Did race force Meeks out of Chicago mayoral campaign?

OPINION - Having more than one African-American competitor almost certainly guarantees that Chicago will not have a black mayor this time around...

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Of the dozen or so candidates running for mayor of Chicago, one of them dropped out of the race. And his decision was a prudent one.

James Meeks (D-Ill.), Illinois state senator and black megachurch pastor, announced the day before Christmas Eve that he was withdrawing from the mayoral race. The reason he cited was the desire to forge unity among black people in the windy city. This is a noble goal.

“My friends, I come before you today to say that our city — and our community — is divided,” said Meeks said in a statement. “As long as our community remains divided and splintered — to the specific advantage of the front-running, status quo candidates — we will never see things improve. We need to speak with one voice.”

He echoed this sentiment in the pulpit at his South Side church: “The last thing we need as African-Americans is a bitter mayoral race where three African-Americans split the African-American vote.”

Meeks’ announcement came a day after Meeks met with two other leading African-American Democrats still in the race — former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun and Congressman Danny Davis. Meeks said that either Braun or Davis should bow out, but they remain in the race. Meanwhile, polls have Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as the front runner with anywhere from 32 percent to 43 percent. Emanuel now has the green light from the city’s election board to run for Chicago’s top spot.

Politics being what it is, there are a number of possible explanations as to why Meeks dropped out of the race. Perhaps someone convinced him not to leave the state senate, given that a black lawmaker with seniority such as Meeks would be sorely missed in that legislative body. Maybe he made a deal with the Emanuel campaign. Or perhaps he thought his campaign wasn’t getting the traction he wanted.

Moreover, Meeks’ gaffes and misstatements certainly did not serve him well, and detracted from his candidacy. Specifically, he said that only African-Americans should be counted as minorities for the purposes of affirmative action in granting city contracts. Now, there is merit in the argument that blacks are hurting the most, but to alienate the very Latino and women voters you need to win is shortsighted.

In addition, Meeks’anti-gay rhetoric, and affiliations with hard-right wing causes and alliances with Republicans are bad news in this heavily Democratic city. Plus, Meeks is walking a fine line as a pastor and a politician, given that his megachurch is his political “base,” and the IRS rules forbid political campaigning by churches. So, in the world of politics, anything is possible.

But for now, let’s take Meeks’ explanation at face value, that he left the race for the sake of unity. And there is no better time than now to discuss unity in the black community. The first day of Kwanzaa is Umoja, which means unity — something the black community needs more than ever, whether in Chicago, New York, L.A., Atlanta or elsewhere. Far too often, people refuse to stick together with a common goal, a common interest. There are examples of the African-American community uniting to get things done, such as the civil rights movement. But even then, some segments of the black population didn’t support leaders such as Dr. King, Malcolm X, and others who put their lives and livelihood on the line for a higher purpose. Disregarded in life, they are given a holiday and a postage stamp in death.

Unfortunately, in the black community, too many want to be top dog with top billing. As a result, inflated egos subvert the common good, and black leadership is not cultivated or groomed for the next generation. Call it crabs in a barrel, or the proverbial “Willie Lynch” syndrome of divide and conquer.

When black folks stick together, you get the election of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983 — the only black candidate. Yet when the community does not stick together, or does so insufficiently, the result is the reelection of New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg to a third term in 2009. Bloomberg’s challenger — city comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., who is black — lost by a slim margin. New York, a city that is minority white, has elected only one mayor of color — David Dinkins, an African-American.

In the Chicago mayoral race, Rahm Emanuel is the elephant in the room. He benefits from name recognition as Obama’s former right-hand man. However, among his vulnerabilities is the perception that he kept black leaders out of the White House, made a mess during his tenure, and abandoned the president during his time of need. It is in Emanuel’s interest to have more than one black candidate in the race, a stalking horse to divide the black vote and place victory in his lap.

It is not difficult to imagine the wheeler-dealer Emanuel promising a black candidate a cushy job in his administration, in return for staying in the race as a spoiler. After all, viewed as a primary obstacle to reform in the Obama administration, Emanuel drew the ire of the Democratic base. This is the man who reportedly watered down health care reform and killed the public option to get the support of insurers and hospitals. And Emanuel reportedly cut a lucrative backroom deal with the pharmaceutical lobby, which tried to kill health reform.

Having only one black candidate in the Chicago mayor’s race does not guarantee a black victory. Yet, having more than one African-American competitor almost certainly guarantees that Chicago will not have a black mayor this time around. Black Chicagoans, pick one candidate and stick with him, or her, and move on.