CHICAGO — Harold Washington died almost three years ago, but in the raucous world of Chicago politics his name--if not, perhaps, his spirit--lives on in the form of a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't political party that could cause major problems for Chicago Democrats.
The all-black Harold Washington Party, named after the city's first black mayor, was formed last year by Alderman Timothy C. Evans, a Washington protege who waged an unsuccessful mayoral campaign as an independent. In its current incarnation, the party is trying to get a countywide slate of candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot.
What has Cook County Democrats worried is the possibility that the party will help Republicans get elected--perchance from the governorship on down--by siphoning black voters away from the Democrats. Increasing the concern is the fact that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Neil Hartigan is running no better than neck-and-neck with Republican Jim Edgar.
The Illinois Supreme Court took the Washington Party off the ballot last week, upholding a lower court ruling that the party did not collect enough signatures on its petitions in suburban areas.
But party organizers, bitterly decrying what they call the mistreatment of blacks by the Democratic organization, vowed to fight down to the wire and take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary to get on the ballot.
Sometimes it seems that damaging the Democratic Party is the Washington Party's primary goal, so strong is the anger party organizers hold toward regular Democrats, whom they accuse of mistreating and neglecting the black community.
Blatant racial appeals are nothing new to Chicago. In 1987, white mayoral candidate Thomas C. Hynes formed a white-based third party in reaction to the Democrats' renomination of Washington as the party's candidate.
It is a truism here that whites vote for white candidates and blacks for black candidates. But R. Eugene Pincham, a former Illinois appellate judge and the titular head of the Washington Party, argues in a lengthy treatise, entitled "Why the Harold Washington Party," that the organization was formed because the truism actually is false.
Historically, blacks, who make up about half of the city's population, voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic-endorsed candidates even though the vast majority of those candidates were white and did little for the black community once they were elected, he says.
"The attitude, perception and reality that African-Americans have no alternative--no place to go--must be eliminated, completely and permanently," Pincham argues.
Creation of the Harold Washington Party has drawn criticism from Democratic politicians, white and black, who say inclusiveness, not isolation, was the lesson of Washington's election as Chicago's first black mayor.
But antipathy toward the Democratic Party has grown so strong in some quarters of the black community that the Washington Party at times has resembled nothing less than a kamikaze assault on the Democrats.
If the party does not succeed in getting on the ballot, party officials hint that they will urge supporters to vote Republican or for write-in candidates.
"I won't kowtow to a party that's trying to destroy this community," Pincham said at a press conference.