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Chicago Politics: Tough, But Without Racial Tinge

Though bruising campaign tactics remain, race issue played down

CHICAGO votes today for city government candidates who, in devotion to local campaign etiquette, are walloping each other with accusations of arson, assault, and venality.

Five former convicts are among the candidates brawling to win the mayoral primary and election of Chicago's 50 aldermen. One would-be ward leader has claimed he caught city workers stuffing his campaign signs into a garbage truck. Another candidate allegedly had scores of absentee ballots mailed to a boarded-up apartment building.

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But there is one brickbat most candidates are not hurling: Charges of racism are far less bitter and frequent than in many years. Compared with the race-roiled 1980s, the current election seems like a citywide love-in, say political analysts.

``When it comes to race, comparatively speaking it seems like everyone is hugging one another,'' says Paul Green, a political science professor at Governors State University in University Park, Ill.

Indeed, racial rancor has ebbed in mainstream politics in many major cities across the United States, analysts say.

In Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit, black Democrat mayors with traditionally black support bases have reached out to white voters. Meanwhile, white Republican mayors in Los Angeles and New York show signs they recognize that in order to govern well, they must fully involve minority leaders, say the analysts.

``We're going through a period when race seems to be less of an issue in the urban centers,'' says Alan Gitelson, a political scientist at Loyola University in Chicago.

Upward mobility by some minority voters accounts in part for the calm. As minorities join the middle class, they tend no longer to rally en masse around a single political figure identified by race. Instead, they splinter and support a diversity of competing leaders concerned with a range of issues.

Still, racism remains a huge problem - especially for the urban poor - and the quiet in many cities might prove coincidental and fleeting. Instead of being in decline, racial discord might just be shifting beyond mainstream two-party politics.

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As many voters move toward conservatism and the Republican-run Congress slashes federal welfare, ``The needs of people in the inner city are not being met by the current political structure,'' says Robert Starks, an activist and political scientist at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. He is arranging a conference after the April 4 mayoral election that will exclude black officials tied to the two major parties and draw up a political strategy for inner-city residents.

The Democratic primary between Mayor Richard Daley, who is white, and challenger Joseph Gardner, ablack, shows how some urban politicians have pushed racial issues to the back of the campaign bus.

Racial tension is relatively mild partly because of the mayor's political skill, say the analysts. Supporters hail Daley as a clever administrator of inclusive, multi-cultural government, while opponents revile him as a mastermind of the politics of evasion.

Daley's race-related policies and tactics include: appointing many minorities - especially Hispanics - in his administration; ensuring equitable distribution of city services; skirting campaign questions about an allegedly race-biased police exam; and refusing to debate his challenger, thereby dodging hard issues like the high homicide rate and the education budget's $290 million deficit.

``This race is un-Chicagoan because Daley in a number of ways has neutralized the race question,'' says Mr. Gitelson.

The tactic of evasion has apparently worked. Daley leads Gardner, commissioner for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, by 63 percent to 18 percent among likely voters, according to a recent Chicago Tribune poll. Some 29 percent of black voters back the mayor.

Following the same campaign strategy that has succeeded in two mayoral campaigns, he has promoted himself as a champion of interracial cooperation and rallied affluent whites, ``ethnic'' whites, and the Hispanic swing vote. And divisions among black voters may help him clinch the nomination again.

Many leading lights of the black community have disregarded race and endorsed the mayor. Prominent black executives have helped Daley amass a $4.2 million campaign war chest 20 times larger than Gardner's funds.

More than 100 black ministers, including Gardner's pastor, have put their political heft behind Daley. Two powerful black politicians - US Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) and Cook County Board President John Stroger - have backed Daley. Only eight of the city's 18 black aldermen support Gardner.

Gardner has avoided crying foul on race for fear of antagonizing many voters, leaving the task to his most prominent supporters, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Instead, he has cast the race along class lines, saying he is fighting a political machine designed to protect privilege.

``I'm fighting for the underdog because I am the underdog,'' he says.

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