CHICAGO — Foes are beginning to line up to challenge the reelection of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, amid indications that the city is racing toward another raucous, racially divisive political spectacle.
Machine Democrats who once dominated politics here believe this could be their last chance to unseat Washington, an independent Democrat who has said he intends to be mayor for 20 years. They reason that if Washington is reelected, he will be able to consolidate power while the population becomes increasingly black and Latino, the two voting blocs from which Washington draws his strongest support.
And both Democrats and Republicans believe that Washington may be vulnerable now because of a federal investigation of city hall corruption that is expected to result in widespread indictments before the primary on Feb. 24.
On Wednesday, the mayor's arch rival, Edward Vrdolyak, chairman of the splintered Cook County Democratic Party and leader of the mayor's city council opposition, announced that he will begin circulating nominating petitions to get his name on the primary ballot. But he stopped short of declaring his candidacy, explaining that he was testing the political waters with the petitions.
"When people say there's a lot of support out there, I say: 'Show me, show me,' " Vrdolyak said. "I have not decided to run. Am I jumping in? No. Do I have people out there passing my petitions around? Yes, I do."
'Anybody but Harold'
For weeks Vrdolyak, who has seen his own political power erode during Washington's first four years as mayor, has told interviewers that his candidate for mayor was "anybody but Harold."
Former mayor Jane M. Byrne, unseated by Washington in the 1983 Democratic primary, has been campaigning and raising funds for more than a year. She has a citywide political organization in place and has already won endorsements from several of Vrdolyak's political allies.
Also off and running is Republican Bernard E. Epton, who was narrowly defeated by Washington in the 1983 general election after a heated campaign that left the city polarized along racial lines.
Epton, however, does not have the GOP's blessing. Instead, the party has formed a search committee to find a candidate. Republicans believe they have a chance to capture the mayor's office for the first time in half a century because Epton ran a close race four years ago and because Chicago voters gave an upset victory in the Nov. 4 general election to the Republican candidate for Cook County sheriff.
"I can win with or without (official party) support," Epton told a rally Tuesday night.
Playing Cat, Mouse Game
While his foes send up trial balloons, Washington is playing a cat and mouse game and not saying whether he will run in the Democratic primary or skip it and campaign as an independent in the April general election.
"The mayor's enjoying watching everybody else speculate on what he'll do," aide Alton Miller said.
Democratic foes believe Washington can be beaten only if he faces a single Democrat in the primary or if he runs as an independent in the general election and faces a strong Democrat and a weak Republican.
"If the primary is a three-way race, I think Washington will win," said Councilman Edward Burke, who, along with Vrdolyak, has led the council opposition to Washington for the last four years.
Watching Grand Jury
While watching his potential foes, Washington also has to keep an eye on a federal grand jury that has been hearing evidence about alleged corruption in city hall. Related prosecutions in New York have already produced testimony from one business executive who said he gave a political fixer $300,000 to spend on bribes in Chicago.
Washington is not a target of the investigation, but some of his aides and several of his council allies are, according to published reports.
In addition, an internal investigation of some of the same alleged wrongdoing being investigated by the Justice Department disclosed that some mayoral aides participated in a cover-up of a $10,000 bribe paid to another of the mayor's aides.