Chicago’s mayoral race has all the makings of a Hollywood remake: It’s a classic political story recast with Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the role of the late Mayor Harold Washington, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) in the role of Bernie Epton, and the undercurrent of racism permeating this campaign.
These days, Kirk is talkin' like Bernie - that's Bernie Epton for those of you who are hearing this story for the very first time.
Epton was Washington’s Republican opponent in the racially charged 1983 Chicago mayoral campaign. Last week, Kirk ginned up the warning signals against Garcia, who is Hispanic, proclaiming that Chicago could end up like Detroit if Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t re-elected.
You can easily imagine Bernie Epton saying those words.
Back in 1983, Republican Bernie Epton coined the slogan, “Before it’s too late” in his race Harold Washington and media charges of racism quickly ensued.
Washington had just won the Democrat primary with 37% of the vote - normally a guarantee of general election success in Chicago. Washington should have been a shoo-in against Epton. After all, Chicago hadn’t had a Republican mayor since Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson in 1931.
However, race was a factor for and against Washington and Epton’s slogan fanned the flames of hate and distrust in white and black communities.
Of Epton’s slogan, WBEZ’s Alex Kotlowitz once remarked:
This slogan—"before it’s too late"—became infamous, not only in Chicago but around the country. Its meaning seemed transparent, but not to Epton. Epton insisted, both in public and in private, that “before it’s too late” plainly refer to Chicago’s financial problems.
The slogan set a tone for the campaign—the very tone Epton said he didn’t want. Now, it was going to be whites versus blacks, with Epton as the white savior. And soon, anonymous leaflets popped up in white neighborhoods all over the city.
One of them read, “Your vote for Mr. Epton will stop contamination of the city hall by a Mr. Baboon.” Around town, Epton supporters donned various buttons. One depicted a watermelon with a slash through it. Another button had nothing on it at all. It was just white. None of these were being distributed by Upton’s campaign, but it was all being done in his name.
In the end, Washington won the election by only 3.7 % of the vote (Epton won 622,000 votes to Washington's 667,000). It is important to note that while Epton received almost none of the black vote, he also lost 60% of the Hispanic vote to Washington. Ultimately, the unexpected Hispanic support for Washington was the deciding factor in the race and it is a fact African American voters would do well to remember.
Sadly, race continues to be a factor in the 2015 mayoral campaign.
CBS reporter Jay Levine has been accused of race baiting in his reporting of Garcia’s campaign. In a recent report, Levine asked former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson if Garcia’s Hispanic heritage would preclude him from an endorsement.
“There is a problem between Latinos and blacks. There’s certainly a problem. There’s a big problem,” said Wilson.
Like Epton, Kirk will insist his comment plainly referred to Chicago’s financial problems and the strength of Rahm’s financial leadership. However, Moody’s Investor Service just downgraded Chicago’s credit rating again under Emanuel’s reign. Clearly, Mayor Emanuel’s financial acumen is highly overrated.
Mayor Emanuel has proven himself in one major respect: He is gifted when it comes to finding ways to line his own pockets and those of his contributors using taxpayer funds as the Chicago Tribune has reported.
If Mayor Emanuel loses re-election on April 7 th, I assure you, he will be fine. His contributor, billionaire Ken Griffin will be fine. His business partner and political ally, Gov. Bruce Rauner will be fine.
It is Chicago's families and taxpayers that I'm worried about.
As for Sen. Mark Kirk, there is no excuse for his endorsement of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his racially-charged comments. I’m just waiting to see what Hollywood remake Kirk comes up with next. Perhaps "Weekend at Bernie's?"