Chicago's white ethnics view Clinton, and primary, warily

March 15, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- In the white, ethnic wards of the nation's third-largest city, Bill Clinton's toughest opponent could be himself. And that may spell trouble for the Democrats this fall.

European immigrants and their descendants who populate Chicago's northwest and southwest sides are likely to vote for the Arkansas governor in this week's Illinois primary. But these swing voters, who helped elect Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s, are far from sold on him as a future president.

"He'll have to convince me," says Robert LaFrancis, who plans to ZTC vote for Mr. Clinton Tuesday but could go Republican in the fall.

Even though he has reservations about Mr. Bush's mishandling of the economy, the publicity about Mr. Clinton's "background," as Mr. LaFrancis puts it, makes him a questionable alternative.

"It worries me. It brings up a question in the back of my mind," Mr. LaFrancis says. "If he's that way there, there might be other things."

The Midwest states of Illinois, Michigan and Ohio could well decide the November election. Within those states, there is no more pivotal battleground than the working-class neighborhoods like those of southwest Chicago.

Rows of tidy brick bungalows with their neatly kept lawns stretch for miles across the flat landscape. But the changing composition of these old neighborhoods can be glimpsed in storefront signs advising that Spanish, as well as Polish, is now spoken here.

For this year's Democratic nominee, there will be no more important goal than winning back these socially conservative "Reagan Democrats," who are angry at a government that seems to lock them out, while using their tax money to help minorities.

From the outset, Mr. Clinton's campaign, with its emphasis on the "forgotten middle class," has been directed toward recapturing these voters. But publicity about marital infidelity and questions about his honesty have created a new impediment he will have to work hard to overcome, if he becomes the Democrats' nominee.

"It hurts him a lot," says Mike McKeon, a Democratic pollster who specializes in working-class and ethnic voters. Many of these voters, he says, may cast a reluctant vote for Mr. Bush in November. Others will simply stay home.

That's what John Coughlin of Oak Lawn, Ill., is threatening to do. He thinks both parties "scraped the bottom of the barrel this time."

A retired Santa Fe Railroad engineer, he is particularly unimpressed with Mr. Clinton, whom he regards as "a B.S.-er. He's stretching the truth, and he's hiding things."

In theory, Mr. Clinton should be getting a serious challenge for the ethnic vote from former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, a first-generation Greek-American. But, in fact, he's not.

"Tsongas is a total non-entity for those of us here," says Russ Vaccaro, who runs a barber shop on Pulaski Road in southwest Chicago.

"Tsongas -- we never even heard of him," says Christopher Teta, now retired after 42 years in the shipping department of the Morton Salt Co.

The primaries in Illinois and neighboring Michigan may be the last chance for Mr. Tsongas to stop Mr. Clinton from becoming the Democratic nominee.

But with the election only days away, random interviews with dozens of voters in the city's ethnic neighborhoods indicates that many cannot even pronounce Mr. Tsongas' name, much less find a reason to vote for him.

The disorganized and politically clumsy Tsongas campaign has failed to reach many who live here. But even if he had communicated more effectively, it is not clear that it would have made a big difference.

Educated at Ivy League schools and now far removed from the immigrant experience, Mr. Tsongas is more at home in a corporate boardroom than a beer hall. In state after state this year, he's carried the votes of upscale, highly educated suburbanites, while losing badly to Mr. Clinton among minority and blue-collar voters.

In Baltimore, the first test of urban ethnic strength in this year's primaries, Mr. Clinton carried the Polish-American vote and ran about even in Little Italy, while losing the state to Mr. Tsongas.

In Chicago, Mr. Clinton seems poised to carry the white ethnic vote, almost by default, and with it, the state.

"I don't think people care about the presidential race out here. Clinton will probably win just because he's ahead" nationally, says Joe Novak, a smart, young veteran of this city's never-ending political wars.

Much of the Cook County Democratic organization is ignoring the presidential race, preferring to concentrate its energy on local contests.

But Mr. Clinton posed for pictures this week with Mayor Richard M. Daley, which many took as a tacit endorsement. Mr. Tsongas' earlier meeting with the Chicago mayor was held out of the range of cameras.

The third candidate in the race, former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, is getting a look from some voters here. But while his anti-politics message seems a perfect fit for angry, working-class whites, his desire to make the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson his running mate turns many off.

"It totally boggles my mind," says Thaddeus T. Grekowicz, 36, who had intended to vote for the Californian until he heard about the prospect of a Brown-Jackson ticket.

"I think Clinton's too slick," he complains, adding that, in the fall, "there's no comparison. I would take Bush. He's done a pretty good job."

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