions of dollars in city contracts, all controlled by the mayor’s office, Chicago’s white politicians mobilized to stop us.
An ugly racism permeated the city. Many whites who were not regular voters were convinced to turn out to stop Washington. But since most had been lifelong Democrats loyal to the old Daley machine, they were more likely to vote for the younger Daley than for Byrne, which played right into our hands.
On primary election night, we smiled broadly as pandemonium broke out when results were announced to the thousands of Washington supporters packed into the ballroom of the McCormick Place Hotel: Washington 37 percent, Byrne 33 percent and Daley 30 percent.
African American voters had a 79 percent turnout and had given Washington 85 percent of their vote. The “80 for 80” strategy had worked. Community organizing carried the day, with a minor assist from our press and advertising work.
A general election surprise
The general election between Washington and the Republican nominee was to be held in April. With the primary behind us, we thought it would be a victory lap. We were wrong.
The powerful chairman of the Cook Country Democratic Party, “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, immediately endorsed not Washington but his Republican opponent, State Sen. Bernard Epton. Other powerful white aldermen, lifelong Democrats all, quickly followed suit, equally determined to stop Washington even at the previously unthinkable cost of electing a Republican mayor.
It was a stunning development. Vrdolyak and the other white aldermen didn’t bother to hide the racial motivation behind their unprecedented embrace of a Republican candidate. Using language that claimed Washington’s supporters were outsiders trying to overthrow the established order, but avoiding overt references to their race, Vrdolyak and the others nonetheless managed to argue that white city workers and white city contractors would lose out to blacks who would supplant them. Worse, they had no qualms about using racial polarization as a central aspect of their strategy because they knew that many in Chicago would respond. Nonetheless, immediately after the primary victory, the Washington campaign did not appear to be in any real danger.
Polls conducted by Caddell and Maslin shortly after the primary indicated a comfortable lead. Latino support had solidified behind Washington, and it appeared that we had the vote of white liberals who made up 15 to 20 percent of the white vote, which was all we needed to carry the general election. Enthusiasm in the black community remained at a historic high. We made TV spots and organized press coverage that claimed Washington would bring much-needed reform to the city.
While we assumed we were coasting to victory, the Democratic machine doubled down. They mounted a campaign that relied on salacious charges and crude innuendo to accuse Washington of being a slumlord and a tax-evader. The opposition even suggested he was gay.
Upping the ante, they hired Republican media consultant John Deardorf, who, leaving subtlety behind, produced negative spots that were tagged, “Bernard Epton…before it’s too late.” The message wasn’t lost on anyone in Chicago.
The Washington campaign did not respond to these slanders. We stayed on the high road. But because of the unrelenting attacks, Caddell and Maslin began weekly tracking polls. Initially, our white support held firm, but then with each new poll white support dropped a little more. The attacks were working.
We increased our positive messaging, switching from 30-second to 60-second TV spots. That didn’t help. White voters continued to defect. Two weeks before the election, we were jolted out of our complacency: our overall vote had dropped just below 50 percent with the number of undecideds rapidly diminishing. If we couldn’t find a way to alter the direction of the race, we were convinced Washington would lose.
The election: Lost and then won
Horrified, we convened an emergency meeting of the campaign leadership, including the powerful finance committee. We argued for an immediate change in strategy, one that would directly confront the not-so-subtle racist campaign that was eroding our support among white voters.
The two pollsters and the two of us argued forcefully for new TV spots designed to make white voters with liberal politics feel awkward or even guilty for having been drawn into the essentially racist campaign against Washington.
Much to our surprise, the businessmen on the finance committee vehemently opposed us. Recounting their prior experiences supporting black candidates in local races that required carrying some white votes, they argued that whenever the issue of race or racism had been raised, it had always backfired.
Their experiences in race-dominated Chicago had taught them never to discuss racism if a black candidate needed white votes to win an election. Countering their argument was not easy: all four of us were white; everyone else in the room was black.