With a consensus mayoral candidate already selected by Chicago’s black leadership, the question is whether the Windy City has a good chance of electing a black mayor the next time around. At this point, with several African-American candidates on the ballot — not to mention three Hispanic candidates — the prospects don’t seem so great. Perhaps we’re witnessing another textbook case of crabs in a barrel, or divide and conquer.
With Mayor Richard Daley bowing out next year, a decades-long political dynasty is coming to a close. The 2011 incumbent-free race for mayor is wide open and up for grabs. According to the Chicago Mayoral Election Scorecard, there are as many as 17 candidates in play.
Rep. Danny Davis is the consensus candidate who was selected by the Chicago Coalition for Mayor, a group of about 100 black political, religious and community leaders. Davis, who hails from the city’s West Side, was just reelected for his eighth term in Congress. The purpose of having a consensus candidate was to ensure, or at least increase the chances that Chicago’s black vote would not be diluted.
Davis has positioned himself as a “grass-roots’ candidate that can bridge the gap between rich and poor, and would be the mayor for all racial and ethnic groups. A former teacher, he wants to narrow the disparities between top schools and struggling, underachieving schools. And he promised to “wage all-out war against crime, guns and violence” and improve police-community relations. Given the problems that Chicago has faced with black youth crime and a murder epidemic, the next mayor must tackle crime head on.
Rahm Emanuel, ex-chief of staff for the Obama White House, is the political elephant in the room. And he is the de facto white consensus candidate. Kicking off his campaign by making a no new taxes pledge if elected, Emanuel benefits from having been away from Chicago during the city’s financial crisis. And he promises to make tough choices to deal with Chicago’s fiscal woes.
However, the Obama insider faces a number of challenges, even if he gets the nod from his former boss. Though Emanuel would point to his record in Washington as proof that he would make a great mayor, his record as Chief of Staff is debatable, even suspect, among the Democratic base. A former investment banker and Daley fundraiser, Emanuel is the candidate of the business community and hopes to raise $6 million to $8 million. But his business ties and reputation as Wall Street’s man in Washington could backfire in the nation’s second largest union town. His plan to cut services and privatize garbage collection will not get him any votes from organized labor, who already don’t trust him.
Critics portray Emanuel as a main source of President Obama’s woes, not to mention a Clinton advisor and backer of the neo-liberal deregulatory policies that brought on the country’s economic meltdown. Certainly, voters will remember how he met with Republicans and health care lobbyists to drop the public option in Obama’s health reform bill, resulting in an unpopular piece of legislation. Some in the Latino community even blamed him for the impasse on immigration reform. And it did not help the mayoral candidate that someone threw an egg at him from a moving car as he walked through Little Village, a predominantly Latino neighborhood.
Mayoral candidate and former Senator Carol Moseley Braun accused Emanuel of “cutting and running after engineering the biggest Democratic Party political loss in 27 years” and leaving President Obama “holding the bag.” Braun’s strategy is to provoke the anger of the notoriously short-tempered Emanuel, though it might not be a prudent campaign strategy to actually reveal your campaign strategy to the public. Braun, the only woman in the race, has the highest name recognition of the candidates, according to a Teamsters poll, although the same poll has her running third behind Emanuel and Davis.
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Braun — also a 2004 presidential candidate — was the first and only black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. She came to Washington following te backlash over the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. Sen. Braun was the subject of a 1993 Federal Election Commission investigation into unaccounted campaign funds. In 1996, she reportedly made an unauthorized trip to meet with Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, lending credibility to the human rights-abusing regime that Nelson Mandela called barbaric. There is some speculation that Braun is a spoiler who could disrupt the black vote. Nevertheless, she has selected campaign advisors with ties to Mayor Daley and House Speaker Michael Madigan, which could help propel her candidacy, or hurt her among voters looking for change and a clean break with the current administration.
A third prominent African-American in the race is James Meeks, a state senator from the South Side, and pastor of the 20,000-member Salem Baptist Church. There were reports that Meeks agreed to drop out of the race once a consensus candidate had been selected, an accusation which Meeks denies. Controversy has followed Rev. Meeks as a politician and as a member of the clergy. He has used the n-word to refer to African-American allies of Mayor Daley, and has called homosexuality an “evil sickness.”
Meeks has infuriated gay rights and civil rights groups, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has placed him on their list of leading black anti-gay pastors. In addition, he has been criticized for courting white evangelicals on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and joining Republicans to support school vouchers for inner city students to attend private schools. Meeks even had Andy McKenna, the former state GOP chief, introduce him at his campaign kickoff. In a heavily Democratic city such as Chicago — with only a single Republican City Council member out of 50—Meeks’ Republican ties may not account for much, and could prove to be a liability.
Chicago activist William “Dock” Walls, a former aide to Mayor Harold Washington who challenged Daley four years ago, also said he intends to run. Walls blames Emanuel for Democratic losses throughout the state, and says “Rahm chose to put his own ambition first. He did not campaign for Alexi. He did not raise money for David Miller or Robin Kelly. Nor did he use his ‘celebrity’ to promote the message of the Democrat party.”
Furthermore, there are three Latino candidates to potentially divide the Latino vote, including City Clerk and former state senator Miguel del Valle, ex-Daley aide and school board president Gery Chico, and Rev. Wilfredo de Jesus. Chico has called for at least 10 mayoral debates in Chicago neighborhoods. And Rev. De Jesus, like Rev. Meeks, has come under fire for making homophobic remarks. He said homosexuality was a social ill similar to drug addiction that needed to be solved. And he was a vocal opponent of a plan for a Social Justice High School that would have embraced LGBT students. According to Rep. Davis, none of the Hispanic candidates can win.
After Davis was selected as the consensus candidate, State Senator Ricky Hendon dropped out to avoid “causing disunity within the African-American community.” He added that “The horrific conditions…in the African-American community demand that we attempt to find a mayor from our community. We are in the worst shape….That’s why it’s important to get a black mayor.” Clearly, if some of the black and Latino mayoral hopefuls do not clear the field, Rahm Emanuel will be all the better for it.
Chicago boasts the country’s third largest black population, after New York and Atlanta. According to the U.S. Census, Chicago’s population is 36.8 percent black, 42 percent white, 26 percent Latino and 4.3 percent Asian. In assessing a black candidate’s chances for mayor, you do the math. A winning strategy would involve a coalition candidate for the black and Latino communities— one that could also garner enough support from unions, Asians and white, anti-Rahm progressives to put that person over the top. But what do you do when neither the black side of town nor the Latino community can select a single candidate from among their own?
In 1983, Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, won because the black community selected a candidate — one candidate — while two white candidates split the white vote in the Democratic primary. So, Chicago could have another black mayor, but the chances increase substantially if the black community takes a page from history and thinks strategically.