Wondering why I use Epton instead of “before it’s too late”? Here is the explanation.
Bernard Epton was a Republican member of the Illinois House of Representatives for seven terms, first elected in 1968 and staying on through the 1982 session. He chose not to run for re-election to the Illinois House in 1983, instead entering the Chicago mayoral race.
As a Republican in a city which had been dominated by Democratic machine politics since the Great Depression, Epton faced a steep uphill climb. Few paid much attention to his campaign during the primaries, instead focusing on a heavyweight battle on the Democratic side.
Chicago mayoral elections are now non-partisan, but they were not in 1983. Therefore, the three most visible candidates would have to battle one another, with only one advancing to the general election.
The incumbent mayor, Jane Margaret Byrne, was the first woman to be elected mayor of one of America’s 10 largest cities. In 1979, she upset Michael Bilandic, who became mayor upon the death of Richard J. Daley, the Boss of Chicago, in December 1976. Bliandic’s inaction during a January 1979 blizzard and Byrne’s subsequent hammering of Bilandic over the issue of snow removal helped her win.
Richard J. Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, then the District Attorney of Cook County, where Chicago is located, threw his hat into the ring with the support of many of his father’s old supporters and ward bosses.
The third major Democratic candidate was U.S. Representative Harold Washington, vying to become the city’s first black mayor. Washington obviously was much farther to the left than either Byrne or Daley, and he began running for mayor during the first year of his first House term. He was re-elected in 1982 to Congress because his House district was, and still is, overwhelmingly black, but he was drawing the Congressional salary without doing very much on Capitol Hill, instead campaigning for the one job he coveted.
The black vote carried Washington to a narrow victory in the Democratic primary. It figured in the overwhelmingly Democratic City, Washington was home free, right?
Many of the old-line Daley loyalists threw their support to Epton, not wanting a black man to occupy the mayor’s office. Some of Epton’s most conservative backers produced a commercial which ended with the line “Epton…Before It’s Too Late”.
Epton himself was very uncomfortable with the racial overtones of the campaign. He was a liberal and was active in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. However, the racially charged campaign continued all the way to the end, where Washington won by a very narrow margin.
Washington won by a more comfortable margin in 1987, but he collapsed and died of a heart attack in his office the day before Thanksgiving 1987. Epton died only three weeks later.
I didn’t follow the election as it happened in 1983, since I was too young to understand. However, I read about it two years later as Washington was in the midst of his first term.
That election came up in a course on Louisiana politics during my first semester at LSU in the fall of 1994. The professor, Louisiana legend T. Wayne Parent, one of the country’s foremost political scientists, tried to explain how the closed primary system worked, since many in Louisiana, especially those who didn’t start voting until 1975 or later, had only know the open primary, where all candidates run on a single ballot, and if nobody gets an outright majority in the first election, then a second primary (or general election or runoff) is held.
Dr. Parent explained how Washington advanced to the general election even though he did not get a majority over Byrne and Daley. He couldn’t quite remember the Republican candidate, so I shouted EPTON! He and my classmates were amazed.
Louisiana politics was one of my three favorite classes at LSU. The others were involving constitutional law during my last full year there. If I could do it all over again, I think I would have done much better in a lot of my classes. I’m not blaming my autistic spectrum disorder, but I think it didn’t help.