In His Lonely Race for Mayor of Chicago, Bernard Epton Finds the G.O.P. on the Wrong Side of the Tracks

updated 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/21/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Bernard Epton is running for Mayor of Chicago, even though the Windy City is not his kind of town politically. As a Republican candidate in this Democratic domain, Epton, 61, knows the futility of it all. "Chicago doesn't have enough Republican voters to win a Moose lodge election," sums up Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko. Indeed, although next Tuesday's mayoral primary is providing drama on the Democratic side, where incumbent Jane Byrne amassed $9.6 million to battle two rivals (the late Mayor Daley's son Richie and black Congressman Harold Washington), the Republicans have drawn scant attention. In the GOP, Epton was the only heavyweight willing to carry his party's colors. He sewed up the nomination at party meetings last November, outclassing a field that included a disgruntled city worker, an unemployed philosophy teacher and a sometime clown named Spanky. "They were not qualified," sniffed the city GOP chairman. "They were Democrats through and through."

If they really were Democrats, they might have faced rosier prospects than Epton. Chicago hasn't elected a Republican Mayor since 1927, and Epton faces almost certain defeat in the April general election. He is following in a hallowed tradition. Timothy Sheehan, a fish cannery owner and GOP nominee in 1959, summarized his campaign in one sentence: "I didn't say anything stupid—like predicting I'd win." Mayor Daley's last opponent, Alderman John Hoellen, entered the polling booth at 6 a.m. and made his concession speech upon exiting. After voting for himself in 1977, candidate Dennis Block announced: "I'm moving to the suburbs." They learned the hard way a truth Epton already knows. He once said: "If Jesus or Moses returned as Republican candidates for Mayor, they would lose by several hundred thousand votes."

Epton's candidacy began last Thanksgiving when Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson called to talk political turkey, and urged him to seek the nomination. A respected 14-year veteran of the state legislature, Epton had decided not to run again after unfavorable redistricting made his defeat appear inevitable. Yet his decision to take on another losing race surprised neither friends nor family. Says wife Audrey, "He just doesn't believe you should hand the city to the Democrats on a platter."

The Republican National Committee apparently disagrees. After they offered him a $50,000 contribution, Epton sniped, "Look, fellas, I spent more than that for Reagan." He refused the money, suggesting he would not accept less than $200,000. (His war chest now is $83,000, of which his family has donated nearly $60,000.) At a recent fund raiser for Sen. Charles Percy, Epton was seated at a back table and was never introduced. "They should be ashamed of themselves," he says. According to Sun-Times columnist Roger Simon, "Jane Byrne has gone out of her way to cut deals with Jim Thompson and Reagan. As a result, there is no interest statewide or nationwide in seeing a GOP Mayor."

Epton has a history of being odd man out. A lifelong Republican, he was a precinct captain at 17 but was later fired for following his conscience in the voting booth on Election Day. "I was in there way too long," he says. "It only takes a minute to vote the straight ticket." A millionaire lawyer who represents insurance companies in fraud cases, Epton is also a dedicated sports fan who joined Danny Thomas in a failed 1961 attempt to buy the White Sox.

Audrey describes their 37 years together as blissful. "It's been politics and children, children and politics," says the mother of four. Epton, however, is not invulnerable to tension. He suffers from migraines and cluster headaches, and in 1981 he was carried out of the Illinois legislature on a stretcher after a painful attack. "He wakes up with them and goes to sleep with them," says daughter Dale.

Although the mayoral campaign could prove ill-fated, Epton is going at it full tilt. "I'm no Don Quixote. I really think I can win," he says. His platform is simple—"Revitalize the city's schools, industries and neighborhoods—and cut crime." Political insiders believe that a grateful GOP will reward Epton, possibly with a state or federal political appointment, for accepting his thankless role. Meanwhile Epton might well consider the experience of his law partner Richard E. Friedman, who was the 1971 GOP mayoral candidate (and later a regional HEW director). Recalls Friedman, "I had 1,200 people turn out for a $100-a-plate dinner. You can't imagine how impressive it was for a Republican in Chicago to draw 1,200 people. That same night Richard Daley had a fund-raising dinner. He had 1,300 waiters."

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