Saturday, May 10, 2014

Through Audrey's eyes

The 1983 Mayoral Campaign in Chicago

Audrey Epton wrote this piece, recalling the tumultuous 1983 mayoral campaign in Chicago. She wrote it while Bernie/Dad was still alive--in 1985 or '86, I'm guessing. She gave it to me sometime during the summer of 2010, I think, just months before she died. I put it in a to-read pile in my office and later buried it beneath other less important papers (my bad). But I unearthed it this week and decided to post it.

It is, after all, a first-person account of the 1983 campaign by someone who was there and who loved Bernie Epton. I wish it was longer and more detailed, but to my knowledge it is still the longest thing Mom ever wrote. I also wish it was more emotionally forthcoming, but Mom was an emotionally reticent person to the end--she does not, for instance, even try to describe how deeply depressed Dad was in the last four years of his life. Even so, it's clear that the '83 campaign and its ramifications for her family caused her a lot of anguish.

She certainly wasn't a neutral observer--she was all-in for Bernie, but her perspective matters, nevertheless. And she's right about a few important things. Dad wasn't a racist, she wrote, just really, really stubborn. But his refusal to retract the "Epton, before it's too late" campaign slogan conveyed that unfortunate impression to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans, something Mom doesn't really acknowledge here.

But I find her summary statement here, about Black Pride, both awkward and somehow right on. The Washington campaign was an important moment for African-Americans and Chicago, itself. Had Dad not been Washington's opponent, he and Mom would have had no trouble recognizing how important Washington's victory would be.

I was there at the moment the phone rang on Thanksgiving Day, 1982. When I picked up the phone, it was Governor James Thompson on the other end. He had called to ask my husband to run for mayor of Chicago in the 1983 election.

After some discussion and a promise to get back to the governor, Bernie hung up the phone—and said to me, guess what, Jim Thompson just asked me to run for mayor.

I said, I know. I was listening on the other phone.

Bernie asked me what I thought about the idea and after talking back and forth for some time, I said to him I think you should go for it. You’ve been in politics in one way or another all your life and besides, you would make a great mayor.

Bernie was completely taken aback because he was sure I would say no. He was finishing his last term after 14 years as a state rep and he knew I was very happy about that.

I was tired of our separations. I could not always be in Springfield when the legislature was in session for varying reasons. And it seemed as though each year the sessions started earlier and ended later. Besides that, Bernie is a loner and if I wasn’t down there, he would tend to go from the floor of the House to his apartment after the day’s session, eat improperly and generally not be too happy.

He had a distinguished career as a state representative from his freshman term on. He was always chairman of a committee of one kind or another—he had many feathers in his cap, but never felt he had done enough and was rarely satisfied with his accomplishments.

I remember one bill that was a tremendous plus to the general public—the insurance bill that he initiated and passed... if your insurance company went broke and became insolvent for whatever reasons, the public never had to be the loser. If one had a claim, by law the other insurance companies had to pick up your claim. A tremendous factor, for instance if your house burned you would always have a place to turn.

Bernie was also in the leadership for many years before he retired in 1983. He has been a practicing lawyer from 1947 and also has been in big business and has been active in community affairs for the 42 years I have known him. That’s a lot of time spent away from home, but we also went to a lot of affairs together. You might say for a little girl born in England, Bernie made me a political animal. In our home, what was going on in the community was always of vital importance to us.

So that is first a very [short story] of Bernie’s life and some of the reasons I told him to go for it. I said at least you will be in the city, no further than City Hall, except on occasion.

Sometimes, looking back, I wonder if I should have said, “no, Bern, don’t do it.” There is no doubt about it that that campaign changed our lives. Whenever Bernie [had] entered a campaign [previously], he got extremely good press. He was always endorsed by all the newspapers, as was the case [early] in this campaign. All of the newspapers gave him glowing editorials, saying in part that Republicans were lucky to have such a fine candidate—one glowing description after another.

He also had never taken a dime politically for any of his previous campaigns, sending back any contributions that came in (not that he was so wealthy) but he did not want to be beholden to any one group. Once you take somebody’s money, they expect you to do their bidding, vote their way. Bernie always wanted to be free to vote his conscience.

On the floor of the House, he would declare if he had a conflict of interest—his colleagues respected him enough to [clear him to] vote. There were times he would not attend a party caucus because he would not want to be bound by them. A rebel perhaps—but we could do with more like him.

Going back to the campaign of ’83, it was such a larger scale that he had to accept contributions, but even these were different. They were smaller amounts from people on the street that just wanted to see him elected. One old man of 90 came to his [headquarters] with a $5.00 contribution and said when he gave it, I just want to see a Republican mayor of Chicago before I die.

When I say I think I did our family a disservice by encouraging Bernie to run, it is because of what happened after the primary when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee.

Up until the primary we had a small staff and a small army of volunteers. We campaigned together, we went into the neighborhoods. Because the fight was on the Democratic side and Bernie had no opposition, the press sort of left us alone, which irritated me. I didn’t think it fair that Bernie got so little coverage.

A funny thing happened one night because of that. Bernie had two meetings to go to and I went with him. The meetings were in opposite directions and we were on a tight schedule. It was a cold, snowy night. We had made the first meeting okay, but got lost going to the second one. We were in an unfamiliar part of the city.

Frantically, as we drove, we looked for a policeman or a telephone or a person to tell us where we were, but it was such a miserable night, nobody was out. Finally Bernie said to me, I think we’re going in the wrong direction—there being no traffic, he made a u-turn, and, guess what, we found a policeman. All of a sudden a blue light appeared and pulled us over. We were delighted to see him. Bernie said, “Officer, I’m Bernard Epton. I’m running for mayor and we’re lost on our way to a meeting. Will you tell me where so and so is?”

“Certainly, sir, after I give you this ticket,” he said.

We finally got to the meeting a little chagrined and bedraggled.

Bernard Epton was a victim of the bias of the press. Before the primary, Bernie was treated with a measure of respect by the media. After the primary, when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee, Bernie was portrayed as a racist immediately—if Bernie criticized Harold for anything, at all, it was because he was a racist.

The media, both print and electronic, could not have done a worse thing to a man who his whole life had worked for civil rights and racial equality. We are both still bruised and bleeding from that treatment.

Small comfort when I think it would have [happened to] anybody white once Harold was the nominee. Bernie and Harold had know each other and been on a friendly basis for years, but the press took exception to the fact that Bernie would refer to Washington by his first name, inferring that Bernie was treating Washington with no respect. Harold Washington immediately worked on that sore, always referring to Bernie as Mr. Epton. Nevertheless, when the campaign was over, it was back to “Bernie.”

How could the media be so blind? The media was manipulated and they in turn manipulated the voters, which of course is nothing new. I think, too, that one of the problems the press had with Bernard Epton was the fact that they were dealing with a totally honest man and they couldn’t cope with that. My husband, also being a rather stubborn man, would not change an ad that had been planned before the primary that [what] was needed [was] fiscal responsibility as Chicago was financially in bad shape. But the press decided that the slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” was racist.

Bernie refused to change it knowing in his heart that it was not racist. He was also blamed for an ugly incident at St. Pascal’s Church when Washington and Mondale visited there one Sunday afternoon. There were people picketing with racist slogans. The press indicated they were Epton supporters, which was a tremendous blow to Bernie. He immediately called Harold Washington to tell him how upset he was and that of course he condemned the incident.

Harold, of course, knowing Bernie, so well believed him. But the damage was done to the Epton campaign by that incident—it is hard to erase something like that from one’s mind. I like to think that in time more of the 1983 campaign will come out and it will be found that Bernard Epton is not a racist—but rather somebody that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was steamrollered by black pride.

1 comment:

  1. I am so moved by her honesty and indignation for her husbands real heartbreak . Mostly I am moved that my brother found my Moms' thoughts and published in time to honor her for Mothers' Day .