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In Chicago mayoral primary, the biggest issue is race. Rerun of '83 election shows improvement in attitudes, however

One week before the primary election, Chicago's mayoral hopefuls are skirting their biggest political thicket: race relations. Comments by supporters of Mayor Harold Washington have stirred charges of racism and caused observers to assess the city's progress on bridging its deep divisions.

The verdict is mixed: The race for mayor is less racially charged than the election four years ago, but the city has a long way to go.

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On the surface, the mayoral contest remains issue oriented. Here is Mayor Washington talking about police protection on the predominantly white Northwest Side.

There goes his principal opponent, former mayor Jane Byrne who is white, to examine flooding damage along the lakefront.

A Chicago Tribune poll released Sunday showed Washington had raised his support among white voters to about 22 percent.

This figure, with the expected support from about 90 percent of black voters and 40 percent of Hispanic voters, practically would guarantee Washington's renomination.

But for all the campaign rhetoric, blacks and whites concede that like last time, the biggest campaign issue is race.

``I believe it is,'' says Viola Matthews, a black working mother on the South Side. ``It's more a question of the haves and have-nots.''

But somehow, that still works out to largely a black-white division, she adds.

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``Let's be honest,'' says Joe Gutierrez, carrying a Byrne poster at a Southwest Side rally. Mayor Washington can get away with namecalling of whites, he says, but ``as soon as an Hispanic talks for Jane Byrne ... he's [labeled] a racist.''

The charge of racism is often overblown, many observers agree, because the reasons for Chicago's fault lines are more complicated than mere racial hate.

``There is hate and fear in this community, but there's also a lot of ignorance,'' says John McDermott, former publisher of a local newsletter on racial affairs. ``The white community doesn't see the enthusiasm, the surge of pride in the black community [because of Mayor Washington]. Some see it as arrogance'' and feel threatened.

On the other hand, Mr. McDermott says, blacks often interpret all white resistance to Washington as racism when, in fact, some of it is based on legitimate differences of opinion.

The best publicized flare-ups over the race issue have occurred in recent days because of comments from Washington's supporters.

Black Appellate Court Justice R.Eugene Pincham said people south of Madison Avenue - a reference to the heavily black South Side - ought to be hanged if they don't vote for Washington. Last week black Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman said lakefronters not voting for Washington would be doing so because of race.

One problem is that blacks and whites are geographically separated.

``Remember this about Chicago,'' adds Don Rose, a political consultant at one time or another for both Washington and Mrs. Byrne. The typical Chicago black lives in areas that are 90 percent black. The typical white lives in neighborhoods 80 percent white.

``That is not an accident,'' Mr. Rose says. ``And it has to be understood as the predominant Chicago problem.''

On Chicago's Northwest Side, a woman named Bea watches a predominantly white crowd depart a candidates forum. ``Our neighborhood is really changing,'' she observes.

Newly arrived Hispanics play loud music. The appearance of Hispanic real estate agents has spurred concern about property values. ``We wonder what the neighborhood will become,'' she adds.

The city appears to be making some progress in mending its divisions. A new citizens group is monitoring the use of racism in city campaigns. A recent forum for working journalists on how to cover racial campaign issues is packed.

``I think we all learned'' from the racially charged '83 race, says Al Ronan, Byrne's field operations director.

``You're never going to find a racist comment come out of our campaign.'' The same holds true for most of Washington's campaign workers, Mr. Ronan says.

``I think Harold Washington's term as mayor has made the races a lot more familiar to one another,'' adds Bob Benjamin, a participant in the 1983 race and current press secretary to Thomas Hynes, an independent mayoral candidate. ``Last time around, you were walking on eggs. You hated to say b-l-a-c-k. [Now] there's a much greater frankness of discussion.''

There's still a long way to go, says political consultant Rose. ``You've got a problem that's defined in miles and corrections defined in feet.''

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