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Elections ’83; A Winning Round

9 minute read
Kurt Andersen

A good day for women and blacks—but not for moose

Listening to the uniformly cheery postelection analyses, it was possible to forget that there were losers as well as winners. Everybody seemed able to find hopeful political omens in the patchwork of results. “Tuesday’s election,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles Manatt, “brought good news for the national Democratic Party.” Oh yeah? Declared Frank Fahrenkopf, Manatt’s G.O.P. counterpart: “The election provided good news to the Republican Party and President Reagan.”

Indeed, when the votes from the myriad elections were counted last week, there seemed to be something for everyone. Black and female candidates were high-profile winners in every section of the country. At the same time, in voting on scores of statewide and municipal propositions, the electorate seemed inclined toward common sense. Most important, when the dust settled, it did seem that more often than not, votes were cast based on candidates’ qualifications rather than their race, sex or personal life.

Overall, the Democrats probably came out slightly ahead. Mississippi and Kentucky, the only states to elect Governors last week, both chose new Democrats. Those successes preserve the party’s overwhelming (35 to 15) control of U.S. Governors’ mansions, a significant power base for the 1984 elections.

On the other hand, the G.O.P. will keep a 55-to-45 majority in the Senate, thanks to the victory in Washington State of Daniel Evans, who was appointed to the seat when Democrat Henry Jackson died in September. The race was, in Fahrenkopfs partisan view, “the only election with national implications.” Certainly the Democrat, liberal Seattle Congressman Mike Lowry, did his best to cast the special election as a referendum on Ronald Reagan’s policies. He gave passionate speeches, arms flailing, in which he deplored Reagan Administration cuts in social spending and warned against U.S. military adventurism.

Evans, 58, who radiates a sort of clearheaded country-club cool, shrugged off any special importance attached to his election. “People are trying to read too much into this,” he said. At their debate last month, he gracefully deflected attacks: “Mike, if you want to run against President Reagan, you’re a year too early.”

Evans, who was Governor from 1965 to 1977, took an unexpectedly large share (55%) of the vote. One improbable supporter was Walter Mercer, 50, a labor lawyer who calls himself “a left-wing Democrat.” Says Mercer: “He’s the most progressive politician in the state. In the Senate, I expect him to vote very independently. He thinks for himself.” Evans is what used to be called a Rockefeller Republican. His victory was important for the G.O.P, but it would be a mistake to count his voters as enlistees in the Reagan re-election cause.

In the most closely watched municipal election, W. Wilson Goode won 55% of the vote to become Philadelphia’s first black mayor. Four of the nation’s six largest cities (Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia) and 15 others with populations over 100,000 will now be led by blacks. Goode, 45, who has a management degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, dresses in Main Line corporate fashion. He is sober to a fault, relying on position papers far more than polemics. Said Goode after his election: “People will see by my actions that I want to be mayor of all the people.”

Neither he nor his Republican opponent, John Egan Jr., appealed to racial antagonisms of the kind that besmirched Chicago’s mayoral election. It is encouraging that the Democratic machine in the City of Brotherly Love, unlike its counterpart in Chicago, did not stint in its support for a black nominee. Even Frank Rizzo, the bilious ex-mayor who was beaten by Goode in the primary, campaigned for him. However, the vote still cut unmistakably along racial lines. Goode received the support of 98% of blacks. And though he picked up a quarter of the white vote, a comparable white candidate surely would have pulled a much larger share. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-to-l. Goode was by far the more experienced candidate. As the city’s managing director for the past three years, he had nuts-and-bolts responsibility for delivering municipal services.

Goode’s election was a first only in Philadelphia. Among other black mayoral candidates victorious last week, Richard Hatcher was elected to his fifth term in Gary, Ind., and Thirman Milner to his second in Hartford, Conn.

But perhaps the most heartening black mayoral success was that of Democrat Harvey Gantt in Charlotte, N.C., where just one in four voters is black. He took 40% of the white vote; the election was almost entirely free of racial animosity. Said Gantt: “We ought to be able to goout and recruit industry on the basis that we have such racial harmony.” Indeed, only in Los Angeles has a big-city black mayor won a larger share of the white vote.

This is the second time Gantt, 40, has stood as a symbol of racial progress. Twenty years ago, the color barrier was peacefully broken at South Carolina’s Clemson University when he became the first black student. A practicing architect with a master’s degree in city planning from M.I.T., he served on the Charlotte city council, leading a drive to revitalize Charlotte’s inner city. “Businessmen are attracted to Harvey’s intellect,” says Banker Hugh McColl Jr., who plays tennis on Gantt’s own court. “He’s no firebrand. He’s very thoughtful, and unlike many black politicians, he’s fiscally conservative.”

A feisty populist was elected Governor in Mississippi. Attorney General William Allain, a Democrat, took 56% of the vote to Republican Landowner Leon Bramlett’s 39%. But in the end, Allain’s positions on utility regulation and education reforms were obscured by a flurry of lurid charges: two weeks before the election, Bramlett supporters trotted out a pair of young black men, both transvestites, who claimed to have been paid 20 times by Allain for sexual services. A polygraph test commissioned by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger buttressed the hustlers’ allegations. Allain, 55 and divorced, called the charges “damnable, vicious, malicious lies.” He added, “I’m no sexual deviate, and Leon Bramlett knows it!”

Gender, not sex, figured prominently in Kentucky, which elected its first woman Governor. Moreover, Lieutenant Governor Martha Layne Collins, 46, will be the Democrats’ highest elected female official. A former home-economics teacher, she soundly beat State Senator Jim Bunning, 52, a former major league pitcher. Neither candidate had much administrative experience, and neither focused very clearly on state issues such as acid rain and the decline of the coal industry. Collins only tepidly supports the Equal Rights Amendment. Bunning came off as an unimaginative conservative.

The lifeless campaign’s most inspired moment, in fact, may have been its last, the work of former Governor Albert (“Happy”) Chandler, 85. When Collins’ victory speech had rambled on too long. Chandler sidled up to the microphone. Kentucky voters, he said, should be proud to have elected a woman so “well trained and well educated.” Then, smiling and sweet-voiced, he softly began to sing My Old Kentucky Home. The crowd joined in.

Women also won at the municipal level. Republican Donna Owens became the first woman mayor of Toledo, Ohio, and female mayors elsewhere were easily reelected. Houstonians gave businesslike Mayor Kathy Whitmire, 37, a second term by a lopsided (64% to 35%) margin. San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein was even more unstoppable: her five challengers together could muster only 21% of the vote. Collins of Kentucky may outrank her, but Feinstein, 50, has more Democratic Party clout than any other woman.

In a special congressional election in Georgia, however, simply being a woman—and a widow—was not enough to win. Ultralight Democratic Congressman Lawrence McDonald, chairman of the John Birch Society, died on Korean Air Lines Flight 007. His wife Kathy, 34, believed that the Soviets deliberately “assassinated” McDonald, and ran to serve out his fifth term. But moderate Democrat George (“Buddy”) Darden trounced her, 59% to 41%. The national New Right tried but then despaired of helping Kathy McDonald. “To be perfectly candid,” said Paul Weyrich, director of the right-wing Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, “they ran one of the worst campaigns I have ever witnessed. If I were a Bircher, I would believe the KGB was running the campaign.”

Also on the ballot last week (TM) was a thicket of initiatives. In San Francisco, voters narrowly passed (80,740 to 79,481) a measure designed to protect nonsmokers from coworkers’ smoke. It requires every employer to isolate the staffs smokers; if any nonsmoker remains dissatisfied, the firm can be fined $500 a day. Enforcement will be annoying and probably impossible.

Indeed, San Francisco voters seemed crotchety: 61% voted for a nonbinding resolution to do away with bilingual ballots in the polyglot city. They also passed a proposition condemning military aid to El Salvador; Seattle and Boulder, Colo., adopted similar measures, which additionally oppose U.S. aid to contra guerrillas fighting the Nicaraguan government.

Massachusetts voters in the liberal precincts of Harvard and M.I.T. refused to meddle in national security: the Cambridge initiative, defeated 3 to 2, would have gone beyond symbol by outlawing all research and development of nuclear arms in the city. The main target was a lab that designs missile guidance systems.

In general, prudence seemed to prevail. Ohioans voted not to repeal huge income tax increases passed by the legislature during the past year. New Yorkers approved a $1.25 billion bond issue to save the state’s decaying roads and bridges. A rent-control law was rejected in Los Angeles County. Citizens in parched Petroleum County, Mont., decided to regulate “sod-busting,” the dangerously erosive practice of plowing up marginal grazing land to plant wheat. And outdoorsy Maine voters sided with hunters over their prey: a proposal to end the state’s annual moose hunt was shot down 2 to 1.

Last week’s voting outcomes were seldom startling or disturbing. Local elections were decided on local issues, like new convention centers (Houston, Philadelphia), old infrastructures (New York, “Louisville) and bad schools (Mississippi). Perhaps there was no national sea change, but the social revolutions of the past 20 years were consolidated. “We can hold our heads high,” said Governor-elect Collins. “This is a place where no one is limited by race, creed or gender: people cast their votes solely for quality and ability to govern.” She was talking about Kentucky, but her pride seemed apt across the nation. —By Kurt Andersen.

Reported by Hays Corey/Washington and B.J. Phillips/Jackson, with other bureaus

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