Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral race: How he won Chicago

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After a hard-won election, Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago’s 42nd mayor at Navy Pier on April 29, 1983. Outgoing mayor Jane Byrne is seen on the right.

Photo by Keith Hale/Chicago Sun-Times.

As published in the Chicago Daily News and its sister publication, the Chicago Sun-Times:

In the days leading up to the March 1978 primary, the Chicago Daily News’ Editorial Board posted a brief candidate endorsement for a state senator who didn’t mince words.

“Any Democrat in the South Side 26th District who doesn’t vote for Sen. Harold Washington in the March 21 primary is a fool,” the paper said. “Washington is not only the pre-eminent promoter of justice and opportunity for minorities, but also one of the best legislators in Springfield. His presence there benefits citizens throughout the state, not just those in his district.”

Voters listened, and Washington won the primary and the general election later that year. He served in the state Senate and later in the U.S. House of Representatives, but in 1983, he decided to go after Chicago’s mayoral office for a second time.

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This week marks Washington’s 100th birthday (April 15) as well as the 39th anniversary of his mayoral victory (April 12) against state Rep. Bernard E. Epton, a wealthy insurance lawyer. By the time of his election, the Daily News had shuttered, but the Chicago Sun-Times followed Washington as he campaigned hard across the city in the days leading up to the election-day showdown.

In a “horse race” article by political editor Basil Talbott Jr. on Saturday, April 10, 1983, both campaign’s precinct organizers expected voter turnout to be about 1.2 million, similar to the primary turnout, with Washington still leading in the polls.

Meanwhile, Washington took an offensive approach in those last few campaigning days, dispelling rumors and striking out against the Machine, Talbott said. He dispelled unsubstantiated rumors that he was a child molester and lashed out at Epton’s racist campaign slogan, “Epton — before it’s too late.” John Deardourff, Epton’s media advisor who allegedly wrote the slogan, accused Washington’s primary election remark, “It’s our turn,” of being a racial slogan.

That same day, reporters Lillian Williams and Brian J. Kelly published their account after following Washington all over town the previous day. He started at the Palmer House that morning where he delivered a “fiery speech to a 1,000-person minister’s breakfast.”

“He blamed ‘greed merchants’ — who he said were politicians and businessmen who profited from the city — for injecting race into the campaign to cover up their fear of his proposed reforms,” the reporters wrote for the article which appeared in the April 10 edition of the paper. He delivered a similar message to a 500-person rally at the Belmont Hotel later that day.

On the Sunday talk show “This Week with David Brinkley” — just two days before Election Day — Washington told Brinkley that Epton’s pledge to limit himself to just one term suggests he “thinks the city of Chicago is a toy to be played with by some rich man like himself,” Williams wrote in her Monday recap.

He further told a group of Jewish voters on the North Side later that day that Epton was not a “serious candidate,” Williams reported. “He has no transition team. … He would be a puppet for city government for the next four years,” Washington said, also calling into question the insurance lawyer’s ties to city business.

Like the Daily News, the Sun-Times Editorial Board endorsed Washington for mayor. And once more, voters agreed. The next day, they elected Washington mayor of Chicago.

The front page of the Chicago Sun-Times announcing Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral victory on April 13, 1983.

From the Sun-Times archives.

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April 15, 2022 at 10:37AM

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